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How Long Does It Really Take to Form a Habit?

There might not be one magic number, but there are some tips you can follow to form lasting routines.

By Jihan MyersNovember 16, 2023


Stop us if this sounds familiar: At some point in your life, you decided it was time to make some changes. It could have been New Year’s Day, your birthday, the start of a new job, or just a really motivational TikTok you watched on a random Wednesday that did it. No matter the catalyst, we’ve all found ourselves revved up to commit to bold, new habits. 

Maybe you vowed to start working out every morning, for instance. Or drink eight glasses of water a day. Or cut back on ordering so much takeout. And you probably started out with a lot of excitement, optimism, and determination. And then, well… life happened. You overslept and missed your workout, swapped your water for soda, or got stuck working late and ordered pizza.

We’ve all been there. It’s frustrating (and all too relatable) when our I-got-this momentum runs out of gas and we fall back into old patterns. Still, it’s noble and commendable to want to form habits that improve your health and well-being, but sticking to them is always harder than it seems at the outset. 

Here, we’ll explain why that is, plus the science of behavior changes and how long it really takes to form a habit.

What Is a Habit?

A habit is generally defined as something that’s performed automatically without much thought. Habits tend to feel like a part of the fabric of your life—you do them subconsciously and they don’t require motivation to happen. 

Habits can be both good or bad, or simply neutral. Everyone’s routines will generate different habits, like checking Instagram before getting out of bed in the morning, drinking a cup of coffee soon after waking, or simply putting on your shoes before walking out the door. 

When you can turn healthy choices into habits, you’re more likely to keep them up. If, for instance, you notice that you no longer think twice about meeting your friend for a yoga class every Tuesday night or roll out of bed and head right to your bike for an indoor cycling workout most mornings, these are signs you’ve incorporated these behaviors into your way of living so they feel like second nature.

How Long It Really Takes to Build a New Habit

The short answer: It depends. One small study found that it takes, on average, 66 days for a new habit to stick, but even that research showed that the range among study subjects spanned from just 18 days to 254 days. Another study found that it can take a few weeks to make simple changes stick, while more challenging habits, like going to the gym, could take up to seven months to feel habitual. Meanwhile, some health professionals say it generally takes about 10 weeks to create new habits.

For a long time, there was a popular myth that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but this ultimately wasn’t based on any solid research. And anyone who’s actually tried to commit to a new healthy routine knows there’s no magic number. As it turns out, there are a lot of variables that play a role in turning any action into a behavior that feels easy and automatic. But when you stick with your routines, they can pay off big time.

Benefits of Forming Healthy Habits

When you commit to long-term fitness and wellness habits, you’ll see a positive ripple effect across your entire life. No matter the goal in question—exercising more, getting enough sleep, practicing daily mindfulness, you name it—habits can make the task feel automatic and simple, which allows you to experience the benefits of the habit itself. 

For instance, let’s say you want to increase your daily step count, so you decide to start going for walks during your lunch hour. After a while, that walk feels like an obvious, easy choice every day come lunchtime. As a result, you experience all the benefits of walking workouts (like better mental health and lower blood pressure, for starters) thanks to the habit that made those strolls feel possible in the first place.

The benefits you’ll experience from your own healthy habits will vary by the specific routines you create, of course. But in general, forming healthy habits offers us many long-term benefits to our overall well-being.

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4 Tips for Creating (and Maintaining) New Habits

“Remember these two hacks to habit formation: Find something that's fun to do and something that's easy,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, provost professor emerita of psychology and business at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “This advice might seem obvious, but it's not what we typically do when we try to change our behavior.” 

With those two tips in mind, here are more ways to increase the odds you’ll stick to a new habit:

1. Lean Into Repetition

“The key to habit formation is repetition in a consistent context,” says Phillippa Lally, PhD, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Surrey. What she means is that habits don’t happen in isolation. You’re more likely to follow through when you not only create a plan, but also create an environment that supports that plan. Then, keep it consistent by focusing on setting up your environment the same way each time. 

“For example, if you want to be better about using your Peloton in the morning, make sure you have laid out your exercise clothes the night before,” Lally says. “This sounds very simple, but we often don’t take the time to set ourselves up for success.” 

The next time you’re committing to a new habit, look around and assess if you have the right conditions in place. If you want to drink more water, for instance, is your water bottle clean, filled, and in the fridge each night so it’s ready for you first thing in the morning? 

2. Have Fun

“There is some evidence that the more rewarding a behavior is at the moment it is performed, the faster habits will form,” Lally says. “Therefore, if you want to form a new habit, choose something that you enjoy, or pair it with something enjoyable.”

Sounds easy enough, but how often do we try to white-knuckle our way through something we think we should do—rather than something we really want to do? It starts by giving yourself grace. When it comes to setting healthy habits, it’s important to focus on what you actually enjoy. Hate kickboxing? Pick another exercise. Can’t stand lentils? Choose another protein-rich food instead.

Seek out healthy habits that you can reasonably come to look forward to, or, at the very least, pair them with something that’s already pleasing for you. If you’re finding it hard to move your body as much as you’d like, can you do it while watching your favorite show? Or can you bring along a friend who always puts you in a good mood? The more you look for ways to make a habit a “want” instead of a “should,” you’ll increase your odds of it becoming a staple in your life.

3. Make It Easy (Like, Really Easy) to Commit

Habit formation requires a level of honesty with yourself. By now, you have enough data from past habit attempts to know which types of actions you’re more likely to follow through on and which ones you tend to slack on. If, for instance, you’ve never been able to stick to a workout routine that requires you to travel far to a fitness class or gym, then don’t make that part of your plan now. “People are more likely to go to the gym when the gym is close by,” Wood says. Or, if your goal is to eat more fruits and vegetables, keep them “at the front of your fridge already cut up and ready to eat,” Wood adds.

4. Focus on Getting Started, Instead of the End Result

So often when we make bold declarations about new habits—I’m going to exercise more! Hit 10,000 steps a day! Eat more vegetables!—we focus on what researchers call the “execution habit,” which is the final step in the process. What we focus less on is the “instigation habit,” which is that tiny step that gets us going in the first place, like lacing up our sneakers, filling up our water bottles, or chopping veggies before snack time later on. 

However, it’s those early steps that should get more of our attention, Lally says. “There is a useful distinction between deciding to get on your bike, and then what you do in the workout,” she says. “Either or both parts of the action, the instigation or the execution, may or may not be habitual. The part that matters in predicting whether people do it or not is the instigation part. Just begin, even if you don’t necessarily plan to do a long workout, as it is the habit of starting that you are trying to form. Then, you can build up the actual activity over time.”

Overcoming Common Challenges in Habit Development

If there’s one universal truth to habit formation, it’s this: Things will get in the way. No matter how committed we are, life always has a way of mucking up our best-laid plans. Instead of feeling defeated by obstacles that will inevitably creep up, plan for them. Here’s how:

The Obstacle: Dwindling Motivation

The fix: It’s natural for your motivation to dip after the initial high of your new routine starts to wear off. Experts agree that you can’t rely too much on self-control if you’re in this for the long haul. “The first thing people typically do is they try to motivate themselves, thinking of all the reasons why they should get healthier,” Wood says. “They exert self-control to make themselves engage in a new behavior. Self-control is fine if you only need to do something once or a couple of times in order to reach your goal, but health isn't like this. Few of us can continually control our actions.” Instead of relying on motivation, you have to fall back on an easy, fun plan that makes the habit simple. So simple, in fact, that you don’t need to feel motivated to keep going.

The Obstacle: You’re Not Seeing Changes Fast Enough

The fix: Adjust your expectations. It’s understandable to feel bummed if you expected to notice results soon after starting your habit, but that’s often not realistic. Setting practical goals is more likely to keep you engaged. In fact, research has found that people who felt positive about their progress were more likely to keep going than those who didn’t.

The Obstacle: Life Hiccups

The fix: At some point, your new habit will be challenged by factors outside of your control (your kid gets the flu, your car gets a flat). To prepare for this, make a list of if-then statements that account for the most likely scenarios. If I get too busy to make a healthy lunch, then I’ll order something nutritious from (insert a local healthy takeout option). If I don’t have time for my usual workout, then I’ll make sure to schedule a shorter workout later in the day to get in some movement.

If-then statements allow for flexibility, which can work in your favor. In one study, exercisers were paid to work out on either a consistent or variable schedule. The group who went to the gym on a more flexible schedule worked out more when they were being paid and after the payments stopped, compared to those who had to show up at the same time. If-then statements allow for a built-in backup plan, which may help you stay on track even when life goes off the rails.

The Takeaway

When it comes to forming healthy habits, you’re the best predictor of your future success. Lean into habits you can realistically commit to. And don’t get hung up on how long it’s going to take—instead, focus on making your new habit as easy and fun as possible to increase your chances of sticking with it.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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