- To break a habit, research suggests it may take anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
- The best ways to break a habit are by identifying your triggers, altering your environment, finding an accountability partner, or using a reward system.
- You can also break habits by replacing them with new habits that are more helpful to your goals.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Here how to understand the psychology of habits, how to break them, and how to build healthier ones.
What are habits?
A habit is one or more behaviors repeated so often it becomes automatic, says Joyce Corsica, PhD, a health psychologist and Director of Outpatient Psychotherapy and Bariatric Psychology at Rush University Medical Center.
You can think of habits as a sort of mental shortcut formed through repetition, the environmental cues, and reinforcement of the behavior. While people often call habits “bad” or “good,” Corsica recommends shifting your perspective on habits, and prefers the terms:
- Helpful vs. not helpful
- Useful vs. not useful
- Consistent vs. inconsistent with my goals and values
If you are wondering whether you should try to break a habit, Corsica proposes evaluating whether the habit contributes to problems in your life, including the impact on your health, work, behavior, and relationships.
“Many of us have habits that contribute to our difficulties,” Corsica says. In these cases, it’s worth the time and energy to break that habit.
How long does it take to break a habit?
You may have heard that it takes 21 days to break a habit, a myth that originated in the 1960s book Psycho-cybernetics. The book was written by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz, who claimed it took patients about 21 days to become accustomed to altered parts of the body, which eventually morphed into altered habits.
The science suggests that habit change actually takes much longer to occur. A small 2009 study found that it took anywhere between 18 to 254 days to change habits.
The study participants were asked to incorporate a healthy eating, drinking, or exercise habit of their choosing into their lives. On average, the study found that it took participants 66 days of repeatedly performing a habit before the habit became automatic. Missing a day to do the desired behavior did not hinder the habit-forming process, but repeating habits at a consistent time each day allowed people to form them quicker.
While consistency is key to altering habits, know that it’s not a linear process — you may revert to old habits and have to start the process over again. “It is most important to understand that habit change is difficult, that it is a process with setbacks, and to keep moving forward,” Corsica says.
Tips to break a habit
Restraining yourself from habits you have urges to do is unsustainable, according to another 2009 study, and most likely won’t lead to real habit change.
“Interestingly, [habit change] does not seem to relate to the concept of ‘willpower,'” Corsica says.
Rather, to break a habit successfully, you should focus on the following:
- Identify triggers. Corsica says to evaluate the habit and note what might trigger it. For example, you may have developed a habit of grabbing a snack after finishing a task or when feeling stressed. Understanding what causes you to turn to unhealthy habits gives you a better grasp on how to break them. Being thoughtful about triggers is key, and it can be helpful to write them down, talk to someone about them, or simply keep them in mind.
- Alter your environment. If you’re hoping to quit smoking, it’s much harder to smoke when there are no cigarettes in your living space. Adjusting your environment to make it harder to do unhelpful habits can aid you in breaking them. If you have certain friends who you always smoke with, it might be helpful to hang out with them less or make your intentions clear with them.
- Find an accountability partner. Keep someone informed on how your habit is going. Social pressure can keep you on track with your goals. For example, a 2018 study found that people who had an accountability partner in setting weight loss goals lost more weight than those who didn’t.
- Trade unhelpful habits for helpful ones. If you’re used to drinking beer at dinner but want to quit, you can swap out the drink you normally have with something healthier like kombucha or non-alcoholic cider. Rather than disrupting your routine by not drinking anything fizzy at all, you can work with your existing triggers to help adopt a healthier habit.
- Reward yourself. Rewards help your brain learn if a habit is worth remembering or not, according to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Say you want to spend less time in front of screens. You can reward yourself for spending a certain amount of time away from a screen by eating a treat you like, for example. Your brain connects less screen time with something pleasurable, improving the chances of breaking the habit.
Since it can take about several weeks or months before you can break a habit, Corsica says that the most important thing is being kind to yourself and not giving up.
“Accept and address challenges, evaluate what is difficult and what can be done about it,” Corsica says. “People change seemingly entrenched habits all the time. It can be done.”
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