Build a habit: how long does it take?

Most people tend to believe it takes 21 days to build a habit.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. You might have heard about this as well. A mate might have mentioned it to you and you might even have to admit you’ve gone along with it as well. I don’t blame you. It’s a popular belief because it’s sounds doable and we all like to accept and hold on to ideas that seem doable to us. It gives us hope. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple or straightforward as that.

So what's the answer then?

The honest (and probably highly annoying) answer is this: it all depends. There hasn’t been much research done about habit formation out there in the real world. Most people who write about habit formation like to refer to a study done by University College London, with its main takeaway being that results varied from person to person and for different actions. That said, people took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to form a new action automatically, or on average about two months.

It all depends... on what?

It makes sense if you think about it. It’s easier to drink a glass of water every day then to run three miles. It’s less of a challenge to complete five push-ups every time after you went to the loo then to visit the gym every day. Some habits simply require more effort to maintain then others.

Likewise, some of us have an accountability buddy, a friend, or a partner in place who pick us up when it’s starts to go horribly wrong. Others do not have a safety net which overall makes it a bit more difficult.

Or how about this one - some people perform their habit always in the same environment, after the same trigger. For example, the push-up example after having been to the loo. The environment is pretty much the same (maybe different bathrooms), so is the trigger (flush the toilets or after washing your hands). If your trigger and environment are the same your behaviour becomes automatic sooner because of the consistency. Other people don’t have that structure in place so it might take them longer to build consistency over time.

There are many more little tricks and nifty elements you can put in place that will make it more likely that you stick to a new habit. Whether you build in these support mechanisms are not determines to a large extent how quickly your behaviour becomes automatic.

It's the wrong question to begin with

However, the overall point I’m trying to make here is that you need to stop asking yourself how long it takes to build a habit as it’s totally the wrong question to start off with. Why? If you look at that question very carefully you can understand that it will put you in a very limited frame of mind.

  • How long will it take me?
  • What does that sound like?
  • How much do I need to do?
  • How much is enough?

You see? It almost sounds as if you’re about to start some kind of boring chore. Something that’s being forced upon you. That’s not a very empowering approach, is it?

Need to do vs. willing to do

Rather than asking yourself how much you need to do, ask yourself how much you’re willing to do to make it a success. Realise that in this mindset there is no finish line because this is supposedly something you embrace and are eager to want to pick up for the rest of your life. A chore then suddenly becomes a lifestyle, which also shifts the responsibility.

If you ask yourself how much I am willing to do to keep healthy/organised/close to those you love/etc, the next thing is finding a way that keeps it enjoyable for you. That can be anything. You can vary your approach by changing your actions. That’s absolutely fine. You don’t have to do 5 push-ups every day to keep fit if it isn’t fun anymore. Simply find a different means to reach that same end.

Let's recap

Asking yourself how long it takes to build a habit is the wrong question to start off with. It puts you in a limited mindset as you start to perceive your habit as a chore, just another thing you need to do. Rather than asking yourself how much you need to do, ask yourself how much you’re willing to do to make your overall objective (having a loving relationship, feeling energetic, etc.) a success. Success has no finish line, success is a continuous process. So keep on finding an empowering habit that continues to serve your overall objective and switch to another habit if you have to. It’s not the habit you want to be automatic, it’s the lifestyle you’re after.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Cardiff, CF10
Written by Nick Rothengatter, Evidence-based Life Coach and ACT practitioner @ Habit Coach
Cardiff, CF10

Nick is a qualified Life Coach and certified NLP Practitioner and holds an MSc in Consumer Studies. His specialty lies in creating a change that lasts. What makes Nick different is that he's also an behaviour technician and outdoor pursuit instructor. This implies that he applies behavioural change in three different but very complimentary roles.

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