What makes a habit into a habit is not thinking about what we’re doing. The brain goes on to autopilot, and we do what we’ve always done – a cornerstone for survival! New habits tend to sneak up on us. Suddenly we’ve added bad habits or changed our behaviour. This tendency for habits to sneak stealthily into our lives means we should watch out – bad habits can pop up from ‘nowhere’.

Something to look out for: exceptions. Maybe you’re like me and think ‘it’s not so bad – I’ve only done it once’ – and then, a while later, it’s there, the unwanted bad habit. In other words, what we may see as a harmless exception can turn into … that very thing, a habit.

Why do we do what we do?

Our brains prefer not to waste energy needlessly and – ideally – not to think more than they have to. So much of what we do is done on autopilot. That is why we need to proactively incorporate new habits by making a decision and working in a structured way to create a new habit. There is no quick fix but there are established tools for doing this successfully.

Why do we do what we do?

Research has shown that learning to create new behaviours in the brain is done by ‘packaging’ the behaviours together into a habit. This occurs in three stages:

  1. A new behaviour begins. This is where positive and negative rewards help us navigate the behaviour.
  2. A new habit is formed when you repeat the behaviour. Routines are imprinted in the brain.
  3. The habit becomes established and automatic. You no longer need to think about why you should do something in a particular way.

What is required of you? Changing habits is usually both extremely hard and uncomfortable, which means that we often avoid doing it. We choose to remain in our comfort zone and continue to do what we have always done.

One explanation for why it is difficult to change habits is that we choose short-term rewards rather than a reward that is further off in the future. You would prefer to stay in your comfort zone rather than take the tougher route to get the long-term reward!

How long does it take – 18, 21, 66, 90 or 254 days?

The myth and cliché that it should take 21 days to create a new habit was first introduced by Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1950s. He discovered that his patients who had had facial surgery needed an average of 21 days to get used to their new face. The same applied when a patient had had a leg amputated – the person felt phantom pain for about 21 days before they became accustomed to their new situation. So he quickly came to the conclusion that at least about 21 days were needed for an old mental image to be replaced by a new one. The rumour spread and soon the quotation was shortened to: ‘It takes just 21 days to form a new habit!’, a saying that has unfortunately taken hold.

Considerably more reliable research on habits – and there are not many such studies – agree that to turn a desired behaviour into a habit you need to:

  • practise the habit regularly at least twice a week
  • keep the habit going for at least 26 weeks.

However, later studies suggest that most people need to exercise self-control for a much longer period of time.

A well-designed study by the Health Research Centre at University College London concluded that it took 18–254 days for various desired behaviours to become habits, of which 90 days is the average for ‘complex’ behaviours such as exercise. ‘Simple’ behaviours, such as eating particular things, took less time to become habits. These and other studies concluded that behaviours continue to become more automatic over time. Every successive repetition builds on the previous one, with the cumulative effect being the more essential aspect than the frequency.

You want to lose weight and get fit. The reward – weight loss – will take time and requires a considerable degree of discipline. The short-term reward, skipping your exercise session to enjoy watching TV with a nice bag of crisps, tends to be much more appealing. We often say to ourselves that ‘I’ll do the exercise session in the morning’ and postpone the exercise and the diet.

Another survey done on 96 people shows that it takes an average of 66 days to get used to a new habit – e.g. to eat fruit or run for 15 minutes every day. The study also shows that it is easier to create a new habit than to get rid of one. If you are to get rid of a habit, you are most likely to succeed by replacing it with something else.

To summarise …

There are no quick fixes from one week to the next. It takes an average of 66–90 days for a habit to become established and to feel like a natural part of your daily routine. The study’s researchers also discovered that if you forget, skip or don’t have the energy to do what you intend to do, it does not have a negative effect on the process in the long run.

My best tips:

  • Get help – it’s going to take time
  • Starting is the hardest and most important thing
  • Set up clear interim goals and rewards

We at Trainimal Woman help you to break bad old habits and establish good new ones – for a sustainable lifestyle! Our memberships run for 30 days, 90 days, 180 days and 360 days.

By Birgitta Thörn


Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts and Jane Wardle (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, Volume 40, Issue 6, pages 998–1009, October 2010

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65–94