The common belief that it takes three weeks to break bad habits has its roots in the 1960s book, Psycho-Cybernetics, by plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. In his book, Maltz noticed that it took an average of 21 days for his patients to get used to their new and improved faces.
However, a more recent study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology puts the timeframe to cut loose from your bad habits at 66 days, with individual results varying between 18 to 254 days.
The time it takes to form a good habit may vary depending on the severity of the old habit and how long you’ve had it. Besides, habits can take time to change, because they’re, well… habits. Here are some tips to help you kick them to the kerb for good.
1. Break habits one at a time
Use your willpower wisely – choose one habit at a time that you want to change. In a psychological theory called ego depletion, exercising willpower in one area reduces your ability to exert self-control in other areas. So don’t tackle chocolate cravings at the same time you’re trying to tame your love of shopping.
2. Walk before you run – take tiny steps towards change
Be realistic about your goals. A habit that has taken months or years to form will not disappear overnight! Research says allow yourself an average of 66 days to drop off a bad habit.
Be patient with yourself and instead of making dramatic adjustments, focus on the smallest steps you can take to "trick your inner caveman". With food and dieting, for example, small changes like cutting your coffee’s sugar in half can make significant changes in the long run.
3. Focus on good habits
Look for alternatives to your bad habits. If you want to cut down on television time, find books that could be a substitute or pound the pavement for 30 minutes. Similarly, the next time you feel stressed, you could give a friend a buzz or clean the pantry and remove the sugary treats instead of biting your nails.
4. Plan for some failure
Bad habits are not always easy to get rid of, or replace, so you should understand that you may have slip-ups. If they occur, it is important not to feel defeated or lose hope.
Before you kick yourself for ditching the gym for a night on the couch, remember you’re human. What will make you successful is your ability to bounce back quickly so don’t let a setback throw you completely off track.
5. Treat yourself
Breaking bad habits is a no small feat. To keep yourself on track, reward yourself for all the mini-milestones you achieve. Maybe consider a point system – assign yourself points for every success and when you’ve accumulated enough points – treat yourself with something healthy.
6. Get professional help
If your bad habit is starting to affect your lifestyle negatively – and you’re struggling to give it up by yourself – it may be time to seek the help of an expert or a medical practitioner.