How long does it take to make or break a habit? 3 days, 21 days, 28 days, 90 days? Why is it we see so many ‘health’ professionals tease us with promises of making health induces habits in 21 days and curing our problems in 28 days? Where does this actually come from?

Keen to find out just how long it takes to make or break a habit, I went searching for the science… and what I uncovered was pretty eye opening to say the least… let’s just say it has to do with moving house and getting nose jobs! No seriously…. read on…

The Myth

We’ve been told so many different things about how long it actually takes to make or break a habit, but where does this really come from. As far as the science is concerned it seems this myth stems back to a book released in 1960 called “Physco-Cyberneticks” from Maxwell Maltz. Yeah, my eyes glossed over just reading the title. It seems Dr Maltz observed that patients who recovered from plastic surgery took around 21 days to get used to their new look. He also observed amputee patients experienced the ‘phantom limb’ phenomenon for about 21 days, along with observations that it takes around 3 weeks to settle into a new house. The end.

Hang on… what? 

Is this all there is to support 21 days to make a habit, how long it takes to adjust to a nose job or a new house? Seriously?

The theory is Maltz used the word habitualise, meaning to get used to, and that’s how an observations of nose jobs became the worlds most believed myth.

The Truth… Based on real evidence

So, it turns out a few skeptics out there with science backgrounds who put this habit breaking myth to the test. In the book Making Habits Breaking Habits Jeremy Dean shares a university study  from London that asked the question how long does it take to form different habits. He tested a handful of habits over 84 days with varying results. Depending on a few things, like the habit itself and how often the student performed the task depended on how long it took to form an automated habit. The average was more like 66 days to form a healthy habit with some variations within that. Wanting to drink more water, that might take about 20 days. What about eat more fruit, that might take you around 40 days to form a habit… and exercise proving the hardest reported still not a habit after the 84 days.

Another study looking more at breaking habits, whilst this one was about addiction, as we know from the habit sliding scale, a  bad habit is only a short stroll from a full blown addiction. Researchers at Yale University found the neural connections started to rewire in the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for self control and decision making) after 90 days. It could in fact take up to 388 days. Author Jeremy Dean shares one recorded study of trying to break a food habit taking a full 388 days before it was habitualised and automated… WHAT? That’s a lot of 21-day programs before you see a result!

How long is a piece of string?

So, the answer is not 21 days, it’s not even 90 days, the answer on how long does it take to make or break a habit is… It depends. It depends on the habit, how often you perform it, and how much support you have around you. However you can bet if your bad habit is food for fitness related, you’re looking between 66 and more than 90 days, perhaps even up to 388 days. Its not all doom and gloom though, you can influence the outcome and speed up this result with these habit hacks.

Break my habit stat – your top tips to breaking a habit faster than you can say choc chip cookie!

The good news is your brain can’t tell the difference between imaginary and reality… so the more you visualise yourself breaking the habit the more your brain takes this as ‘practice’ speeding up the process up to 15 times faster thank non-visualisation.

How to Visualise

Firstly, identify all the possible scenarios that could get in the way of breaking or making your habit. See the cheat sheet for some examples.

Secondly, imagine the PROCESS not THE OUTCOME. You need to image the process of breaking/making the habit. For instance, imagine yourself getting up to exercise when you’ve had a bad night sleep, when its raining, when you feel good, when you feel bad, imagine all of the scenarios you outlined in step one.

Thirdly, make your visualisations as real as possible, what can you see, sense, taste, smell, feel. Who are you with, where are you, what are you doing? Make it as real as you possibly can.

And finally, practice practice practice. Do this visualisation for 15 minutes every day. If you can’t do it in one sitting, do it in 4-5 minute blocks throughout the day. When you’re communiting, when your waiting for your computer to start up or shut down, when your on hold, when you taking a ‘function’ break. Take any and every opportunity to visualise visualise visualise.

Written by Melitta Hardenberg.  Melitta is Chief Habit Breaker at Breaking Bad Habits.

Melitta is passionate about realising potential, in particular helping to make the connection between physical, mental, emotional wellbeing and executive brain performance.  Whether it iworking with an individual one on one, or working with leaders to improve productivity and engagement.   Helping others realise their ultimate success is what motivates he every day.

Find Melitta at and on Facebook.

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