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First, to gauge whether a habit is helpful or harmful, performance psychologist Haley Perlus, PhD, recommends asking yourself:
- Does my habit jeopardize my physical or mental health?
- Does my habit waste my energy and time?
- Does my habit prevent me from accomplishing my goals?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your habit isn't useful. "Once the habit is not beneficial to you — like biting your nails or texting while driving — you should take it as a sign to try and break it," Perlus says.
Here, Perlus explains how long it takes to kick a habit to the curb, plus tips for how to do it successfully.
While some research says it takes about two months to break a habit, there's no definitive timeline. What's most important is staying consistent in your efforts to stop a behavior.
How Many Days Does It Take to Break a Habit?
Turns out there's no magic number for how long it takes to break a habit. "The amount of time it may take can vary from person to person and depends on the kind of habit you're trying to stop," Perlus says.
That's what researchers of a small July 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology concluded as well. It took anywhere from 18 to 254 days to alter a habit for participants who were trying to change a behavior related to more nutritious eating, drinking or exercise. Most people fell somewhere in the middle, taking an average of 66 days to shift their routine patterns.
Still, this number isn't set in stone, and newer, larger studies are needed to better establish an average timeline.
Plus, everyone's situation is unique. So rather than focus on time, concentrate on consistency, which appears to be the key to kicking a habit in the long run. Case in point: The same researchers found that those who repeated a behavior most frequently — especially early in the process — had better outcomes.
4 Tips to Help You Break a Habit
Quitting a habit is difficult but not impossible. If you're intentional, consistent and patient, you can boot a behavior that's not in your self-interest. Here are some strategies, courtesy of Perlus:
1. Identify Your Triggers
Spend time tracking your behavior and identify what triggers it, Perlus says. For example, you may tend to bite your nails if you're feeling stressed or bored.
When you better understand what causes you to lean on a habit, you have a better shot at disrupting and deviating from the pattern, she says.
2. Change Your Environment
"Your surroundings can have a significant impact on your habits," Perlus says. Your environment — including the people you spend time with — can either help or hinder your goal of breaking a behavior pattern.
Modifying your space allows you to set yourself up for a successful outcome, Perlus says. "For example, if you procrastinate, you may want to set up a workspace that does not contain a TV, game console or any other distractions that take away from your focus," she says.
Similarly, if you're trying to quit smoking, you may need to distance yourself from the pals you usually puff with to help you stick to your intentions.
3. Reward Yourself
"Breaking a habit can be one of the most difficult tasks to take on," Perlus says. So don't forget to acknowledge how far you've come and celebrate the little wins, no matter how long it takes to break a habit.
This will also help you stay motivated. "If you focus on the progress you've made rather than the minor slip-ups, you can boost your confidence and increase your drive to keep going forward," Perlus says.
4. Replace Unwanted Habits With New Ones
Breaking a habit that's not useful is an amazing feat. And swapping it with a healthier behavior is icing on the cake.
"If you start repeating a new behavior in place of an old one, it can make it easier to replace the unwanted habit," Perlus says. Plus, when the new habit promotes good health, it's a win-win.
For example, instead of cracking your knuckles when you're bored (old habit), you can reach for a fidget spinner or stress ball (new habit).
Ready to get started? Try this 7-day plan to kickstart healthier habits.