Thursday, July 25, 2013

How Long does It Take to Break a Habit?

They say if you do anything for three weeks it will become a habit. Habits seems to be more than behaviors – they seem to be part of who we are. Habits are just that - part of us. Habits are essentially patterns of behavior that become "worn in" to our brains.

The reality is, habits are easier to make than they are to break. If you repeat a behavior often enough, those synaptic pathways are going to get worn in. The human brain is a very adaptive piece of machinery. But does that take 21 days? Who knows? Everyone's brain is different, and habit formation also relies on aspects of experience and personality.

Breaking a habit is a lot more complicated, because while parts of those worn-in pathways can weaken without use, they never go away. They can be reactivated with the slightest provocation.

The best you can do, then, is to form a new, parallel pattern, like exercising when you feel stress, rather than indulge the old pattern, which triggers "food" in response to stress.

For most people, staying away from a bad habit is a lifetime effort, backed up by the fact that those well-worn synaptic pathways never go away. There's no apparent scientific reason why it would take three weeks to break an old habit or make a new habit. Depending on your unique physical and psychological make-up, it could take three weeks, it could take five days, or it could take nine months.

But there are some steps you can take to increase your chances of success in the endeavor, including:
- Take small steps. Don't try to do everything at once. (So, instead of "I'm going to exercise every day," start with "I'm going to exercise twice a week.")
- Only try to change one habit at a time. (Instead of "I'm going to quit eating junk food, start exercising, and go to sleep at 10 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.," start with "I'm going to quit eating junk food.")
- Write down the habit you want to change, and write down specific plans for achieving that goal. (Rather than writing "I will exercise," write, "I will start walking 30 minutes twice a week, on Monday and Thursday, and I will wake up at 7 a.m., so I can walk before work on those days.")
- Repeat the behavior you're aiming for as often as you can. The more a behavior is repeated, the more likely it is that it will become "instinctive."

At the end of the day, when it comes to forming new habits it takes as long as it takes. We need to shift the focus away from seemingly arbitrary numbers and realize that habits will take various amounts of time to form based on the individual and the complexity of the chosen behaviors. Instead, an approach that focuses on simple tasks and building up and tracking a pattern of success is one that will be sustainable and contribute most to behavior change.

“Instead of giving myself reasons why I can’t, I give myself reasons why I can.”

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