Humans are creatures of habit. Most of us will have a number of set routines that we follow on a daily basis and these will take us through every little task, from waking up in the morning and getting ready for the day, to getting started with our work or sticking to a new diet plan or training program.
Problem is that for the most part many of us do not choose our habits. Habits tend to accumulate as a result of our lifestyles and the various demands that are placed on us. They end up somewhat ‘emerging’ without us having much say in it and as a result, we end up trapped in a particular way of life.
This is why many of our habits are not ideal. Many of us will find that it has become a habit to waste time in the morning by surfing Facebook. Or maybe it has become a habit to snack on chocolate before bed. Or maybe it is a habit to smoke cigarettes.
If only we could choose our habits and pick positive ones that would improve our health and fitness, our happiness and our productivity!
Well, it turns out you can! The only problem is getting those habits to stick and learning how to make habits happen. The first question we need to ask is: how long does it take to form a habit?
The answer to this question is something that is rather common knowledge. The oft-quoted statistic is that it takes 30 days to form a habit and likewise, thirty days to break one. If you can stick at something consistently for 30 days, then according to some research (presumably), you’ll eventually find it much easier to continue doing that thing.
Wish you worked out every morning without fail? Then all you need to do is to make sure that you stick to that habit for thirty days and eventually it will be in-grained in us. Wish that you did the dishes after every meal? Just do so for thirty days and you’ll do it forever.
So that is how many days it takes to form a habit in theory. Is it true?
Arguably, there is some truth in this notion. Every time we perform a certain action or even have certain thoughts, we cause certain neural connections in our brain to fire. Each time this happens, the neural connection becomes slightly stronger. This occurs through a process called ‘myelination’ whereby the connected dendrites and axons become better insulated for easier transmissions.
Over time, this strengthening gets to the point where it becomes incredibly easy for the connected neurons to fire. In fact, when one fires, it will cause the other to fire almost instantly.
So yes, repetition does form habits.
As for ’30 days’? This seems to be somewhat accurate simply based on anecdotal evidence. Many people will agree that this seems to be roughly how long it takes for them to start feeling a little more wired into a certain behavior.
But there is no hard science to explain why 30 days should be the ‘magic number’. This is rather just an arbitrary number that seems to have been pulled out of the air.
Not only is there nothing ‘special’ about the number 30, but it’s also very likely that the precise amount of time it takes will depend on a range of factors, such as the type of habit you’re trying to form and of course the type of person that you are.
So perhaps the more pertinent question to be asking rather than how long does it take to form a habit, is how can you form a habit quickly and then stick with it? We know a little about the neuroscience now, so how can we leverage that?
Well, firstly we now know that there is merit in repeating a behavior over and over to help it become more ingrained. The problem of course is that it can be hard to find the discipline to keep repeating said behavior until you have made the behavior a habit. Catch 22!
The solution then may be to try engaging in lots of smaller habits until they become practiced. Let’s say that you’re trying to get into the habit of flossing. One strategy is to use a ‘micro habit’ which will involve simply flossing just one of your teeth for 30 days. This small, tiny habit will get you into the practice of flossing something and the theory is that it then shouldn’t be a huge leap to start fully flossing all of your teeth every day.
Likewise, if you want to get into the habit of working out every morning, then a way to start with a micro habit might be simply to perform 5 push-ups every morning. Again, it’s all about forming and strengthening those connections!
Another thing to think about is the context. Remember how we said a habit involved connecting two neurons and then strengthening that connection? Well, that means that you need to connect your new behavior to something. Eventually, once the connection is strong enough, firing one neuron will cause the others to fire automatically because the connection is so strong.
With this in mind then, a great strategy is to choose an existing habit and to treat this as an ‘anchor’ – by anchoring your new behavior onto an existing one, you can give yourself a trigger to encourage you to do that other good behavior. For example, if you want to encourage yourself to work out, then how about doing those 5 push-ups every morning after you have done something else you always do – such as brushing your teeth?
Likewise, if you ever need to break a habit, an important tip is to remember the role of context and to try and change your environment to remove the triggers and anchors that you will have unintentionally already formed.
So stop thinking how long does it take to change a habit and instead decide to change it by starting today!