someone writing on a habit tracker

We all have a bad habit we’re trying to break. Whether it’s smoking, eating junk food all the time, or spending too much time on the couch, bad habits are normal. 

But, breaking a habit isn’t as simple as simply stopping such behavior, though at least acknowledging the habit is a good start. Still, it takes time to break the habit. 

First, let’s go over what a habit is. We can think of it as a mental shortcut formed through repetition, environmental factors, and behavior reinforcement. Some habits are helpful and useful, like exercising every day, and others are not helpful and not useful like an addiction. 

The short answer: 21 days

Some people argue that it takes at least 21 days to break a habit – you’ve probably set this goal for yourself before. Others suggest that breaking a habit takes longer, even several months. 

In reality, there’s no set-on-rock time frame for how long it takes to break a habit, probably because:

  1. Not all habits are formed the same
  2. Habit-forming is a very personal process
  3. Some habits cause brain changes that make them more challenging to overcome

Keep reading for more information on how long it takes to break a habit and some tips to help you get there. 

The explanation behind that answer

Before becoming a psychologist, we can link the “21-day” explanation to Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon. In his practice, he suggested that people needed about three weeks to get used to different facial features, cope with the absence of a limb after amputation, and get accustomed to a house they’ve just moved to. 

Maltz’s theory is that he mainly was basing his ideas on patient reports rather than scientific evidence. 

Maltz’s theories are that none of the above scenarios are habits people want to break. Instead, they’re examples of the process of becoming accustomed to something new. 

Breaking a habit tends to involve a more conscious effort. While habituation refers to something you’ve already changed (like plastic surgery) or that’s out of your control (losing a limb). 

How long does it take realistically?

Here’s the reality, there’s no one timeline for how long it takes to break a habit. Some people say it takes 30 days to break an addiction. Yet, we all know that people with addiction tend to struggle with substance use disorders for a lifetime. So, how long it takes to break a habit depends on:

  • How long you’ve had the habit
  • Whether this behavior is part of your daily routine or not
  • The kind of rewards you get from it
  • Your motivation
  • The type of habit

For example, some people drink socially to be more relaxed. It’s easier to pick up this habit because they get an instant reward: meeting friends is easier. In this case, drinking = social connection. 

However, in this particular example, the substance involved in the habit itself makes it more challenging to break the habit. Alcohol is known for changing the way our brain’s reward system operates. Eventually, people who binge drink or drink in excess can develop an alcohol use disorder

In this case, breaking their drinking habit isn’t just about reward mechanisms but about re-training their brain to find different ways to light up without the substance. 

Research from 2012 says it takes about ten weeks or two and a half months to form a habit. That coincides with evidence from 2009 that says it takes anywhere between 18 to 254 days to break a habit. Most people are starting to embrace a new habit after 66 days. 

Tips for breaking a habit

Of course, change isn’t easy. After all, we are creatures of habit, right? Most of the time, we have habits we don’t even realize–biting our nails, cracking our fingers, or staying up late every night for no reason. These become an automatic response to something that we don’t recognize yet. 

While some habits are easier to break than others, here are some tips that can help you get started:

  • Recognize your triggers – evaluate your surroundings and try to see what triggers your bad habits. For example, if you grab snacks every time you feel stressed or bite your nails whenever you feel anxious. Write down each of your triggers and acknowledge them to become more self-aware of what’s happening. 
  • Change your environment – sometimes, you have to change your surroundings to break bad habits like smoking or drinking. This could mean getting rid of anything that reminds you of the habit, including friends and often family members, until you feel confident enough to be exposed to your triggers. 
  • Get an accountability partner – this is why support groups are so influential in addiction recovery; having an accountability partner can help you stay on track with your goals. 
  • Reward yourself – just like your brain gets an instant reward after you execute bad habits, do the same for good behavior. Whenever you engage in a good habit and reach a small goal, reward yourself for improving the chances of breaking the habit. 

The takeaway

In reality, it takes longer than 21 days to break a habit. There are many factors involved in the process of breaking bad habits. Still, you can always take on the challenge of breaking old habits. Plus, you know that you can reach out for professional help to break harmful behaviors like substance abuse, violent behavior, and behavioral addictions such as gambling. 

Find the help you need to start breaking habits – regardless of how long it takes you.