Feeling frustrated and wondering why you haven’t been able to kick an old habit? Relax - it takes longer than you think.
Daily habits can be useful and they help to create order in an otherwise busy day.
But chances are you may have one or two annoying habits - or perhaps even one that is harmful to your health and wellbeing.
If you’ve been trying to beat an old habit and haven’t been successful, you may be wondering how long it should really take to kick it for good.
Consider the 21-day rule, whose roots go back to the 1960s pop psychology book Psycho-Cybernatics. This book says it takes a minimum of 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to gel.
More recently, a study of 96 people published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found it took on average 66 days to form a habit, such as eating fruit at lunch or running for 15 minutes a day. But in the study, the actual number of days ranged from 18 to 254 days - indicating that it can take a very short or a very long time!
How do I change a bad habit?
There are many ways to break a habit but one of the easiest is to replace it with more positive one. If you’re trying to stop sweet cravings after dinner, try drinking a large glass of water and eating a piece of fruit before allowing yourself to give in.
You may find that your cravings subside and you didn’t really need that chocolate anyway. If you’re trying to stop touching your face, try touching your shoulders or neck instead. This may make you more aware of your habit and therefore more likely to break it.
You can also join a friend in breaking a shared habit like nail biting or swearing. Pair up and make it a competition!
Don’t be demotivated if your bad habit doesn’t give after 21 days. The truth is, there’s no guaranteed time to beat a habit. And having a number in mind as an end point makes it easier to feel like a failure if you can’t break your habit during this time.
Habits are meant to be difficult to change. Habits are formed out of repetitive actions or behaviours that eventually slip into your daily routines without any thought.
It helps to have your brain on autopilot for repetitive activities as it means you are more likely to focus on other new activities that pop up during the day.
But that’s not bad news. That’s why breaking a bad habit is worth the effort. Even though there is no magic number of days it takes to beat a habit, once you have broken it, it’s unlikely you will find yourself slipping back.
It’s also important to remember that everyone has bad habits, so you are not alone. Research indicates habits are an automatic response to your surroundings from repeating the same actions daily. They can stem from boredom or stress, so trying to avoid these can also help you finally crack it.
What are bad habits to have?
If you Google “bad habits”, you will get hundreds of results, such as:
Speaking with your mouth full
However, bad habits are also personal. While sleeping in might be a bad habit for some, it could be a luxury for you. Therefore, if you’re trying to rid yourself of bad habits, it’s best to look towards those that affect you negatively.
An addiction or a habit?
You may need to consider whether you’re trying to beat a habit or an addiction.
Knowing the difference can save you a lot of time and frustration. Addictive habits such as smoking, gambling or drinking alcohol are harder to break.
The best way to tell them apart is to ask yourself some simple questions.
“Can I live without this habit and, if I break the habit, will it cause any physical changes to my body?”
When stopping an addictive habit, your body could experience noticeable physiological withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, sweating or nausea and vomiting.
Non-addictive habits can be easier to change - while addictions will take longer and may require professional help.