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Making Healthy Choices

Forming Healthy Habits: How Long Does It Take?

Looking back at your new year’s resolutions, how long did it take to change your old ways? A day? A week? A month? Conventional wisdom seems to say 21 days, but that turns out not to be the case.

This spring, whether you're focused on losing weight, eating healthier, exercising more, or quitting tobacco, understanding what it takes to build a new, positive habit is good to know.

In fact, it actually takes about 66 days to develop a habit, according to a study conducted by researchers at University College London and published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Almost 100 participants were asked to choose a health-promoting eating, drinking, or exercise behavior that they wished to make a habit. The behavior was to be performed in response to a once-daily cue such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch, drinking a bottle of water at lunch, or exercising for 15 minutes prior to dinner.

“On average, it took about 66 days for a behavior to become automatic, but there was a lot of variation in the time it took for habits to form, from as little as 18 days up to 254 days.”

Over a tracking period of 84 days (12 weeks), the volunteers were instructed to engage in the behavior daily and give daily self-reports about whether or not they actually followed through. They also answered questions about how automatic, or habitual, their chosen behaviors felt, addressing factors such as lack of awareness and lack of control.

Analysis showed that practicing a behavior early on led to greater increases in automaticity, evidenced by the behavior displaying some or all of the following features: efficiency, lack of awareness, unintentionality and uncontrollability; gains decreased as participants reached maximum automaticity for that behavior.

Although on average, it took about 66 days for a behavior to become automatic, there was a lot of variation in the time it took for habits to form. For some, it took as little as 18 days, and for others, it researchers forecasted that it would take up to 254 days.

There was also variation in how strong the habit became: for some people habit strength peaked below the halfway point of the 42-point strength scale and for others it peaked at the very top. It may be that some behaviors are more suited to habit formation – habit strength for simple behaviors (such as drinking a glass of water) peaked quicker than for more complex behaviors (e.g. doing 50 sit-ups) – or that people differ in how quickly they can form habits, and how strong those habits can become.

How strong the habit became also varied amongst participants, with habit strength peaking below the halfway point of the 42-point strength scale for some, and peaking at the top for others. Not surprisingly, some behaviors were stronger and took less time to become automatic than others. For example, eating and drinking behaviors, like drinking more water, took about two months to become automatic, while exercise behaviors, like doing 50 sit-ups, required more dedication, taking about three months to become automatic.

Researchers also noted that missing a day did not reduce the chance of forming a habit, and other types of habits not explored in the study may take much longer to establish. In addition, they found that a sub-group of participants took much longer to form their habits, suggesting that some individuals may be “habit-resistant.”

They concluded, “Creating new habits will require self-control to be maintained for a significant period before the desired behaviors acquire the necessary automaticity to be performed without self-control.”

The Bottom Line
It takes much longer to build a habit than just 21 days, and based on this study, it is not unrealistic to think that it could take three or even four months. What a relief to hear that if you fall off the wagon for a day or so, it won’t prevent you from reaching your goal.

This is important to know so that you can manage your expectations. It also indicates that creating new habits will require self-control to be maintained for a significant period before the desired behaviors occur automatically. Of course, how long it actually takes will be different depending on who you are and what you’re trying to do, but consistency is key.

Eager to get started or even looking to revise those resolutions? Here are six tips to help you form healthy habits:

Link the behavior to a routine or cue. Just like in the study, you’ll find it’s easier to carry through with a behavior if it’s tied to something you do every day like eating breakfast or walking the dog.

Reward yourself. When you find that you’re being consistent in your behavior, reward yourself! While this doesn’t mean that you should eat a cookie every time you do well, you can treat yourself to a night out with friends, a new pair of shoes or something else you enjoy.

Repeat and keep track. Use a journal or even an online app to record your calories consumed, minutes of exercise, or other behavior so you keep consistent and keep yourself accountable when you forget.

Keep it simple. Don’t try to do too much at once! Instead of trying to do 50 sit-ups, 30 minutes of cardio, and 20 laps in the pool all before dinner, start with just one or two new habits you’d like to form and add more to your routine as they become automatic. You’ll be more successful and encouraged when you can conquer them one at a time.

Have others keep you accountable. You don’t have to go it alone! Have family and/or friends join you on your mission to build healthy habits. They can offer friendly reminders, encouragement, or even make a team effort to form those habits for themselves.

Make a plan. Give yourself direction and set a clear goal and schedule for your new habit. The more clearer your plan, the greater your chances of success.

In a few months’ time, you may find that you’ve broken some old bad habits and formed some new healthy ones instead!

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