A true commitment to exercise and a lifestyle that matches it takes time to form. It needs to become fully built into your lifestyle and more than that it needs to become a habit. Actively creating a habit is a lot harder than those that just creep up on you and it’s a common question search engines face every day – how long does it take to form a habit?
To begin with regular exercise or healthy eating takes monumental self-control so it’s understandable you want to know when it’ll become the norm or even maybe enjoyable. Elements which effect the amount of time it takes a habit to form of course include your own mental commitment and the habit you’re trying to form. Search engines will tell you time and again, citing many sources, that it sits somewhere between 21 and 28 days. No evidence backs up this figure however and most health and fitness professionals would tell you to forget that figure and look to more concrete evidence.
Newer studies now show that there is a relationship between practice and automaticity. Research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology looked in depth at the question. Researchers from University College London recruited 96 participants who were interested in forming a new habit such as eating an extra piece of fruit or running for a few minutes each day. Participants were asked on a daily basis how automatic their new chosen ‘habit’ behaviour felt. The questions included things such as whether the new behaviour could be done ‘without thinking’ or whether it was ‘not hard to do’.
Researchers looked at the different habits and many of the participants involved saw a curved relationship between practice and automaticity. On average the participants reached a plateau in the automaticity around 66 days – which meant it reached the peak level of habit and wouldn’t become any more so than it was.
The average worked out as 66 days but overall the variation was clear. The length habits took to form varied massively from 18 days for some to 254 days for others and this also differed depending on the activity in question. Drinking an extra glass of water each day is much easier to work into your daily routine as a habit, for example, the committing to 50 press-ups before bed. The researchers also found some interesting points regarding the continuity of habits.
Missing a single day in a chosen habit activity didn’t have any impact on the chance of it becoming a full blown habit. Equally an individual sub-group within the larger number of participants took much longer than others to form their chosen habits – perhaps indication that some people are naturally habit resistant.
Repetitions is what’s key to the forming of a habit. The study shows overall that it’s the daily repetitions are what make forming a habit possible and yes it could take over two months of this before they actually form, it may well be worth the effort. Equally missing a single day may not be the end of the world but the overall sentiment is that the repetitive structure is what makes something stick. With evidence to back it up it’s clear to say that 21 days simply isn’t enough time to get that habit thoroughly ingrained in your body and mind.
A Look at the Other Side
We’ve looked at forming habits but what about conquering them? Perhaps you want to cut down the glasses of wine you drink or cut back on the fatty foods. This too is a challenge and there are many different strategies for tackling them head on.
There are three main strategies used to combat long-held habits. Firstly, people attempt to vigilantly monitor themselves, strictly watching for slipups and the internal mantra of ‘Don’t do it!’ whenever the moment occurs. The second strategy is distraction – doing or thinking about anything else. In a fitness example you could use the time you would have spent grazing on the sofa exercising and keeping fit. Finally, many people look to remove the stimulus which leads them towards their habit. This could be buying no junk food, avoiding meals out or that regular drink after work. All of these methods can be successful but at the end of it all the success is based on your single-mindedness and willpower.
A clever move is to replace a bad habit with a good one. If you’re focusing all your energies and attentions on the new habit then you should be able to fully remove your thoughts from the previous one. Opting to get up for a jog or a few bodyweight exercises rather than grabbing that chocolate bar with give you a further sense of satisfaction and you’ll feel the benefits in the long run.
How long do you think it took you to form your exercise habit or are you still trying to get there? Don’t give up if you reach 21 days and aren’t totally feeling it.
How long does it take to form a habit? That depends on the strength of your willpower. If you're determined enough, it takes a few seconds - the amount of time you need to state that commitment to yourself. Then you just stick to it.
I'm going to print this article out and stick it on my fridge. Perhaps it'll help to cure me of my white wine habit...
Excellent article! I have always had this 21 day thing in my head so it's interesting to see that actually it takes a lot longer to form a proper habit. Very true though that it depends on the habit your're trying to break or establish. If you want to break the habit of eating M&Ms in the evening you also need to break the habit of buying them in the shop when you see them in the first place. The might take a different strategy, and more awareness of the powerful effect of marketing.
I didn't believe this until I started to run. I absolutely hated running for at least 4-5 weeks, the effort didn't seem to be worth the rewards but then something changed. It seems my habit making time is in line with the average in this article.
I'm not sure I can ever form a true habit of something that I don't enjoy, no matter how good it is for me. For me, the key is finding an activity I actually genuinely like to do, then I'll stick to it. Giving myself a reward afterwards helps too