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Habits. Entire blogs are dedicated to them. Scientists and psychologists pursue lifelong vocations around their study.

People, like you and I, constantly strive to break the bad ones and create new habits that inspire and challenge us to live better lives.

Habits, rituals, routines—they’re all part of the same ecosystem: making positive modifications. The entire idea behind habits is to make a shift, with the outcome resulting in a positive evolution for oneself.

We want this growth because we’ve all tasted the good life before, even if only for a moment. We know that with a few small changes we can live happier, more adventurous lives.

The science of habit formation speaks for itself.

How long does it really take to form that new habit and make it stick? Does it depend on the habit’s complexity? For example, is it just as difficult to floss your teeth daily as it is to go to the gym every day?

While some subscribe to the notion that a habit takes 21 days to form, we both know that’s poppycock. If only life were that simple. Imagine that we simply had to stop eating sweets for 21 days in a row and the craving would instantly vanish. The truth is, like most things in life, this too is quite nuanced—meaning, there isn’t a clear black and white line between what works and doesn’t.

Many studies have been performed, with one in particular receiving more accolades and headlines as of late.

“The time it took participants to reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity ranged from 18 to 254 days.” 

This quote is directly pulled from the Phillippa Lally study. So what does this tell us? The reality is, every single person is different.

Out of the 96 volunteers studied, it took anywhere from 18 days (as a minimum) to 254 days (8.5 months) for the habit to stick. On average, it took 66 days. How do we define “stick”?

The volunteer had to self-report automaticity, which is performing an action automatically. And they define this automaticity by agreeing with statements like, “I do this without having to consciously remember”.

Bottom line, some individuals need very little time and others may need more. 9 weeks (66 days) was just the average. Ultimately, building a new habit is probably harder than most people think, but easier to implement and automate once beginning.

From my experience I’ve found it’s all about building routines that support your habits. Once you have your morning rituals down, it’s much easier to add/remove new habits as needed.

What happens if you slip up?

“In our study we showed that missing one opportunity did not significantly impact the habit formation process, but people who were very inconsistent in performing the behaviour did not succeed in making habits. We do not yet know what level of consistency is necessary to form a habit (see more here).”

In other words, if you miss a day don’t get upset or give up. From my experience with helping mentoring clients and friends build new habits, I’ve found that people are too hard on themselves. They actually often give up because the habit streak is no longer perfect.

Perfection is the worst standard to reach for. You know what you’re capable of, and you need to acknowledge that like all great things this will take time. You make the rules (did you forget?), so set up the game to win.

Links to Resources

  1. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg – I give this book 8.5/10, highly recommended.
  2. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world – This is the Phillippa Lally study from the European Journal of Social Psychology 
  3. University College London article interview with Philippa Lally

How long does it take you on average to build a new habit? What methods work best for you?

Photo credit: HabitsCC license