How Long Does It REALLY Take To Break A Bad Habit?

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My mom has been a smoker since she was 16.  And she wants to quit, but somehow doesn’t seem to be able to do it. It’s a horrible habit and she’s not sure how to stop.  How long does it take to really break a bad habit?  I have no idea. Seems to me this might be a good time to research it and find out.

How long does it take to break a bad habit?  The overall average is 66 to 90 days. Studies have shown it takes at least 18 to 254 days, or longer, depending on the individual and the habit they are trying to break.  Addictive or stimulant-based habits take the longest and are the hardest to break.

I am a total science geek and live to see what the “experts” have to say on just about any given subject. Now, I’m totally disappointed in the lack of clarity they have provided. 18 to 254 days?  Could that be just a little vaguer?  How can they not tell me it will take exactly 32 hours and 15 minutes? Maybe there is more involved than is easily measured?  Could it be that science is unable to clearly define this timeframe because of unknown variables?  I need more information.

How Are Habits Formed?

Let’s start at the beginning.  How are habits formed? We’ll have to shake the dust off our psychology 101 manual and dig into the science to understand how we form habits. As with anything, understanding the “how” and “why” helps us better understand how to undo something. To start off, what is a “habit” anyway?

What is a “Habit”?

My friends over at Merriam-Webster have a couple of definitions to choose from.  The first, ”a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior” is fairly generic and not very helpful to us.

More appropriate are the next 2 definitions. “An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary” and “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.” These are most appropriate and what we’ll use.

So, apparently a habit is something we develop due to repetition or regularity that can become nearly or completely involuntary.  Basically speaking, we’ve done it so often that we do it without thinking about it. That’s more helpful but doesn’t explain why she smokes. She knows it isn’t good for her, yet she continues to light up on a regular basis.

How Habits Form In The Brain

Physiologically speaking, all habits begin in your brain. No real surprise there, right?  As we complete a task, whether it’s brushing our teeth or lighting another smoke, our brain notes the steps. Pick up the cigarette, put it between your lips, bring the lighter to the end, flick the lighter, inhale, put the lighter down, inhale again.

As we do each task, “neural pathways” are formed. These pathways can be thought of like linked steps in a chain. As one is triggered, it triggers the next and so forth, until the task is completed. Kind of like a domino effect.

The brain, being a very efficient sort, begins to link these steps together, in sequence. This is called “chunking”. By chunking the steps together, we can complete tasks without thinking about them. As this chunking continues, a habit takes shape.

Another example is driving a car.  Driving is a very complicated task, with multiple steps needed to happen in a coordinated manner. Yet we do it all the time, even while texting, doing our makeup and jamming out to our favorite radio station! How do we manage all of that?

Our brain has “chunked” the necessary steps to driving our car in such a way that we no longer need to think about each one individually, we simply do them. This leaves our brain able to do really stupid stuff, like text while we drive.

Positive Loop

We’ve addressed the physiological component of habit formation, now we need to look at the psychological portion.

Most habit loops show a 3 or 4 step sequence. As the 3-step loop is most common, that is what we’ll look at.


The first step in the positive loop is a “cue” or a trigger event.  This cue is what tells you it is time to initiate the habit. For smokers, maybe it’s the end of a meal or a drop in the nicotine levels or simply boredom. Regardless of what the trigger/cue is, it fires the neuron responsible for initiating the chunked behavior sequence.  Kind of sounds like a Star Wars plot, doesn’t it?


Step two is the actual habit itself.  In the smoking example, that would be lighting up and beginning your cigarette fix.  In another example, say starting your car, it would be putting the key in the ignition, checking your mirrors, adjusting your seat, putting on your belt, turning the key in the ignition and pressing the accelerator. Pick a habit and you can identify the “routine”.


The final and key step in this loop is the “reward”. In some habits, we can easily identify it, as well.  For our smoking example, the reward is in that first hit of nicotine or that first inhalation, darkening the lungs and exciting the soul.

The reward is frequently a release of a “pleasure” neurotransmitter, like dopamine.  This release makes you feel good.  The brain then associates that good feeling with the behavior, reinforcing the reward and increasing the strength of the habit.

The reward is what makes the habit worth doing, in our own mind. You probably think my mom’s reward is absolutely disgusting. I get that, but it seems to be what keeps her going back day after day. Your reward, for whatever habit(s) you may have, is what keeps you returning, as well.

This reward, that is the pleasure you receive, is what is actually forming the habit. My mom doesn’t love sucking on a cigarette. She loves the feeling she receives from sucking on the cigarette.  That may not seem like a huge difference, but it is key. Without the reward component, no habit can start forming.

Eventually, depending on the habit and its reward, you will initiate the habit to prevent the dip in the reward.  Think Pavlov’s dogs. After being fed after a bell was rung, they eventually began to salivate at the ring, without the offer of food even occurring. Ok, it was actually a metronome, not a bell, but close enough. Who knows what a metronome is, anyway?

How long does it REALLY take to break a bad habit?

Your habit reward works the exact same way, hopefully without the salivation.

Scientists have determined that habit-forming behaviors are primarily in a part of the brain known as the amygdala, with is found in the “basal ganglia”. This part of the brain plays a key role in emotions, memories and pattern recognition. It frees up your decision-making prefrontal cortex to do more important matters and allows the “habit” to just happen, without much thought involved.

It also explains why it is so darn hard to break a habit, particularly a bad one.  Most basically put, they are hard-wired right into your brain.

How Do You Break a Habit?

Some psychologists state you can’t “break” a habit, you simply replace the habit with a different one. I guess that’s a perfectly fine way of looking at it. So, without further delay, here are 10 steps recommended by Psychology Today to break or replace a bad habit.

1. Clearly identify the behavior/habit you want to develop.

Much like goal setting, it is important to be very clear with your intent. Not “I want to be healthier” but “I will walk for 30 minutes every day”. It is important that the goal is unambiguous. It is hard enough to change your behavior without giving yourself all kinds of wiggle room in your intent.

In my smoking example, my mom’s behavior to develop might be “I will smoke only 10 cigarettes per day”. This is a clear, measurable goal. And she can’t suddenly say that 10 means 15. 10 means 10, which is clear and concrete.

2. Identify your triggers.

Identify those events, smells, thoughts or activities that make you want to indulge in the habit you are trying to change. There are probably multiple triggers. So you will be continually updating this area, as new triggers are identified.

For the smoking habit, waking up, eating, drinking alcohol, and driving are just a few of the triggers that my mom could identify within about 30 seconds. By identifying your triggers, you are giving yourself an opportunity to deal with them before they trip you up.

3. Deal with the triggers.

Maybe you stop and take a few deep breaths or try to distract yourself by cleaning the bathroom (so much fun! just kidding…). Anything you find can get you over that initial moment is helpful.

Speaking fairly generally, the trigger will make you absolutely want whatever it is for a brief time. If you can distract yourself through the trigger, the desire will decrease, and you will have time to build your resolve for the next trigger onslaught.

Back to the smoking problem. When that urge hits, distraction can be absolutely key.  The desire to light up is fairly automatic. Short-circuit that automatic response and even a delay of 5 minutes can reduce the overall urge enough to ignore, for a while. Small steps lead to changed habits, over time.

4. Develop a substitute plan.

Remember when I said that you can’t break habits, just change them?  This is where it’s at.

Replace your bad habit with something different.  With enough repetition, this replacement will become the actual habit and will, hopefully, replace your old habit entirely.

You know the example we’re using.  My mom just had lunch and now she wants a cigarette. She’s going to replace that cigarette with an 8oz glass of water. She’s going to sip at it slowly, using it to distract her from the trigger of eating lunch (see #3 above).

She’ll begin to break the stranglehold of her habit while improving her hydration and keeping her hands occupied, all at the same time.  That is a winner-winner-winner of a substitute plane!

You can use just about anything for a substitution. Want to watch less TV? Allow yourself 1 hour, then turn it off. When you’re tempted to turn it back on, go for a walk or maybe spend some time on that online class you’ve been thinking about.

5. Change the larger pattern.

This is a bigger scope concept, hence the name. Perhaps one of her primary triggers is watching TV and being bored. A larger pattern change might be going to the gym at night to reduce her TV watching time, thereby reducing her smoking. Or maybe she’ll retile her bathroom floor in the evenings, so her hands are busy, and she doesn’t have time to smoke. And in case you are wondering, yes, she did renew all the floors in the evenings at some point!

Frequently changing the larger picture means looking at the “why” behind the habit and addressing those underlying factors.  This can be helpful in a lot of different ways.

By identifying any underlying issues, we’re able to face and, possibly correct, whatever may be causing us to follow this bad habit. This may prevent us from falling into other bad habits in the future.

6. Use prompts.

Prompts are reminders about your changed focus. If you want to start walking in the morning, put your shoes next to the bed in the evening to remind yourself.

If your goal is to reduce your smoking habit to 10 per day, determine how frequently you can have one and literally set an alarm to go off.  That way, when you reach for a cigarette, you remember that it is not yet time to have one.

Prompts can be anything you want, as long as it is something that makes you remember your new goal and allows you to continue working on setting that new habit.

7. Get supports.

There is a reason there are so many support groups around.  It’s because they work, and they work very well. Having others in our lives that can help keep us accountable and/or share our own goals make achieving those goals so much easier.

If you are trying to break a bad habit, like smoking, having someone who loves you and understands how hard you are trying to change can make a world of difference.

Change is never easy.  As humans, we like consistency and repetition. Our brain tricks us into feeling like change is BAD. We are uncomfortable, distracted and cranky.  Maybe the only thing worse than change is the fear of failing someone we care about or feeling embarrassed in front of them. Though not necessarily the basis behind the success of support groups, it is certainly a key component in making them effective.

How long does it REALLY take to break a bad habit?

8. Support and reward yourself.

Particularly in the early stages of habit replacement, it is imperative that you are your own biggest cheerleader. Did you walk for 30 minutes today instead of having dessert?  Yay you!

Give yourself a reward when you meet that goal or handle that trigger. Didn’t light up that cigarette when your mom called and kept you on the phone for 30 minutes detailing your every failure?  Yay you!  Celebrate with something you enjoy. Maybe a cookie (1 cookie, not 1 bag of cookies) or a bubble bath.

Walked every day this week like you wanted to?  Yay you!  Maybe you can get yourself that new pair of walking shoes you’ve been thinking about.

The point is, make your reward personal and special to you. Make it worth your time, but don’t replace one bad habit with another, equally bad habit. An example of that would be eating a cookie every time you thought about smoking. Pretty soon, you would have a big cookie addiction and an even bigger backside.

9. Be persistent and patient.

As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was your habit.

Stopping the cycle and starting a new, better habit takes time and patience. You will probably stumble on the journey, but pick yourself back up, dust off and keep on going. To continue the platitudes, anything worth doing is worth taking the time to do well.

As a smoker, my mom’s probably “quit” 25 times.  She does well for a while, then falls off the wagon. Does this make her a bad person? No, it makes her human. Accept your humanity and keep trying.  Remember, you aren’t only breaking a psychological link, but a physiological one, as well.

It takes time to rewire.

10. Get professional help.

If all else fails, do not be afraid to seek professional help. If your habit, or maybe even addiction, is bad enough don’t be afraid to hit it with the big guns.

A counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist may be what you need to get your life where you want it to be. You only have this one life, don’t be afraid to make it the best life you can imagine.

Does It Really Take 21 Days to Break a Habit?

“Old” school statements say it takes 21 days to break a habit. This figure has come into serious question in the last few years.

A study published in 2009 in the European Journal of Social Psychology showed an average of 66 days for one habit to be replaced by another.

However, the actual range ran from 18 days to 254 days. This is a HUGE difference! It is also a far cry from the 21 days that so many experts bandy about.

Where did this 21-day concept come from?  In his book, Psycho-Cybernetics*, first published in 1960, plastic surgeon and psychologist Maxwell Maltz noted that his patients took a minimum of 21 days to get used to their new, surgically altered face.

The “habit” of their old face was replaced by the “habit” of seeing their new face.

So, the bottom line on this, a habit can be changed in 21 days, but it is not certain. The average time to change a habit runs from 66 to 90 days, with studies showing a range of 18 to 254 days.

You are unique and so is your habit(s). Don’t compare yourself to Mary, who was able to stop chewing gum in 21 days, if you’re trying to quit drinking soda. You aren’t Mary and soda isn’t gum.

The more intense the pleasure response, the more difficult changing the habit is. On that note, this is a good time to identify the difference between a bad habit and an addiction.

Bad Habit vs. Addiction

Addiction is defined as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence”.

It is based on substances or behaviors that offer an extremely strong reward component. Generally, a neurotransmitter like dopamine is released, offering the individual a flood of pleasurable feelings and significantly reinforcing the activity.

Additionally, addiction has a component known as “withdrawal”. This is a physical and emotional component most “habits” lack.

Without the substance or behavior, not only is the pleasurable feeling withdrawn, it is replaced with very negative symptoms. These symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, anxiety, restlessness, tremor, seizure and, in extreme cases, death.

Gee, why is it so hard to kick an addiction?

Some of the key differences between a bad habit and an addiction are listed here.

But if you want to dive deeper into the difference between a bad habit and an addiction, here is another article that focuses precisely on this.

1. Cravings.

Addicts will have a very strong physical and psychological cravings for the behavior or substance. A “craving” is defined as “an intense, urgent desire or longing for something”. Think of a pregnant woman and ice cream, and you get the picture.

A bad habit certainly comes with a craving, too. However, it is nowhere as intense as the craving an addict would experience.

2. Serious withdrawal symptoms.

As previously noted, these are significant, potentially life-threatening physical and/or psychological symptoms. Some, like the delirium tremens (or DT’s) from alcohol withdrawal, require hospitalization and medical support.

3. Compulsion.

Compulsion is obsessive behavior, focused on the source of the addiction. It can include daydreaming about it, incessant talking about it, scheduling your day around or spending most of your time with others involved with it.

4. Consequences.

The consequences of most habits are fairly benign. However, the consequences for the addict are almost always negative and, again, potentially life-threatening.

The biggest difference is that the addict knows the consequences and yet chooses to continue the behavior. Perhaps “chooses” is too strong a word, but the consequences facing them are simply insufficient to overcome their compulsion for the substance or behavior.

5. Behavioral changes.

The addict will exhibit behavioral changes way outside those with just a bad habit or two.

Addicts will lie, steal, hide, deny, cheat and do whatever it takes to fuel their addiction. The compulsion is so strong for them, the reward too intense and the withdrawal so painful, they are simply going to do what needs to be done.

Hence, addiction is a form of a bad habit; however, it is one that is much more difficult to break or change.

Compared to breaking an addiction, changing a bad habit is a walk in the park. Unlike a more benign habit like drinking soda, addiction requires extreme measures. Professional help, guidance, counseling, and lockdown centers are all ways to help treat the addict.

Even with such extreme measures, 85% of addicts will relapse at least once.

Final Thoughts

Wow, what a journey!  Apparently changing a habit is a lot more than just “stopping”, regardless of what your friends and family will tell you.

In fact, that may be the hardest part of changing a habit. The well-meaning advice of the people around you saying, “it’s all in your head”.  Technically, I guess they’re right. But breaking habits isn’t just about willpower. It’s about neural connections and pathways; a true, physical change within the brain itself.

There is also the emotional and psychological component of breaking the pleasure loop cycle and replacing that “feel good” habit with a different one.

Don’t forget the subconscious or not fully conscious component of “chunking”, where we do things, from habit, without even thinking about them.

And, no doubt, there is a willpower or desire component also involved.

So many different things go into making and changing a habit, no wonder the scientific geniuses can’t give us a definitive answer as to how long it will take.

Frankly, it’s a wonder that any of us are ever able to change a bad habit, regardless of how long it takes or how hard we try. I guess that habit changing truly highlights the power of the mind and the power we each have to control our own lives and behaviors.

I am so inspired by all of this information and research that I’m going to do something about my own habit. I’m going to sit down tonight, examine my known triggers, identify some good substitution ideas and come up with a solid plan to get off my sugar “addiction”.

I don’t care if it takes 18 days or 265 days or 5 years. As long as I’m working toward changing this habit of mine, I know I’m working toward bettering myself.  That is what’s most important.

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