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How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?



Let’s say that you decide that every night before you go to bed, you’ll walk around your house and clean up anything that’s out of order: you put any last dishes in the dishwasher, pick up any dirty clothes, shelve any books that are lying around, etc., so that in the morning you can wake up to an ordered house, because you find that makes you happier to start the day. You do it for a few days. You’re very proud of yourself. Then you’ve been doing it for a week. Then you’ve been doing it for a month, all without missing a day. Is that enough for it to be a habit? As usual, there’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is “probably not.” The long answer follows.

Science to the rescue: some hard numbers
I’m working from a single study, “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world” by Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts, and Jane Wardle in the European Journal of Social Psychology, so we’re definitely talking about actual science here, but it’s just one study, so take this information as tentative for now. With that said, let’s plunge into the long answer.

The long answer is that there seems to be no set length of time it will take a person to develop a habit. Different people will take different lengths of time, and different habits will also take different lengths of time: for instance, it seems that complicated behaviors take longer to become habits than simple ones.

In the study I link to above, the range of time it took people to form habits (specifically, to “reach 95% of their asymptote of automaticity,” and if you don’t have to look up at least one word to understand that, you did better than I did) ranged from 18 days to 254 days, the average being 66 days. As a general rule of thumb, then, two or three months is often going to be enough time for something that you repeat daily to become a habit. According to the study, missing the habit just once in that time didn’t seem to cause trouble, though more than once did.

That long?
On the one hand, that’s depressing: that’s a long time to have to work that hard at something! On the other hand, this is great: in just two to three months, you can turn many behaviors into habits that you just do automatically without worrying much about them. Cleaning, answering letters in a timely fashion, speaking diplomatically, exercising, eating well–any one of these might well be within your grasp before Christmas. We already knew that habits don’t come automatically; this just gives us a better idea of how much work they take.

A little help from Kaizan
If you’d like a little help with keeping a habit, Kaizan has a good tip for helping habits not break down: How to Make Sure That Nothing Gets Between You and Your Good Habits.

In the comments to that post, someone cites an often-repeated piece of information that it takes 28 days to form a habit. I’ve heard this more than once, but never heard that it was based on any reliable research. My guess is that it’s meant to be inspirational guesswork, and since people like round figures so much, it caught on. I’ve also heard 21 days cited; don’t believe that one either. In any case, the comment drove me to find research that gives something more like a real answer to the question, which led me to Lally, et al.’s study.

Don’t get too attached to a number
We’ll want to try not to get too wrapped up in a specific number of days, like this article, where they seize on that 66-day average and proclaim it as a universal truth. However much we human beings like a simple, unchanging answer, 66 days is just an average: your mileage is extremely likely to vary.

Why it doesn’t always matter
And it may help to act as though habit formation won’t be happening at all, to simply use feedback loops to keep up good practices and make good choices, and to take habit formation as a wonderful accident. As with any other positive development that results from being motivated, habit formation causes problems if it’s thought of as the end goal: it’s essential to find things to enjoy about the steps along the way in order to keep up anything important long enough for it to matter.

Photo by .scarlet.


Hidden urgency: goals and the ticking clock

States of mind


In writing, there’s a useful suspense technique called the “ticking clock.” You’re probably familiar with it: the hero has some desperately important thing that she or he has to accomplish, and suddenly it’s made much worse because it turns out there’s only a short time to get it done before all is lost. We have ticking clocks of our own, at least for little things, in our own lives: work that has to be done before a deadline to grab an opportunity or stave off disaster, a place you have to get before it closes, a medical emergency … and in all of these cases, we naturally become much more engaged and focused in doing what needs to be done.

This is going to seem like a completely different subject for a moment, but let’s turn our attention to people who expect to die and miraculously survive–people whose inoperable cancer goes into remission, or people who through incredible luck live through accidents or disasters that they expected to be fatal. It seems to be common for people like this to come away with specific revelations: that our lives are precious, that little problems don’t mean that much, and that it’s important to make the most of what time we have. Yawning yet? This is kind of standard inspirational fare. “Yes, life is miraculous, we’re alive, isn’t it amazing? Sure, we should make our lives meaningful, enjoy every day, yadda yadda yadda …”

So let’s bring together that ticking clock technique and that boring old “our time is precious” saw. The way they fit together is this: we have a limited lifespan; eventually we’ll die. We have an even more limited window of enjoyment or benefit for certain things, like learning to be better parents (once the kids have grown up and moved on, the most important parts of parenting are over) or enjoying an activity or opportunity that might not be available forever.

That means that for most things of importance, every day we delay in reaching a goal is a day less that reaching that goal can benefit us. If you’re working on good financial management, the longer it takes you to get around to really focusing on it, the shorter the portion of your life where you have your finances really under control will be. If you want to write and direct your own movie, every delay in doing that shortens your total time as a maker of movies, which determines how many projects you can do, how good you’ll get, and how much enjoyment you’ll experience.

If this kind of talk makes you feel a little anxious, that’s good, because you can harness that to drive yourself energetically toward your goals–but hold onto it for a moment before you go very far with it. We need to distinguish between unnecessary delays on the one hand and the amount of time it realistically takes to do things well on the other. If you’re not making movies because you’re busy focusing on making yourself healthier, and if health is a higher priority for you, the movies can wait: it’s hard enough to really focus on one major goal at a time, and two or more is usually enough to cause crashing and burning of all of the goals. We have a limited amount of time and attention in our lives. It’s not only OK to use it on just one major project at once, it’s downright clever.

And reaching goals–especially goals that require changing habits–takes time. You have to do a lot of writing to become a really good writer, and to turn down a lot of bags of chips to become the kind of person who automatically and enthusiastically eats a healthy diet. Our brains do change and rewire themselves, but it always takes time, whether we’re talking about good quality practice to acquire a new skill or changing our habits to modify our outlook and behavior.

The exception to the “single goal” approach is our day-to-day decisions. We can always try to keep in mind how beneficial it is to make better choices, so if each time a meaningful decision comes up we take an extra moment to see if we can’t get ourselves to take the high road, that’s a moment well spent.

So you may want to take a moment right now to think about your goal–not all of your goals, but the one most important current goal in your life–and apply that ticking clock. Are you working on that goal with focus, every day, or are you putting it off, telling yourself it’s not urgent, that there’s plenty of time? If it doesn’t feel urgent, you could spend a little time thinking about what you might be losing by your delay. How much more could be gained by doing it today instead of tomorrow? One less day of having to wait for the wonderful results you want to achieve? One day of increased income before retirement? One day of being better at relationships, and therefore one more day of greater happiness for other people in your life?

And if you are applying yourself every day, I hope you can take a moment to pat yourself on the back. There are a lot of things that can make the important goals in our lives look like they can wait, so if you’re pushing ahead despite all that, you’re in an uncommon and enviable class of people, even if the pushing ahead itself is difficult or unpleasant. Keep on keeping on!

And if you’re not applying yourself every day, please come back to this post next week when you are and read yourself that congratulatory paragraph. You will have earned it.

Photo by gnijil_lijing.

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