This Is How Long It Really Takes to Break a Habit—and 7 Steps to Actually Do It
Psych experts share their top tips for breaking habits once and for all.
We all have bad habits. Tom Cruise bites his fingernails. Marilyn Monroe was famously late to events. Barack Obama rarely gets the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. Even people who may appear to be above such things have bad habits, too. It’s just part of being human.
But that doesn’t mean that we won’t want to change some of those unwanted habits. Continual self-improvement is another trait of being human. So, why do we do these habits in the first place, even when we know they’re “bad”?
Related:Habit Stacking Is the Easiest Way to Make New Habits Last—Here's How It Works
Why We Develop Bad Habits
Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to the brain. Kiana Shelton, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker at Mindpath Health, says that automatic responses happen when we do a particular thing consistently, whether it’s good or bad.
"The brain picks up on these habits and makes them automatic,” she explains. “In a way, the brain is trying to be helpful, but unfortunately, there isn’t a differentiation between good or bad— just how many times you’ve used the pattern. This can make it difficult to break or change unwanted habits.”
Whether it’s negative self-talk, overspending, or not getting enough sleep, you can give yourself some grace knowing that a lot of these habits are formed unconsciously, and may even be a coping mechanism to handle or avoid something threatening or unpleasant.
“When we get to the root of behavioral response, we start to see that many of our habits—good or bad—were created out of coping,” Shelton says. “Sometimes, these efforts may be maladaptive in terms of long-term solutions.”
She uses stress eating as an example. Perhaps your brain recalls a stressful event and you instantly felt better when you ate some ice cream. The next time you’re stressed, your brain might remind you to break out the Ben & Jerry’s. And over time, at any sign of stress, you may crave ice cream.
Related:7 Ways to Break a Sugar Addiction and Curb Cravings for Good
Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, BCC, behavioral expert and vice president of coaching innovation at BetterUp, prefers not to think of habits as “good” or “bad.” Rather, she believes that habits, even less-than-desirable ones you want to break or change, serve some sort of purpose.
“The question to ask is whether it’s a helpful, neutral, or unwanted habit,” she says, adding that people can develop “habit loops” when our brains begin a cycle that perpetuates the habit.
We learn habits through rewards-based learning, where there’s a trigger (stressor), a behavior (eat ice cream), and a reward (ice cream is delicious, and the brain receives a pleasure signal via dopamine).
“This cycle is reinforcing because the brain doesn’t make changes easily,” Jiménez explains. “We aren’t wired to tolerate uncertainty very well, so changing a routine can be a big shock.”
How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit?
Since the brain doesn’t distinguish between good and bad habits, and it’s difficult for the brain to unlearn them, it can take an average of 30 to 60 days to actually break a habit, according to Shelton.
Some research has found that it takes an average of 66 days to form a new habit, with individual timeframes varying widely, from 18 to 254 days, and dependent on factors such as the complexity of the behavior.
Remember that your brain learned and reinforced whatever habit you're hoping to break over a long period of time (often years!), so rewiring your brain circuitry surrounding that habit will take time as well.
That’s why consistency is key when trying to reach a desired goal. But when it comes to changing a habit once and for all, it can be a challenge just to start.
“It’s not uncommon for people to have a fear of failure, which prevents them from starting to break a bad habit and causes them to continue self-sabotaging, creating an endless cycle,” Jiménez says. “Being self-aware is the first step of creating a doable plan that works for you, and is a great way to help stop the habit from developing further.”
If you’d like to finally stop chewing your nails or maxing out your credit cards, follow these seven tips from our experts.
Tips to Break a Bad Habit
Pinpoint the habit trigger.
Shelton says that oftentimes, people know the exact habit they want to change. But they may not be able to identify what actually triggers the habit. As a first step, Shelton recommends trying to become familiar with what specific thing activates the habit. Use this as the alert signal to implement a new desired habit, but first, thoroughly pay attention to those cause-and-effect patterns in your life. For instance, if you have a disagreement with your partner and then immediately start online shopping without abandon, you’ll be able to recognize that as your overspending trigger.
Identify why you want to change the habit.
To break a habit, it’s important to go into it with the right mindset, Jiménez says. She strongly recommends taking the time to identify why you want to change before taking any action, which can require some soul-searching, but will ultimately become a powerful source of motivation.
“When the reason is more personal and tied to your values and identity—you value health, you see yourself as a healthy person, and want to be someone who models a healthy lifestyle for your children, for example—you’re setting the foundation for intrinsic motivation,” she says. “Also, having a clear and personal ‘why’ behind your desire for behavior change comes in handy when faced with setbacks along the way.” (Setbacks are natural, normal, and to be expected! Just keep going.)
Write your “why” on a piece of paper and put it somewhere you can see it. Write it down in a journal. Create an entire vision board around it. Place that “why” front and center as you set out to change a habit.
Jiménez says that frequently, people try to make “huge overhauls” when attempting a behavior change. But this is why New Year’s resolutions often don’t work out—they’re too much, too soon.
“Pressuring yourself to go ‘all in’ or ‘go big’ with a new habit can set you up to have unrealistic expectations,” Jiménez says. “For example, oftentimes, people want to adopt a complete lifestyle makeover and consequently pick too many habits to address at the same time. This can be a recipe for pressure, discouragement, and ultimately, disappointment.”
Instead, Jiménez recommends starting very small, which she believes is the key to success. This means that you may need to tweak things about attaining your goal, focusing instead on what’s realistic and feasible in terms of challenge and effort.
When we break things down into smaller, more doable pieces, it can “make us feel good and reinforce the desire to keep [good habits] up,” Jiménez says. “From there, you can ratchet up the level of effort and challenge toward your new desired behavior—slowly but surely.”
Make it easy.
In addition to downsizing certain steps to reach your goal to make them fit your abilities and lifestyle, Jiménez suggests tempering down the effort level in general.
“Think about the level of effort and the level of challenge it will take for you to change your behavior,” she says. “On a scale of zero to 10, zero being no effort and challenge, 10 being extreme effort and challenge, I recommend trying to find a way to modify your behavior that puts you at a three or four. By making it easy, you are giving yourself the best chance of establishing a new habit.”
For example, if you scroll on social media three hours a day and want to be reduce it to a half hour a day, the reasonable progression is: start with 2 hours and 45 minutes; then next week or so, get it down to 2 hours and 30 minutes; the next week get it down to 2 hours and 15 minutes, and so on. “This approach allows you to have consistent, small wins while not shocking your system,” she adds.
In her experience working with clients, Shelton has found that successfully changing habits requires increased mindfulness. She says that her favorite definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR): “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
This means that to break a bad habit, you can increase your level of mindfulness, or in-the-moment awareness—without being critical of yourself. Do what you can to root yourself in the present moment and observe your experience. You can try a meditation app or take a mindfulness course to learn mindfulness principles and practice using them in everyday life. But you don’t really need another app or formal program to become more aware and observant of when and how and why you’re carrying out certain unconscious behaviors you’d like to change. In fact, pinpointing the trigger from step one, above, is a great place to start.
Let go of perfectionism.
“Don’t aim for perfection—aim for consistency,” Shelton says. “Success is not a straight line. Some days will be easier than others, and that’s okay. It’s not about getting it perfect each time. What matters most is being consistent in your daily efforts to modify your behavior. Falling into the all-or-nothing trap, which is easy to do because we tend to be our worst critics, is a set-up for discouragement and decreased motivation.”
Let yourself off the hook and don’t beat yourself up when you give in to that bad habit or feel as if you’ve taken 10 steps back. Just try again tomorrow and aim for that consistency.
Related:The Hidden Signs of Perfectionism—and How to Tell If It's Holding You Back
Track your progress and celebrate tiny wins.
Jiménez says that it’s essential to take note of any small wins and progress you’ve made toward changing your habits. In fact, acknowledging those wins can make the difference between failing and succeeding.
“The key to success is realizing that our goals aren’t going to happen overnight, and that’s okay,” Jiménez says. “While it’s tempting to focus on the big end goal, it’s very important to focus on the ‘small’ wins along the way in order to give us boosts of motivation. Little victories can add up in a big way.”
That means writing down your wins on sticky notes and putting them on your bathroom mirror; telling a friend or family member how proud you are of yourself; keeping a journal or using an app to track your progress. Patting yourself on the back, several times a day even. The simple fact that you’re taking on the challenge of changing or breaking a habit at all is deserving of admiration, which most importantly should come from yourself.
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