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Creating A New Habit?
Why You Probably Need More than 21 Days

Humans are creatures of habit. Our brains are hard-wired to be this way. While this might be useful in certain circumstances, this default setting can make it hard when you decide to break a bad habit that you no longer need. 

In this 8-min read you’ll get to know all about:

  • How Habits Happen – The Habit Loop 
  • Why Habits Happen – The Payoff 
  • Making New Habits – The ’21 Times’ Myth
  • Applying this knowledge may give you much-appreciated support, particularly if you’ve decided to get out of a bad-habit rut and create a healthier new behaviour instead.

    brain on a purple background

    Image by Milad Fakurian at Unsplash

    How Habits Happen - The Habit Loop?

    What’s the best thing about your good habits? They’re really easy to do. 

    What’s the worst thing about your bad habits? They’re really easy to do! 

     

    Your habits are the automated, habitual behaviours that you complete without thinking. They develop over time as you practice the same types of actions again and again. When it comes to breaking bad habits and creating healthier new ones, it’s easy to see why this type of change can be difficult to achieve. 

     

    Old habits are easy to slip into because they run according to a particular plan. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear elegantly describes this programme as the habit loop

    Phase 1: The Cue

    The first stage in the habit loop is the cue. This is where you receive a trigger and the habit begins. For instance, say you have a coffee every morning. Pretty soon you will only need to walk into the kitchen and see the kettle to prompt a subconcious thought about having your regular morning drink.

    Phase 2: The Desire

    Next comes the desire. This is the time where you actively start thinking about completing your action and the outcome it will bring. You find yourself thinking, ’Mmm, I really a fancy a coffee. That’s exactly what I need.’

    Phase 3: The Action

    The next step in the process is the action. This is where you execute the behaviour. Your feet effortlessly transport you towards the kettle. Your hand reaches out and flicks the switch. Brewed, poured, stirred – your coffee is made. Now you can take a sip.

    Phase 4: The Reward

    The final part of any habit is the reward you receive. How does the action affect how you feel? Perhaps this coffee helps you feel more in control of your morning, curbs your appetite so you feel pleased that you haven’t eaten, or is ‘the only way’ you can get the energy to face your busy day.

    Habits are behaviours that you perform habitually in specific circumstances or situations. They run on a loop which starts with a cue, then progresses to a desire, then on to an action and ends with a reward. Once started it’s quite difficult to interrupt your habit loop, however as you’ll learn later, while it does take extra effort you can break a habit you have and replace it with something new,

    Why Habits Happen - The Payoff

    So, habits are automated processes, but why do you need them in the first place? There are three important reasons why habits are created. These relate to pleasure, safety, and energy.

    Habits give you pleasure

    Your brain is set up to notice sensations which are pleasurable. This is reinforced as the brain chemical dopamine is released. Dopamine helps you feel good and rewarded after you complete an action. So if you practice a new behaviour over and over again, and keep on getting little hits of dopamine, a habit is quickly established.

    Habits help you feel safe

    Habits also connect with your subconscious which is basically primed to keep you safe. As a result, you’ll typically be drawn towards a well-rehearsed ‘low risk’ behaviour, rather than a ‘high risk’ unknown, new action. 

    Habits help conserve your energy

    If you’ve heard of the term ‘decision fatigue’ then you’ll understand the connection between habits and mental energy. A key fact about habits is that they help reduce your cognitive load. Having  your brain run in auto-pilot helps conserve the energy you use.

    Habits are part of your survival mechanism – giving you feelings of pleasure, keeping you safe and conserving your energy. This is the perfect insight to apply when you want to o break a habit. You’ll need to have an alternative source of pleasure. You’ll need to be willing to step out of your comfort zone. You’ll also need to support your mental and physical energy levels. Planning these extra details will increase your chance of success.

    Making New Habits - The '21 Times' Myth

    Whan it comes to establishing a new action as a habit, most people would agree that repetition is an imortant part of the process. 

     

    “Just do it 21 times and it will become a habit”, you might be instructed. 

     

    But this magical number may just be a construct – like the 10,000 step threshold to amazing health.

    Why consistent repetition could be the key to success…

    However, a recent study [1] shone a bright light into the murky depths of human behaviour, gaining insights into how new habits are formed in real life.  

     

    In this study, participants chose their new action and set out to practice it daily when a certain situation arose. Their action centred on either a food-, drinking- or exercise-related behaviour, or another type of behaviour like meditation. So for example, instead of drinking a glass of water ‘at 7.30am’, a participant would drink a glass of water ‘after they got out of bed’.

     

    As researcher Lally explained, ‘it is generally agreed that repeating a behaviour, in a consistent situation, allows cue-response links to be formed’.

    … but you’ll probably need more than 21 attempts

    So how long did it take for the study participants to reach the desired level of ‘automaticity’ – a state where they could perform the healthy new action withoout a second thought?

     

    The average length of time was 66 days. However, while some reached automaticity after 18 days, others took 254 days. 

     

    That’s a pretty big difference between a group of people trying to make a new habit – anywhere between 2½ weeks to just over 8 months.

     

    This study exposes the flaw in the idea that ’21 attempts is more than enough’. Could this be why many people fail in their efforts? They may be giving up far too soon – well before they’re in their timeframe for success.

    It takes perseverance and time for a new action to be transformed into a new habit. If you think 21 repetitions is enough, then think again. Studies show that it can take from around 2 weeks to 8 months of continuous daily practice to create a habit that will last.

    Summary

    Putting a stop to old bad habits and creating a new and healthier practice is a goal that we all hold from time to time. But often it seems impossible to make these new habits last. 

    Having an understanding of why you make habits in the first place – saving mental energy, helping you feel safe, for the pleasure feedback – could help you explore the hidden reasons behind the old habit that you have. Another consideration is that for many people it takes far longer than 21 repetitions to make their efforts stick. 

    Having the relevant info, support, and being willing to persevere, could propel you onwards to lasting success. With these in place, who knows what healthier habits you’ll create next!

    Nina Sabat Nutritionist

    If creating healthier new habits is something that’s been on your mind of for a while, perhaps now’s the time to turn those thoughts into action and success. The REVIVE Programme by Nutrition with Nina supports you as you introduce new habits, without creating a whole heap of stress or unnecessary fuss.