Last year on his blog, Jay Z announced that he and Beyoncé were going on a 22-day vegan-only diet, writing, “Psychologists have said it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. On the 22nd day, you’ve found the way.”
Nice rhyme—but not necessarily true. In fact, much of what we think we know about habits can be downright counterproductive. It can take months, even years, to build healthy habits, whether you want to quit smoking, start eating better, or just go to the gym more regularly.
Here, the best ways to create good habits that will last a lifetime.
That’s right, it can actually take two months or more to create a solid habit, according to a groundbreaking-but-overlooked University College London study, “How Are Habits Formed,” and follow-up paper, “Making Health Habitual.”
So where’d the “21 days” come from? “This myth appears to have originated from anecdotal evidence of patients who had received plastic surgery treatment and typically adjusted psychologically to their new appearance within 21 days,” study head Phillippa Lally, Ph.D., writes.
Hardly the template to follow to hit the gym more or drop a pack-a-day habit.
In the London study, however, 96 subjects chose an eating, drinking, or activity behavior to carry out daily in the same context (like right after breakfast) and kept a log. When they did the behavior automatically, without thinking, 95 percent of the time, bingo—they had a new habit.
Here’s the kicker: Studywide, the time subjects needed to reach the “automatic” stage ranged from 18 to 254 (!) days, with the average being 66.
So don’t set yourself up for failure by expecting to change your life in three weeks—it just doesn’t work that way.
Perhaps the best treatise on habit building in recent years is the best-seller The Power of Habit, by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Charles Duhigg. He created a system he calls “the loop,” which breaks habits into three actions: a cue (the trigger that reminds you to perform a habit), a routine (the action you do automatically), and a reward (the payoff you feel you get).
Say you’re trying to make a habit of going to the gym in the morning. First, you need a cue: It could be as simple as laying your clothes out at night so you see them first thing; leaving your gym bag by the door so you trip on it as you leave; or setting the coffeemaker to brew automatically so there’s caffeine to get you going.
Next comes the routine: You go and work out at the gym. This is the part that will, with practice, become automatic once you’ve repeated it so many times it’s an ingrained part of your behavior.
Finally, you need a reward to congratulate yourself for following through. It may sound excessive, but it’s key to the process. After all, how many things in life would you do willingly, over and over, if you never got anything back? (Marriage doesn’t count.) So buy a spiced latte or play your most upbeat song—anything to help rewire your brain to feel better about the habit and want to repeat it.
Now, to change an old habit or break one like smoking, you’ll need to slightly modify the approach, Duhigg writes.
“To change a habit, you must keep the old cue and deliver the old reward but insert a new routine.” For example, if every time you exit a staff meeting (the cue) you smoke (the routine) to relieve your stress (the reward), you won’t be able to quit till you’ve found a new reward that follows that cue (the meeting) and provides that payoff (stress relief). Try various rewards till you find one that works—maybe a short walk outside, a funny YouTube break, or your favorite candy.
Of course, tough habits like smoking rely on multiple cues and rewards all day long, so try to figure each one out—not easy, but definitely worth the trouble.
“Changing it up” may be a good way to avoid boredom in the bedroom, but it’s the enemy of efficient habit creation.
“Repeating a single action (for example, eating a banana) in a consistent context (with cereal at breakfast) is very different from the typical advice given to people trying to take up new behaviors, which often emphasizes variation to maintain interest (like trying different fruits with or between different meals),” Lally writes in her paper.
Aiming for variety takes extra effort and motivation, she says, which makes creating “automatic” habits even harder. Pick one cue, behavior, and reward, and stick with them till the habit’s ironclad.
In the London study, researchers logged when a subject “missed an opportunity” (didn’t perform a habit after having done it three days in a row), then calculated how often those screwups caused subjects to fall completely off the wagon.
Answer: Almost never.
“Missing one opportunity...did not materially affect the habit-formation process,” the study found. “There were no longer-term costs associated with a single omission.” So don’t fret about occasional bumbles—your habit building can still proceed without a hitch.
In Rewire: Change Your Brain to Break Bad Habits, Richard O’Connor, Ph.D., cites a Harvard study in which subjects practiced a one-handed piano exercise two hours a day for five days. Afterward, it was found, the brain area that controls the fingers was enlarged and enriched.
No big deal, right?
Then researchers asked one group to keep practicing for a month, another to stop practicing, and a third to only mentally practice. At the end, the earlier brain changes had disintegrated in the nonpracticing group, improved in the practicing group—and improved, to almost the same degree, in the group that only mentally practiced.
If you’re building a habit, mental rehearsals and internal pep talks could actually improve your chances. Like the piano players, envision yourself performing your habit, for example, eating a healthy dinner instead of pizza, and that area of your brain will grow stronger.
“Undertow,” or “the seemingly mysterious power that seems to wreck our attempts to escape self-destructive behavior just when we start to feel safe,” is the unconscious force that can derail good habits, says O’Connor in Rewire.
But there are ways to gain the advantage. Admitting that we’re powerless over self-destructive behavior and that the “undertow” is a natural part of building better habits are key. “Accept that you have to make big changes in how your mind works in order to stop your self-destructive behavior,” he writes.
One big help: mindfulness. Yes, it borders on cliché lately, but being able to stay self-aware moment by moment.
Sticking with a habit for months on end is tough, but tech can lighten the load.
One great app is HabitBull for Android. It doesn’t just remind you to do a task—with funny messages, if you choose— it also creates a “habit streak” (“Ten days straight without a doughnut, whooooeee!”) you won’t want to break.
On iOS, the Way of Life app tracks habits in day-to-day charts, so it’s easy to visualize both the good and the bad.
Finally, let Andrew Shamel’s Mindful app remind you several times a day to take a mindfulness break, like a brief meditation, a moment of reflection, or deep breathing—great habit reinforcers.
Or just tell Siri, “Set a reminder at 4 p.m. to eat some nuts,” or use GPS to alert you the next time you pass a vape store. Habit building’s tough enough, so why not use all the help you can get?
Mario Armstrong, a digital lifestyle expert, appears regularly on NBC's Today and CNN.