How Many Days Does It Take to Build a Habit?

We're busting the 21-day myth to help you set realistic expectations.

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Published November 22, 2022
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Habits are tough - at least the healthy ones usually are. They're often difficult to start, seem nearly impossible to keep, and are very easy to stop. Sure, the first few days seem easy, but then, as time goes by, it usually gets more challenging.

Throughout this learning phase, you might find yourself getting impatient. After all, we want that habit to feel like it is second nature right away. So how long does it take to build a habit? According to some experts, it takes about 66 days. However, the amount of time is influenced by a variety of factors that can impact how long it takes for the habit to feel like a normal part of your routine.

How Long Does It Take to Create a Habit?

Throughout the years, there have been different ideas about how long it takes for a behavior to become a habit. Some of the answers were based on complete myth, while others were based on scientific evidence.

The 21-Day Theory

You may have heard the age-old myth that it only takes 21 days to form a habit. That stat originally stemmed from a plastic surgeon named Maxwell Maltz in the 1950s. It was based on observations Dr. Maltz had made about how long his patients took to adjust to their new selves post-operation.

Dr. Maltz later went on to publish his findings on habit formation in the book titled Psycho-Cybernetics. The book became a hit after it was published in 1960 and the false belief that it only takes 21 days to form a habit skyrocketed. However, it should be noted that Dr. Maltz's theory stated "it requires a minimum of about 21 days" to form a new habit, but the masses took just the number and ran with it.

The 21-day theory was simply based on observation and was not backed by science. However, it still managed to influence the field of psychology for years to come. It probably also set some people up for disappointment when their 21st day of habit formation rolled around and their habit still felt like work. Luckily, psychologists have since done extensive research on habit formation and have found some answers that are rooted in science.

The Two-Month Habit Formation Theory

According to groundbreaking research published by the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes about two months to form a habit. A total of 66 days to be exact. The study included 96 participants that chose to incorporate an eating, drinking, or other behavioral activity into their daily routine. For example, a person could choose to go for a walk every day after lunch or drink a glass of water after they finish their morning coffee.

The study ran for a period of 12 weeks and the results were collected. The study measured how long it took for the behaviors to feel automatic to the participants. Then this information was input into a formula that would track their habit formation progress over an extended period.

Results showed that the behaviors became 95% automatic between the range of 18 to 254 days based on their projections. In addition, the results found that it took about 66 days on average for a behavior to feel automatic.

Factors that Influence Habit Formation

We all have different struggles or experiences when we try to pick up a new habit. As shown in the study from the European Journal of Social Psychology, we form new habits at different rates.

Whether you've struggled with forming a new habit in the past, or are thinking about picking one up in the future, it can be helpful to know what aspects of habit formation can be influential. This can help you decide how to approach a habit and prepare you for the potential challenges to come.

The Individual

Why do some people pick up habits easier than others? Contrary to popular belief, research shows that it's not because of increased levels of self-control. Instead, studies have found that the way a person feels about a habit is a stronger predictor of whether a behavior becomes automatic.

According to a 2020 study from the Journal of Frontiers on Psychology, people are more likely to repeat a behavior if they find it rewarding. The study included 266 participants who attended exercise classes for 13 weeks. Participants rated how they were feeling before, during, and after each class, and the results found that exercise behaviors felt more automatic to participants who reported a boost in mood after classes.

This suggests that a person's individual preferences and perceptions of a behavior can influence whether it becomes a habit. How can you use this to your advantage? Try to find habits that you enjoy or that you find rewarding. For example, if you want to start exercising more frequently, be sure to pick a form of physical activity that you actually like.

The Circumstances

People experience different circumstances when they are trying to make or break a habit. These varying elements can include your schedule, your other responsibilities, the reason why you are trying to establish a habit, and more. Some people might have more flexibility than others in these aspects, which can impact the habit-forming process.

Findings from the European Journal of Social Psychology show that it's easier to form a habit when it's repeatedly done within the same context. For example, a behavior might become more automatic if it's always done after a meal (post-dinner walk), personal hygiene activity (stretching after brushing your teeth), or a different already-established behavior (putting on sunglasses after locking the front door).

Based on this research, a person who practices a behavior every day under different circumstances may experience more struggles with habit formation than someone who keeps the context consistent. If you aren't able to practice your habit at the same time and place every day, it's okay. You can still form a new habit. It just might take a little longer to feel automatic.

The Behavior

According to research, some behaviors are just harder to turn into habits than others. Some studies note that approach behaviors may be easier to make consistent than withdrawal behaviors. For example, it might be easier to increase your levels of physical activity than it is to decrease your sugar intake.

You can use this to your advantage when trying to start a new habit and also in accomplishing larger goals by focusing on adding activities to your schedule. Reducing certain behaviors might be hard, but it's not impossible. Be gentle with yourself and know that it might take a bit longer to get the hang of things.

Lastly, remember that everyone has struggled with forming a new habit at one point or another. It's not an easy task to change your daily routine and it can take a while to adjust. Remember that it takes 66 days on average to form a new habit and that, for one reason or another, it can take a little longer. What's important is that you do the best you can to keep up with your habits and reach your overall goals.

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How Many Days Does It Take to Build a Habit?