How long does a habit take to form

How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit? Backed by Science.

Maxwell Maltz was a plastic surgeon in the 1950s when he began noticing a strange pattern among his patients.

When Dr. Maltz would perform an operation — like a nose job, for example — he found that it would take the patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new face. Similarly, when a patient had an arm or a leg amputated, Maxwell Maltz noticed that the patient would sense a phantom limb for about 21 days before adjusting to the new situation.

These experiences prompted Maltz to think about his own adjustment period to changes and new behaviors, and he noticed that it also took himself about 21 days to form a new habit. Maltz wrote about these experiences and said, “These, and many other commonly observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”

In 1960, Maltz published that quote and his other thoughts on behavior change in a book called Psycho-Cybernetics (audiobook). The book went on to become an blockbuster hit, selling more than 30 million copies.

And that’s when the problem started.

You see, in the decades that followed, Maltz’s work influenced nearly every major “self-help” professional from Zig Ziglar to Brian Tracy to Tony Robbins. And as more people recited Maltz’s story — like a very long game of “Telephone” — people began to forget that he said “a minimum of about 21 days” and shortened it to, “It takes 21 days to form a new habit.”

And that’s how society started spreading the common myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit (or 30 days or some other magic number). It’s remarkable how often these timelines are quoted as statistical facts. Dangerous lesson: If enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.

It makes sense why the “21 Days” Myth would spread. It’s easy to understand. The time frame is short enough to be inspiring, but long enough to be believable. And who wouldn’t like the idea of changing your life in just three weeks?

But the problem is that Maxwell Maltz was simply observing what was going on around him and wasn’t making a statement of fact. Furthermore, he made sure to say that this was the minimum amount of time needed to adapt to a new change.

So what’s the real answer? How long does it take to form a habit? How long does it take a break a bad habit? Is there any science to back this up? And what does all of this mean for you and me?

How Long it Really Takes to Build a New Habit

Phillippa Lally is a health psychology researcher at University College London. In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Lally and her research team decided to figure out just how long it actually takes to form a habit.

The study examined the habits of 96 people over a 12-week period. Each person chose one new habit for the 12 weeks and reported each day on whether or not they did the behavior and how automatic the behavior felt.

Some people chose simple habits like “drinking a bottle of water with lunch.” Others chose more difficult tasks like “running for 15 minutes before dinner. ” At the end of the 12 weeks, the researchers analyzed the data to determine how long it took each person to go from starting a new behavior to automatically doing it.

The answer?

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 1

In other words, if you want to set your expectations appropriately, the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life — not 21 days.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that “missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if you mess up every now and then. Building better habits is not an all-or-nothing process.

Finding Inspiration in the Long Road

Before you let this dishearten you, let’s talk about three reasons why this research is actually inspiring.

First, there is no reason to get down on yourself if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit. It’s supposed to take longer than that! There is no need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behavior in 21 short days. Learn to love your 10 Years of Silence. Embrace the long, slow walk to greatness and focus on putting in your reps.

Second, you don’t have to be perfect. Making a mistake once or twice has no measurable impact on your long-term habits. This is why you should treat failure like a scientist, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly.

And third, embracing longer timelines can help us realize that habits are a process and not an event. All of the “21 Days” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do this and it’ll be done. ” But habits never work that way. You have to embrace the process. You have to commit to the system.

Understanding this from the beginning makes it easier to manage your expectations and commit to making small, incremental improvements — rather than pressuring yourself into thinking that you have to do it all at once.

Where to Go From Here

At the end of the day, how long it takes to form a particular habit doesn’t really matter that much. Whether it takes 50 days or 500 days, you have to put in the work either way.

The only way to get to Day 500 is to start with Day 1. So forget about the number and focus on doing the work.

If you want more practical ideas for breaking bad habits and creating good habits, check out my book Atomic Habits, which will show you how small changes in habits can lead to remarkable results.


  1. Even though the study only ran for 12 weeks, the researchers were able to use the data to estimate the longer timelines (like 254 days) to form habits. Again, the exact time depends on a variety of factors and isn’t nearly as important as the overall message: habits can take a long time to form.

How long does it take to build a habit?

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We all want to make lasting changes to our daily behaviors from time to time — perhaps exercise more or spend less time scrolling through social media before getting out of bed. But how long does it take to build a habit? 

A popular answer is 21 days — a figure that can be traced back to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a cosmetic surgeon and author of "Psycho-Cybernetics" (Prentice-Hall, 1960). In his book Maltz reported that his patients needed a minimum of 21 days to change the mental image of how they looked.

Since then, many people have applied the "21-day" time frame to all habits. However, not all behaviors are the same and some may need more than three weeks to become automatic.  

"It is easy to see why this figure appeals," Mark Vahrmeyer , a psychotherapist and founder of Brighton & Hove Psychotherapy in England, told Live Science. "It is both concrete and makes building a new habit seem very achievable. The truth, however, is that it's more complex and on average it takes far longer."

So is there a precise time frame that it takes to form a habit? To answer this question, we took a dive into the science of habit formation.

What is a habit?

A habit is a behavior that has become automatic, according to a 2019 article published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia . Habits can be formed and eliminated deliberately or unintentionally. We may not even be aware of some of these behaviors. 

Dr Maurice Duffy , a mindset coach and visiting professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Sunderland, England, told Live Science that habits play a central role in determining our actions.

"Habits are the small decisions you make and the actions you perform every day," he said. "Your life today is essentially the sum of these habits."

But these habits aren't always conscious decisions. Habit is different from routine.

"A habit is a behavior done with little or no thought," Duffy said. "A routine involves a series of behaviors [performed] frequently and intentionally repeated. Unlike habits, routines are uncomfortable and require a concerted effort to change. Habits, on the other hand, are so ingrained in our daily lives that it feels strange not to do them." 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Not all habits are beneficial or practical, and some may be harmful. 

This is because habit formation doesn't occur in the prefrontal cortex — the "reasonable," decision-making part of the brain. A 2006 review article published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience suggests that the ability to develop and maintain habits may be rooted in basal ganglia. Basal ganglia are clusters of neurons, or nerve cells, located deep in the brain, underneath the white matter. They are central to emotional development, pattern recognition, problem solving and learning. This could explain why certain behaviors take place without any decision-making process, and why some behaviors may be linked to emotional states like stress or sadness. 

  • Related: How do you break a habit?

How long does it take to build a habit?

Repetition is critical to habit formation. "Habits are formed through a process known as habituation," Alyssa Roberts , an eating disorder researcher at the University of Minnesota,  told Live Science. "Habituation occurs when a behavior is repeated enough times, and the brain adapts to the routine by making the response automatic."

The "habit loop" concept, popularized by journalist Charles Duhigg in his book "The Power of Habit" (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014), is often used to explain the science of habit formation. According to the theory, there are three stages to automating your behavior: cue (or trigger), routine (or behavior) and reward.  

For example, a stressful situation (a cue) may lead some people to respond with overeating (the routine), which is an activity that can temporarily bring some comfort (the reward). When a behavior becomes sufficiently repetitive, the brain starts viewing the cue as an opportunity for the reward. The trigger will prompt you to perform the same action to seek pleasure. 

How long it takes to establish a habit may depend on what the cue and the intended routine is. According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology , habit formation may take anywhere between 18 and 254 days. The average amount of time needed for a behavior to become automatic is 66 days, the researchers found. The researchers noted that different actions required a different level of effort too. For example, those who had been asked to develop a habit of drinking a glass of water at breakfast tended to be more successful than participants who were instructed to do 50 sit-ups each day.  

How do you maintain a habit?

Maintaining a habit long-term can be tricky. According to a 2016 review in the journal Health Psychology Review , many different factors play a role in achieving lasting behavior change. These include personal motives, physical resources, ability to self regulate one's behavior and a range of environment and social influences. Biological factors may also have an effect. 

"Genetics can play a role, as some people are genetically predisposed to forming habits more quickly than others due to their dopamine receptor genes," Roberts said. As stated in a 2007 review in The Journal of Neuroscience , dopamine is a brain signaling molecule that plays an essential role in the early stages of learning. Increased dopaminergic activity can speed up the process of habitualization.  

(Image credit: Getty Images)

A 2016 review, published in the journal Health Psychology , suggested that self-efficacy could also be key to developing and maintaining habits. Self-efficacy is a belief in your ability to complete a task or achieve a goal. Put simply, a person who is convinced they cannot maintain new behaviors will be less likely to keep their habit. Higher self-efficacy has been linked to improved outcomes in many different health interventions, according to a 2016 review in the journal Health Education & Behavior . Participants who exhibited this trait tended to be more successful at giving up smoking, losing weight, reducing alcohol consumption and increasing physical activity. 

Vahrmeyer noted that the way a person makes a goal more attractive can also be important.

"If the process of building your habit involves nothing but self-sacrifice with no reward, you are unlikely to stick to your goals," Vahrmeyer said.

He advised making the process as easy as possible. For example, if the goal is to go to the gym three times per week, a person should pick a gym with a convenient location. 

Habit formation can also be made more satisfying.

"Perhaps you approach the latter by celebrating milestones along the way and rewarding yourself with a gift linked to the new habit,” said Vahrmeyer.

Anna Gora is a health writer at Live Science, having previously worked across Coach, Fit&Well, T3, TechRadar and Tom's Guide. She is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health coach with nearly 10 years of professional experience. Anna holds a Bachelor's degree in Nutrition from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, a Master’s degree in Nutrition, Physical Activity & Public Health from the University of Bristol, as well as various health coaching certificates. She is passionate about empowering people to live a healthy lifestyle and promoting the benefits of a plant-based diet.

How do habits work and why can't we change them? An explains the neurobiologist

Instructions for survival


Ellina Orudzheva


Svetlana Durba

July 24, 2021 19:14

Talking with a neurobiologist, the scientific director of the brain development center Ilya Martynov about habits and learned why and learned why harmful ones are developed faster than useful ones, is it true that any habit can be formed in 21 days, and why you need to stop relying on willpower.

What is brain plasticity and how is it related to habits?

Our brain is made up of nerve cells, each of which can have many branches. With their help, cells communicate with each other into entire neural networks. They can be considered a kind of functional blocks of the brain. And neuroplasticity is the ability of the neural networks of the brain to change in the process of its growth and development, as well as throughout life.

A habit from the point of view of modern neuroscience is a certain way combined chain of neurons, a neural network. Thus, neuroplasticity is the physiological basis of habit formation.

For habits in physiology, there is a whole term introduced by Ivan Pavlov - a dynamic stereotype. It is a stable complex of conditioned reflex reactions that are always implemented in a strictly defined sequence. Thus, a habit is a dynamic stereotype formed as a result of exposure to certain concomitant stimuli.

[In simple terms, we can say that a habit is an unconscious pattern of behavior] because our brain loves to automate everything [in order to save resources in this way. When we have learned enough of a skill, the brain puts it into an automatic process]. For example, in the first years of life, a baby learns to walk: he falls, gets up, then clumsily takes his first steps, falls again. And later, the child moves his legs automatically both when walking and when running. Because it is more profitable for the brain to make this action involuntary, taken out of conscious control.

How long does it take to form a habit?

On average most habits take two months to form , but there may be some that take hundreds of days to develop. Much depends on the specific habit, physiological and psychological state of a person. In this case, individual differences are very strong. It all depends on the environment, the situation in which a person is, his health: for example, after a heart attack, in principle, it is more difficult to do anything and introduce a habit as well. It is a myth that a habit is developed in 21 days, it happens differently for each person.

Why do bad habits form faster than good ones?

If we talk about such bad habits as smoking, drinking alcohol and so on, then with their help our brain gets something valuable for itself, without putting much effort. We reach for a cigarette or candy, often without thinking why. Such bad habits are associated with a system of rewarding yourself for something or are tied to the desire to relax. When a person drinks, he not only stimulates the inhibitory neurons of the brain and interferes with the work of the activating systems of the brain, but also relieves himself of responsibility for his decisions, actions and words. This is generally a terribly seductive state: you are not responsible for anything. Narcotic substances spur the brain to instantly receive an increased dose of pleasure. Junk food also stimulates centers in our brains associated with hedonism. The brain wants to satisfy the need right now in the most affordable way - which is why many people like fast food, fatty, carbohydrate-rich foods that you can quickly get enough of and get a source of energy.

Such relatively simple reflex behaviors once formed are very difficult to remove.

Habits can be modified, they can disappear for a while, but when they get into a certain environment, a bad habit often returns, and even with renewed vigor. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to what habits - perhaps not even on purpose - you develop in yourself.

Let's say you were in an environment where you needed to eat at night: if you again get into conditions where you need to eat again at such a time, then the habit will return with renewed vigor. Therefore, if we want to change it, we need to introduce additional parameters: we eat at night, but less, or we drink more liquid in order to somehow erode the physiological soil.

When it comes to forming a so-called useful habit, then usually the brain has to perform some kind of action that is not always pleasant, and often also very energy-consuming. And the brain has been trained by evolution to save energy. It's easier to drink a can of beer [and get instant gratification] than to exercise.

What if every attempt to introduce a habit ends in failure?

The fact is that it is important here not only what exactly is useful that we want to introduce into our lives, but also how we will master it. If you introduce a habit at once in a crowd, one neural network will be involved, and if it is staged, a set of neural networks will be involved. Gradually learning a new habit is more neuroplastic, because you can always change something in the sequence of actions, in addition, in a phased approach, skills are more easily retrieved from memory. Therefore new habit, if possible, it is better to introduce gradually .

Need-based motivation is very important in habit formation. When a person does not see the point in what he is doing, he is most likely to abandon it. Therefore, you need to set yourself specific goals and visualize them. The brain perceives the abstract goal “I want to be healthy” worse than the concrete one: I can run a marathon, get a pilot’s license, eliminate heart problems. Firstly, the brain can feel, “feel” such a goal, and secondly, it is associated with obtaining specific resources - social approval, monetary reward, something else.

Margaret Thatcher said in one of her interviews that she had made a habit of doing everything at once, without delay, ever since her studies at Oxford. They asked me to write an essay - she sat down and wrote it the same day. This made it possible not to waste the resource on unnecessary worries due to unfulfilled tasks. Time was freed up for what was interesting to her, for example, politics. In this case, the brain understood for what purpose it performs all tasks at once.

Developing a new habit is labor intensive. Therefore, it makes no sense to introduce 150 habits in one day, you need to do it gradually. Once you have consolidated one skill, allocating 2-3 months for it, move on to the next one.

It helps a lot to share a good habit with someone - to play sports together or cook healthy meals. Here the competitive moment turns on - the motivation to hold out longer than the other or, say, to win a bet. The reward thing also works: I will do something useful, and then I will buy myself some gift.

What is willpower?

I would define willpower as a set of features of the individual's psyche, characterized by its ability to suppress emotional impulses in pursuit of the intended goal. The problem is that willpower is practically impossible to somehow train , since it is quite tightly controlled by genes. Well, then unpleasant talk about the genetic lottery and all that.

I would advise you to turn to the works of Irina Yakutenko, who devoted a whole book to the problems of willpower. For example, she argues that weak self-control is based on impulsivity, when “impulses caused by the random influence of the external environment are stronger than understanding the importance of goals.” Yakutenko also points out that some of us are sensitive to positive reinforcements, others to negative ones. Some intrinsic motivation is strong, while others are weak. And this, in her opinion, can be taken into account when working on getting rid of unwanted habits.

You need to understand that willpower is a very limited resource . If, for example, a person suddenly wants to change his lifestyle and at the same time goes on a diet, quits smoking and starts playing sports, it is clear that with so many tasks, there will no longer be any strength left for any other habits and skills.

6 tips to help you form the habit you want:

Be alone in a quiet place and think about the ultimate goal. Fuss, noise, talk - all this must be discarded. Just you and your goal. Why do you want this habit? Write down what will motivate you.

Keep a diary where you will note small achievements on the way to the goal. Notice your emotions too.

Strengthen the dominant of your desire. Our brain works in such a way that neural networks need to be recharged in order to strengthen. Study the literature on the issue, watch videos related to your goal.

Get a partner for the goal. If you want to start running in the morning, then find someone who wants it too. This way you will feel responsible to the other person.

Break your goal down into milestones and gradually master each one. If we are talking about, say, running, first run 500 meters, then 700, then 1000, and so on.

Try to keep a sleep-wake schedule. Watch your food. Some habits may require you to be in good health. Willpower may also depend on this.

tell your friends


Ivan PavlovIlya MartynovMargaret Thatcher

How long does it take to break or form a habit?

How long does it take to break or form a habit? - FoxTimeHow long does it take to break or form a habit? – Fox Time

Some habits can be good or bad, and a person often tends to fix the good ones and give up the bad ones. But it gets hard, right? According to science, we will tell you where to start.

Daily brushing of teeth or a morning cup of invigorating coffee - all people have dozens of habits that help them get through their daily routine and prepare for the day ahead. Some of them are great, like going to the gym, and others are not really encouraged, like smoking.

Today there is no shortage of special applications designed to help a person form a habit, and many of them are built on the assumption that 21 days is enough time to establish a habit.

Where does this number come from? And it comes from a popular 1960 book called Psychocybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who noted that it took his patients 21 days to get used to their new faces.

However, according to a 2009 study, the time it takes to form a habit is not really defined.

Researchers at University College London studied new habits in 96 people for 12 weeks and found that the average time it takes for a new habit to stick is actually 66 days. In addition, individual times ranged from 18 to a whopping 254 days.

On average, habit formation takes at least two months.

How about trying to break an unwanted habit?

Photo / Thiago Matos /

It turns out that these two processes - the formation and destruction of habits are quite closely related. As psychologist Timothy Pychil Alison Nastasi explains, “hopes” and “fears” are two sides of the same coin. Neuroscientist Elliot Berkman says it's much easier to start doing something new than it is to stop doing something you're used to without "replacement behavior," and that's the point. This is one reason why smoking cessation aids such as nicotine gum or inhalers tend to be more effective than simply putting on a nicotine patch.

Experts agree that there is no typical time frame for quitting a habit, and the right recipe will consist of a combination of personality, motivation, circumstances, and the habit in question.

“People who want to quit their habit for reasons that are consistent with their personal values ​​will change their behavior faster than people who do so for external reasons, such as pressure from others,” says Berkman.

According to psychology professor Susan Krauss Whitborn, sometimes a habit can be broken quickly: “In extreme cases, a habit can be broken instantly, for example, if you happen to get very sick while inhaling cigarette smoke or almost get hit by a bus while writing sms and go on foot. But in most cases it takes longer, and the person probably needs at least two months.

In order to successfully break a habit, a person needs to think about his strongest motivation that will drive him forward.

Before starting the process, it is necessary to think about the “replacement behavior” for this habit and make sure that it is positive: for example, replacing smoking with a smoke break is a common trap, and the person may end up with a completely different effect that he was trying to achieve.

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