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How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit?

Jan 6, 2023

Exercise more, quit smoking, learn a new skill, spend less and save more money, and spend more time with family and friends- these are some of the most popular new year's resolutions made every year by people. All of these are associated with forming different habits with long term benefits and also breaking bad habits.

However, a study issued by the Journal of Clinical Psychology revealed that only 46% of habit formation attempts were successful. Why is that, and how long does it actually take to break a habit?

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Table of Contents

What is Considered a Bad Habit?

We often consider that habits are either objectively good or objectively bad. However, this dichotomous segmentation is probably not true: habits exist on a continuum. A habit of driving 20 km per hour over the speed limit is on one side of the spectrum whereas eating a whole bag of chips once per year is on the other side.

Our brains connect the short term triggers, rewards, and behaviors without evaluating their long-term consequences while forming habits. For example, you start smoking cigarettes to relieve your stress, and you continue doing so until it becomes a habit or second nature to you.

Bad habits such as this can seem like a good thing at the moment, but they can negatively impact your psychological, physical, and emotional state. The following characterizes a bad habit.

Invoking Guilt

Habits, such as overspending to relieve stress, not being able to say "no" to things you don't like, overthinking, procrastinating, nail biting, and negative self-talk are a few examples of bad habits that can make you upset or invoke guilt.

Having Detrimental Effects on Health

Smoking, drinking alcohol, slouching, not exercising, eating unhealthy or poorly, are some old habits or bad habits that can have some detrimental effects on your health if you continue without taking measures. Any habit that leads to sleep deprivation also falls into this category.

What Causes Bad Habit Formation?

According to a study by Smith and Graybiel in 2016, the habit loop is triggered by a cue, response and reward. A person is more likely to get into a habit loop when they are experiencing negative emotions.

An example can be people overeating when they are tired or bored. Other people might smoke or start drinking when they feel stressed. In both cases, the negative emotions act as cues, connecting the reward and response of a person's bad habit.

Why is it Difficult to Break Bad Habits?

Once a habit gets wired deeply in our brains after multiple repetitions, it can be difficult to detach from it. A solution starts from understanding the reason, so here are the reasons why breaking habits can be so difficult.

Enjoyable Behaviors

Habits can develop when any enjoyable or good event triggers the reward centers of our brain. Such behaviors and triggers prompt a person's brain to release a chemical called dopamine.

A neurobiologist at the University of Texas, Dr. Russell Poldrack says, "if you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you're doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you're not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again."

Lack of Motivation

Motivation is a necessary driving force for breaking out of an unhealthy habit. So being unmotivated can make it nearly impossible to cease the habit. The reason for low motivation can be overwhelming stress, anxiety, procrastination, or other mental health reasons, such as ADHD.

Absence of Acceptance or Awareness

The director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse of NIH, Dr. Nora Volkow mentions once a behavior turns automatic, it provides us an advantage as our brain doesn't need to use conscious thoughts for performing the activity. Habitual behavior compels a person to unconsciously do it, making it harder to break habits. Lacking conscious awareness that the habit is bad for you can prevent you from taking steps to let go of the habit.

What is the 21/90 Rule?

The 21/90 rule is a popular habit formation method where the general practice is a person committing to a task for 21 days straight. It is assumed that 21 days is enough to form a new habit.

According to the rule, after accomplishing it for three weeks, it has become a habit. However, you probably won’t see benefits from the new activity the person needs to continue doing it for another 90 days straight to get the benefits from the new habit. 

Does it Take 21 days to Break a Habit?

While it is a widely popular idea that 21 days is ideal to build a new habit, the concept of requiring 21 days to form a habit is itself a myth, as per the published research in The European Journal of Social Psychology and the study by the University College London. 

It originated from the book “Psycho-cybernetics” by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in the 1960s. He was a plastic surgeon turned psychologist, who noted it took 21 days for his patients getting plastic surgery to get used to the amputations and new face and extended this idea as the time required for adjusting to a new home.

While there is some truth to his statements, he mostly relied on his patient reports rather than gathering scientific evidence. Besides this, there is also a clear difference between habituation and habit formation. Still, somehow it translated to the present time as “habit forming requires 21 days.”

How Long Can Breaking Habits Take?  

Realistically, the process of breaking a habit depends on different factors, such as

  • How long it been since the person built the habit
  • If the behavior has been fully integrated into the person's life
  • The person's motivation
  • The rewards received from it (social, emotional, or physical)

There can also be cases where a certain habit or behavior you don't want to break is propping up the habit you are aiming to break.

For example, you are trying to develop a habit of cooking at home to break your habit of having takeaway food. But on your way home after work, you pass by your favorite restaurant and you continuously fail at both goals by convincing yourself that this is the last day you will get takeaway.

In 2012, the research paper "Making health habitual" through habitual formation suggested that 10 weeks or 2.3 months is the time frame it takes realistically for a person to develop a new behavior or habit.

However, the most well-known research backed by evidence is the paper, "How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world" by the University College London in 2009.

According to the research, it could take from 18 to 254 days to break or change a habit. During the research, the participants were asked to assimilate healthy exercise, drinking, and eating habits into their lives according to their preferences. 

The outcomes showed that, on average, it took them 66 days of performing the habit for it to become automatic. Among the 96 participants, one person required just 18 days to form a new habit, whereas most people took varyingly more time.

Although missing a day didn’t affect their progress dramatically, repeating the task every day helped them form the habit quicker.

7 Ways to Breaking Bad Habits

Breaking a habit takes time, but it is not impossible. Here’s how you can do it:

1. Set Realistic Goals

Choosing a realistic yet simple goal you can do on a daily basis without fuss can get you to break out of a habit with success.

The research conducted by UCL showed that the participants with simpler habits like drinking water after having breakfast were quicker to turn it into a habit than others with complex habits like exercising for 10 minutes before dinner.

2. Pinpoint the Triggers

Identifying what triggers your bad habit is a step towards breaking it. For instance, being aware that you tend to reach for unhealthy snacks when stressed or after finishing a task.

To identify triggers, pinpointing the reason for your unhealthy habits can help you understand the best place to start and form strategies for counteracting them.  

3. Changing the Environment

In 2018, in the Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, a review on habit formation and changes suggest that changing the environment increases the chances of a person forming new behaviour or habit.

4. Plan for Failure

As we’ve said, breaking a habit isn’t easy so rather than beating yourself up for missing one day of workout, you can set a plan for when that happens instead. Getting back on track is more important here. 

If you feel like your schedule is making it difficult for you to work out every day, you can set it on the days you are free, as exercising even once a week is better than not doing it at all.

As Steve Kamb, the author of “Level Up your Life” said, “one bad meal, one missed workout, or one day of overeating cannot undo weeks of hard work. However, that one bad meal or one missed workout can mentally undo weeks of hard work, if you let it.”

5. Keeping Accountability

Keeping yourself accountable or having an accountability partner can motivate you to prioritise the task. Informing friends of your goals, doing the task with a partner, and sharing your progress on social media are effective ways to keep you accountable.

Even if you don’t want to work with an accountability partner, tracking your progress can help you be accountable to yourself. Focus Bear has helpful logging features for that purpose.

6. Practice Mentally

The neurobiologist Dr. Russell Poldrack suggests visualising the scene of you engaging with the good habits over the bad ones for habit change.

He says, "if you'll be at a party and want to eat vegetables instead of fattening foods, then mentally visualise yourself doing that. It's not guaranteed to work, but it certainly can help."

7. Replacing it with New Habits

According to the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 2011, replacing a bad habit with a good one is a more effective process than aiming to stop it entirely. This way, you can follow the existing trigger but replace it with a healthier alternative.

While it doesn't happen to completely overwrite the previous habit, it can bring positive changes into your life and strengthen the new habits.

For instance, rather than trying to break the habit of eating junk food, after finishing a task or when you’re under stress, you can switch to healthy eating by replacing it with healthier snacks or food instead.

Through Focus Bear, you can learn to replace unhealthy habits by setting yourself a good habit routine in its place.


Persistence is key when it comes to habit change and getting rid of old habits. Even if it seems impossible, try to stay motivated, follow a routine and think of the positive changes it can bring to your life and physical and mental health.

Jan 6, 2023

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