Humans are creatures of habit, our brains are hard-wired this way. But this default setting can make it hard to break a habit that you no longer need. Why do you have habits and what makes them essential for survival? Read on to learn the truth behind your habits and how to make new healthy habits that last.

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

How Habits Happen - The Habit Loop

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, with a focused effort this is possible to do.

Why Habits Happen - The Payoff

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 an unknown, new action which your brain perceives as being ‘high risk’. 

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 on 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/reward.
  • 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

When it comes to establishing a new action as a habit, most people would agree that repetition is an important part of the process. But have you also heard the following “Do it 21 times and it will become a habit”?


Well consistency and repetition are likely to lead to successful change, the magical number of 21 repetitions is more a myth than fact. Let’s explore why now.

Why consistent repetition could be the key to success…

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’.

Participants had more success at establishing a new action when it was linked to another everyday action, rather than a particular time.

As lead-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’. 

There’s no question that recreating habits of a lifetime can be tricky to do. But could people be  failing simply because they underestimate 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.

The Takeaway on Creating New Sticky Habits

From time to time, we all find ourselves wanting to replace old bad habits with new and healthier ones but often it seems impossible to make these new habits last. 

It can be useful to begin by exploring the hidden reasons behind the original habit because if you can get similar outcomes from your new, improved habit, it’s much more likely to stick. You might consider the personal payoff: What mental effort does it cut back on? How does this habit help me feel safe? What sort of pleasure do I get from my habit? 

Another consideration is that it will take more than 21 repetitions to create a new habit. Practice is key, so do allow yourself enough time to embed these unfamiliar new actions and loops. Have you ever seen a kid learning to eat with a fork? Do they say “Right, two weeks max or it’s back to using my fingers!” 

Combining your personal insights gained through self-reflection along with a willingness to persevere can propel you towards lasting success. With these in place, who knows what healthier habit you’ll create next!

Nina Sabat, Nutritional therapist and Nutritionist in London

If creating healthier new habits is something that’s been on your mind for a while, today could be the day to turn your thoughts into action and create a successful change. The REVIVE Programme by Nutrition with Nina supports you as you introduce new habits to deepen your sleep and skyrocket your energy.

Image by Milad Fakurian at Unsplash