The World of Work Project

Habits: How Long Does it Take to Form Them?

How long it takes to form a habit is debated. Many people say it takes 21 days, but this isn’t supported by evidence. The evidence that does exist suggests an average of 66 days. However, everything is variable and there are no specific rules of thumb for how long it takes to form a habit.

Summary by The World of Work Project

How long does it take to form a habit?

The boring, honest answer is that it’s probably longer than you’d like and that there is no hard and fast rule that works for every activity for every person.

How long will it take you to make exercise a habit? It depends…

There is a lot of discussion about habit formation on the internet and in various self help work which says it takes 21 days to for a habit. Unfortunately, there is little specific evidence to support this. The evidence that does exist, per a paper by Phillipa Lally which looked at 96 people attempting to adopt a variety of new habits, found that it took on average 66 days for them to do so.

Of course, this is only an average across these specific individuals for the specific habits they were looking to adopt in the contexts of their specific lives. As such, we don’t think it’s a hard or fast rule. The point though is that, per this research, it takes far more than the generally quoted 21 days to learn a new habit.

And the take-away from that is that you shouldn’t give up too soon…

Learning More

Habits are powerful things. We can get so used to things that we basically automate them. When this happens it is known as automaticity. Some product designers use their knowledge of habit loops to create fairly addictive products to increase engagement with them. An example of this is the Hook model of behavior design.

Habits also play a key role in personal behavior and behavior change. There are several different models that look at this type of change including the Kubler-Ross change curve and Transtheoretical Model.

You might also find this podcast on behavior change interesting.

The World of Work Project View

We think that there’s little benefit in thinking about how long it will take to form a new habit, beyond thinking that it will not be quick and that it will take some dedication. If the difference between 66 and 21 days puts someone off trying to form a new habit, then there are potentially different things they should be looking to address.

From an individual perspective, forming habits takes time and dedication, and might require some help. An overarching point that we come back to from time to time is that there are no real quick fixes, and the same goes for habits.

From an organizational or leadership perspective, they key point of this post is that you can’t expect people to change instantly and do things in new ways, without a significant transition period. And everyone will differ in how long their transition period is, and the transition periods required will vary with the nature and complexity of the new habits you are looking to introduce within your team or organization.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post is based on some general reading, but also on a specific article by Phillippa Lally, “How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world“.


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