Put the Forces of Habit to Work for Your Health Goals

March 31, 2011 3:35 PM by sandik

Sandi Kaplan, MS, RD, Associate Director, Clinical Development & Support:


A Mind & Body® Program participant recently asked how long it would take before her new healthy habits became second nature.

She had started walking for 30 minutes each evening and was lamenting that after two weeks, she still felt like she was having to remember to fit her walks into her routine. She wanted her walks to feel as automatic as brushing her teeth before bed. She was essentially asking how long it takes to form new habits.

What a great question! How long do we have to perform a task before we no longer have to use conscious thought and self-control to make it happen?

The answer depends on the individual. Some people form habits more quickly than others do.

This interesting topic is explored in a recent article, “How Long to Form a Habit?” The author cites a European Journal of Social Psychology study in which researchers recruited 96 people who were each interested in forming a new habit, such as eating a piece of fruit with lunch or doing a 15-minute run each day. They were asked each day how automatic the new behaviors felt. These questions included verbiage like whether the behavior was 'hard not to do' and could be done 'without thinking'.

On average, it took 66 days for a behavior to feel as automatic as it was ever going to feel. Overall, people took anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form the habits examined in this study. Some of this variation relates to the different habits that were being formed. Not surprisingly, drinking a glass of water every day is an easier habit to form than doing 50 sit-ups. Yet some of the variation depends on the individual’s capacity to form habits. It takes some people much longer to form habits than others.

A few valuable points to keep in mind:

• People who practiced their habits a lot at first formed the habit more quickly.
• Missing a single day here and there did not reduce the likelihood of forming the habit.
• The more difficult the behavior, the longer it may take you to form that habit.

So, remember to be gentle with yourself — forming even simple new habits can take a while. Even when you find it hard to stay motivated and feel like you’re just going through the motions, don’t give up. You’re laying the foundation for new habits.

Although it may take over two months of daily or almost daily repetition before a new behavior becomes habit, the payoff of long-term lifestyle improvements is well worth the time and effort.

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