As many of you may know, the past 2 years of my career have been heavily focused on understanding and learning about human psychology and behavioural change.
Over a decade of coaching people - I finally realised that something just wasn't right. Results weren't so hard to come by - calorie restrict a client and get them moving. Yet, maintaining those results was frustratingly challenging.
I discovered that I wasn't actually teaching people HOW to change. I was simply giving them the 'rules' they needed to obeyed by in order to get results. But as we know, these 'rules' have a shelf life - usually the end of the 8 week challenge you're completing!
Recently, I have had discussions with clients who have been told it takes '21 days to break a habit' - in fact, one facility based an entire paid weekend on this very point.
Unfortunately, this simply isn't correct.
Think about it. Let's say you want to quit snacking after dinner. You white-knuckle your way through 21 days of forcing yourself away from the fridge, then, by day 22, you no longer need to snack after dinner, ever again!
Habit's aren't changed through amazing acts of willpower. Habits are changed through identifying the cues, the routine, and the rewards from the associated habit.
More on that later.
So why does everyone say it takes 21 days to break a habit?
This number comes from a popular 1960 book called Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who noticed his patients seemed to take about 21 days to get used to their new faces.
Nowhere did Maltz say this is how long it takes to break a habit, nor even create a habit.
The "21 days to break a habit" quote has unfortunately been misunderstood and twisted into a 'rule' for clients. Luckily, I'll relieve you of some of the misunderstanding now...
So just how long does it take to break a habit?
Well, you might be shocked to know that we never actually truly 'break' a habit.
"Breaking a habit really means establishing a new habit, a new pre-potent response. The old habit or pattern of responding is still there (a pattern of neuron responses in the brain), but it is less dominant (less potent)", says Associate Professor Timothy Pychyl, of Department of Psychology, Carleton University, Ottawa.
Dr. Thomas Plante, Adjunct Clinical Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, adds "Behavior and habits (especially when long-standing) are very hard to change. All the stars must align to make it happen. Attending to biological, psychological, social, cultural, and other factors can help. But in the end, to answer your question, it all depends."
So, the answer to 'how long does it take to break a habit' is "it's impossible for anyone to say".
But really, the timeframe it takes to break a habit is completely irrelevant. This isn't a competition, nor a game with a defined start and finish. What matters - and the only thing that matters - is that you're putting the processes in place to change.
Now we've established that the 21 day timeframe is incorrect - and, well, irrelevant - let's have look at how habits are actually changed.
Habits are essentially automatic behaviours that have been developed over the course of our lifetime.
We experience habits as patterns of thought and behavior imbued with automaticity. Automaticity — a sort of internal momentum that no longer needs overt, conscious fuel to keep going — is the result of learning. And in effect that's exactly what a habit is: the logical outcome of learning something, whether or not that something is beneficial or dangerous.
Habits involve what is know as the 'habit loop'
The first part of the habit loop is the cue, which is the trigger that tells your brain to go into cruise control (automatic mode) and ushers a specific routine. The cue can be a person, place, thing, or emotion.
The routine is the second part of this three-part loop. The routine is an action that can be mental, emotional, or physical. This is what really makes a habit, a habit.
The reward is what makes doing the routine worthwhile, in your brain’s opinion. A reward may not seem like a “reward” on its surface, especially if your habits cause you financial, physical, or emotional pain. But your brain thinks of it as a reward; and rewards are what keep habits going. It’s that shot of endorphins you get every time you perform the routine. The reward is what helps your brain figure out if this loop is worth remembering and repeating in the future.
Now that we know what habits are, and how they are formed, the lesson here is that you can disrupt a habit by replacing the routine in the habit loop, while keeping the same cue and reward.
That is how you “break” habits. You keep the cue and the reward essentially the same; all you have to do is replace the routine.
It is important to note that though the process of habit change is easily described, it does not mean that it is easily accomplished. And it certainly doesn't mean that it will be achieved in 21 days.
Genuine change requires work and self-understanding of the cravings' driving behaviours.
It requires accepting that the cue(s) are always going to be there. You cannot remove the cue(s).
Once you've identified the cue(s) for your behaviour, it's time to understand what reward you are gaining from the routine (habit).
Let's work through an example:
Say you want to stop snacking at work. Is the reward you’re seeking to satisfy your hunger? Or is it to interrupt boredom?
Often, clients snack at work to interrupt boredom or to distract them from the work they don't want to do.
First, there is the cue...
“Whoop, it’s 3pm! I’m kinda bored sitting at this desk...”
Second, there is the routine...
“The kitchen usually has some snacks I can distract myself with... let’s go check it out!”
Thirdly, there’s the reward...
“Ahh, those biscuits and coffee distracted me perfectly!”
Above, this individual went to the kitchen for a distraction, not hunger. The reward of the routine was escapism from working.
We could probably collectively think of 100 different routines this person could do to distract themselves, and offer the same reward.
The secret to habit change is understanding the cue’s won’t change. You can’t stop 3pm from coming around. You can’t stop emotion, boredom, whatever.
The secret is changing the routine, that achieves the same reward.
This is how habit change works, and identifying the cues, then changing the routine, is the secret to success.
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Drew is a personal trainer and nutritionist and is the co-founder of Evexia Wellbeing. Drew specialises in long-term habit change, body composition training, and mindset.