This is Exactly How Long it Takes to Break a Habit
In most cases, habits are a good thing. They help us create order in our days and keep us from having to make the same decisions every single day.
If you have a habit of waking up, going to the gym, showering, having breakfast and then leaving for work, you don’t have to wake up thinking about what you need to do each morning.
You will just wake up and automatically do what you normally do.
This makes your morning a lot easier, since you can go through all your morning paces automatically.
Similarly, if you have formed a habit of scheduling your day every morning, you will never find yourself feeling idle and wondering what you should be doing on a Thursday afternoon.
Sometimes, however, habits are not so good.
They either waste our time, negatively affect our health, make us unproductive, waste our money, or lead us astray in many other ways.
Examples of bad habits include smoking, procrastination, constantly checking our social media feeds, unhealthy eating habits, fidgeting, and so on.
Many of us who have one bad habit or the other are already aware that we have a bad habit and we know that it is bad for our wellbeing.
But why continue engaging in the habit if we know it is bad for us?
Well, the thing with habits is that they are difficult to change.
While we actually want to get rid of the habit, we find breaking the habit to be quite a challenge because we are so used to it.
If you have struggled with breaking a bad habit, you might be wondering if it is really possible to break the habit, and how long it takes to completely get rid of the habit.
The good news is that it is possible to break a bad habit.
When it comes to how long it takes to break a habit, most people claim that you only need 21 days to break a habit.
Question is, how true is this claim?
Before we look at whether the above claim is true, we first need to understand the basics of habits and how they are formed.
HOW ARE HABITS FORMED?
A habit can be defined as a practice, tendency or routine of behavior that has been repeated so many times that it starts occurring without conscious thought.
Habits generally consist of three main elements – a cue that triggers an action, an action that follows the cue, and a reward that follows the action.
For instance, let’s say you have formed a habit of checking your social media pages during the morning commute to work.
In this case, getting on the bus or train acts as the cue.
Simply getting on the bus or train makes you want to reach for your phone.
Reaching for your phone and logging onto your favorite social media network is the action.
Once you login, seeing all the new things your friends have shared and the notifications from your friends’ reactions to what you shared leads to a release of dopamine in your brain, which makes you feel happy.
The release of dopamine and the subsequent happiness is the reward for the action.
The reward plays a key role in making most habits addictive.
Now, you need to understand something about your brain.
The human brain is wired for efficiency. It is always trying to find the best way to get things done while expending the least amount of effort.
When you repeat a certain action a number of times, your brain starts noticing a pattern of three elements – a cue, an action and the reward. Your brain then creates neural pathways linking the three elements together.
Instead of having to constantly think about what to do, your brain automatically fires up these neural pathways every time the cue comes up.
So every time you get on the bus, you automatically grab your phone without having to think about it, because your brain knows this action will lead to a reward.
The more times you repeat this action, the stronger these neural pathways become.
It is good to note that anything can act as a cue. It could be a specific place, an event, a mental or emotional state, a time of the day, a certain phrase, and so on.
Whenever this cue comes up, your brain automatically triggers the action related to the cue.
It is also good to note that the cue that triggers a certain action is usually very specific.
For instance, being bored while you are at home might trigger a totally different action compared to being bored at work.
Now, here’s what makes breaking a habit so difficult. Once your brain has formed neural pathways, it cannot destroy them.
Even when you think you have successful broken a habit, what actually happens is that these pathways have become weak, but they are still there.
This is why it is so easy for someone who has quit an addiction to relapse even a year down the line.
So, how do you break habits if the neural pathways are still there?
Breaking a habit basically involves forming new neural pathways that are stronger than the established pathways.
While you cannot stop the cue from triggering an action, you can change the action that is triggered by the cue. With time, a new neural pathway is formed linking the trigger with another action.
Once the new neural pathway becomes stronger than the previous one, the habit is dropped and the new one is picked.
This is why the easiest way of breaking a habit is to replace it with another one.
For instance, someone trying to quit smoking might replace cigarettes with chewing gum.
With time, the neural pathway related to chewing gum becomes stronger, such that when the previous cue comes up, the person reaches for chewing gum instead of a cigarette.
SO, HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO BREAK A HABIT?
Now that we understand how habits are formed, let’s see how long it takes to break a habit.
I mentioned above that there is a popular claim that a habit can be broken in 21 days.
This popular notion was introduced by Maxwell Maltz in his book Psycho-Cybernetics.
Maxwell, a plastic surgeon by profession, came up with the claim after noticing that his patients took about 21 days to get used to their new, surgically altered faces.
However, there is a catch.
Maxwell said that is takes about a minimum of 21 days to change a habit. This means that changing a habit can take 21 days or more.
In the study, which evaluated the habits of 96 participants over a period of 12 weeks, the researchers came to the conclusion that the average time needed to form or change a habit is 66 days.
However, some of the participants of the study formed new habits in as little as 18 days, while others took as many as 254 days.
So, while it is possible to break a habit in 21 days, you cannot be certain that this time frame will work for you.
The huge disparity when it comes to forming or breaking habits is brought about by the fact that breaking a habit depends on a number of factors. The first factor is the availability of an alternative ability.
Like we saw above, a habit is broken when the neural pathways related to the habit become weaker than other pathways related to the same cue.
Therefore, someone trying to break a habit by replacing it with an alternative habit might achieve success faster compared to someone who is simply trying to break a habit without any alternative habit to replace it.
The second factor is the motivation for breaking the habit. People decide to change their habits for different reasons, and the stronger the reason behind the change, the easier it becomes to break the bad habit.
For instance, someone trying to break a habit because the they might get sick, lose a job or get divorced by a spouse if they don’t stop the habit is more likely to break the habit faster than someone who is simply doing because his friends think the habit is not cool.
Similarly, someone trying to break a habit for personal reasons will most likely achieve success faster than someone who is doing is because of external reasons, such as pressure by peers.
Finally, the length of time it takes to break a habit will also be influenced by how established the habit is.
The longer a person has been engaging in the problematic habit, the stronger the neural pathways associated with the habit are, and the more challenging breaking the habit will be.
For instance, someone who has been smoking for a year will usually find it easier to quit compared to someone who has been smoking for 15 years.
HOW TO BREAK BAD HABITS
Now that it is clear that the length of time needed to break a habit will depend on various, let’s look at some tips on how to successfully break a bad habit.
Understand Your Cues
The first step to breaking a bad habit is to become aware of the cues that trigger the bad habit.
Only after knowing what your triggers are can you take action to avoid them.
To know what cues trigger your bad habit, take note whenever you find yourself engaging in the bad habit and then ask yourself the following questions:
- Where were you when you engaged in the habit?
- Who were you with?
- What was your mental state at the time?
- What happened before that got you into this mental state?
- Do you tend to engage in the habit at specific times within the day?
- How often do you engage in the habit?
If possible, record the answers to these questions in a note book, because you might need to observe yourself for a few weeks in order to totally understand what triggers the habit.
Not only will becoming aware of your triggers will help you avoid them, it will also help you understand what reward your brain is craving by engaging in the habit.
Cut Out the Triggers
Once you identify the cues that trigger your bad habit, the next step is to cut out as many of them as possible.
For instance, if you tend to procrastinate your work when you have your phone near you, keep away the phone while working to avoid the temptation to play games or check your social media.
If you always sneak to the parking garage to have a smoke during the day, avoid going to the garage.
If you habitually go drinking when you are with a certain group of friends, minimize your interactions with this group of friends.
The less you encounter the cues that trigger the habit, the less likely you are to engage in the habit.
Make it Hard for Yourself to Engage in the Habit
If possible, create barriers or obstacles that will make it hard or more painful for you to engage in the problematic habit. There are several ways of doing this.
For instance, if you are trying to stop swearing, you can agree with some of your friends that you will pay them a dollar any time they catch you swearing.
If you are trying to break the habit of snoozing your alarm every morning, download an app that requires you solve a complex mathematical equation before you can press the snooze button.
If you want to stop getting onto Facebook whenever you are working on your computer, download an app that blocks all social media websites for a set period of time.
By making it harder or more painful to engage in the habit, you will have an easier time breaking these established routines.
Find a Replacement Habit
We already saw that the best way of breaking a habit is to replace it with a new habit.
This allows your brain to build new neural pathways associated with the cue, while at the same time weakening the existing pathways.
Therefore, instead of simply trying to quit the habit, find something else to do in its place.
For instance, if your aim is to stop watching so much TV, if you have nothing else to do instead, you will eventually go back to watching TV.
However, if you use that time to exercise or read a book, it will be much easier to reduce your TV time.
Similarly, if you want to quit smoking, replace the habit with chewing mint gum or performing breathing exercises.
If you want to stop spending too much of your evenings on social media, use the time to work on the side business you have always wanted to start, or working on a hobby.
When coming up with an alternative habit, don’t go for a something that is boring.
Doing this will only push you back to the habit you are trying to break.
The new habit should be something you enjoy. In other words, the reward for the new habit should exceed the reward for the habit you want to replace.
Have a Good Reason Behind the Change
Before you even start trying to break a bad habit, take a moment to think about why you want to break the habit.
Are you trying to break the habit simply because it is a bad habit, or do you have a stronger reason as to why you want to change?
If you want to succeed in breaking the habit, you should have a good reason behind the desire to change.
To come up with a good reason why you need to break the habit, think about how engaging in the habit has been affecting your life and the benefits you stand to gain by getting rid of the habit.
Why is this important?
We have already seen that breaking a bad habit is hard.
If you don’t have a good enough reason, it becomes harder to follow through with the change during the hard moments.
For instance, let’s assume that you want to stop waking up late, and have decided to replace sleeping till late with going to the gym early every morning.
One morning, your alarm rings but you are still sleepy as hell.
If you decided to go to the gym simply because it is a good thing to do, there is a high chance that you will find convince yourself that you are healthy and continue sleeping.
However, if you decided to hit the gym so that you can make it to the local basketball team, you will have greater conviction to ditch the covers and hit the gym.
Don’t Rely on Will Power
One of the greatest mistakes many people make while trying to break a bad habit is to rely solely on their will power.
Here is the thing with will power.
Everyone has a certain amount of will power.
Every time you use your will power to push yourself to follow through with the change, you deplete your available will power, which means you have less will power to push yourself through the next time you feel demotivated.
Once this will power runs out, it becomes very easy to fall back to your old habits.
The idea, therefore, is to try and avoid relying on your will power as much as possible.
For instance, if you want to start waking up early, one option is to set your alarm and rely on your will power to do the rest for you.
Once your alarm rings, you might use your will power to force yourself out of bed on day one.
On day two, however, the warmth of your bed might win over your will power. You end up snoozing the alarm and waking up an hour later.
Alternatively, you might decide to put your alarm clock outside your bedroom door.
When the alarm clock rings, you will be forced to get out of bed in order to switch of the alarm clock.
In the second scenario, you are not relying on will power, and you are more likely to get up this way.
Don’t Go It Alone
While it is possible to break your bad habits by yourself, it becomes much easier when you have a support network helping you.
For instance, you can share your plans with a close friend or relative and have them call you out whenever you backtrack.
If your bad habit is triggered by a certain group of friends, let them know you are trying to break the habit and ask them not to engage in activities that might trigger the habit when they are around you.
If you have a friend who is trying to break the same habit, team up with them, set challenges for yourselves and motivate each other.
You could also join forums of people who are also trying to overcome the same habit.
Such groups will keep you motivated and encourage you to go for your goal. If your bad habit has a huge impact on your health or wellbeing, you might also consider seeking professional help.
When explaining how habits are formed, I mentioned that the reward element is what reinforces habits and even turns some of them into addictions.
You can also use the psychology of the reward to reinforce the gains you have made.
To do this, you can think of rewarding yourself every time you avoid the habit you are trying to break.
For instance, if you aim is to stop procrastinating, set yourself blocks of time to complete a certain task and then reward yourself by allowing yourself to do something you enjoy for a few minutes.
Giving yourself such rewards will reinforce your behavior and inspire you to keep at it.
If you have a bad habit that you are trying to get rid of, the good news is that it is achievable.
While people expect to be able to break a habit within 21 days, you should keep in mind that this is the minimum amount of time needed to break a habit.
Therefore, don’t despair if you haven’t been able to break a bad habit after 21 days.
Remember, depending on how established the habit is, how motivated you are, and depending on your replacement habit, it might take longer to rewire the neural pathways in your brain.
Instead of despairing, keep up the change you want to see in yourself, and follow the tips shared above, and you will eventually be able to shake the bad habit.
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