How long does it take to learn a new habit

“From today on I leave that awful, attractive roll of cookies untouched, but really … In fact, I do not even take that roll of cookies into my home.” Everyone has ever made such decisions. These are decisions with which we want to improve our lifestyle, fitness and health. However, it is not easy, because we keep that annoying, nagging voice in our minds for a long time. The voice that makes that cookie very attractive. How long do you have to sustain your new habit before you lose that voice? When will it become a habit?

Learned behaviour

Several theories indicate that learned behavior arises as a reaction to a stimulus. Consider, for example, the experiments of Pavlov, in which a dog starts to drool (learned behavior) in response to a bell (after which the food usually comes). The same also applies to people. We learn new behavior by experiencing a reward ourselves if we perform the behavior or by seeing in others that their behavior is rewarded. This can be a big reward (such as money or a slim body), but also a small reward (like sociability).

Sometimes our reactions are unconscious and non-intentional. In other words, this is automatic behavior. On the other hand, other reactions can take place completely controlled and consciously. We analyze the situation, list the alternatives and consequences and choose the best response. People are quick to fall back on reactions that first arise in them, namely the unconscious, non-intentional, automatic behavior. This happens, for example, when you watch TV and consume a bag of crisps. Or if you drink a glass of cola in the evening when you are thirsty. If you have been doing this regularly for a long time, this behavior is becoming more and more a habit. You can compare this with your favorite pants; it is comfortable and you feel comfortable with this. The more it has become a habit,

Changing behavior

If the most obvious, automatic behavior no longer meets the needs, or if we are no longer satisfied with the result, we can break this automatic behavior. The fact that you were always accustomed to eating cookies in the afternoon does not automatically mean that you will continue to do so for the rest of your life. If you notice that your figure changes, you can choose not to eat cookies in the afternoon. This requires planning. Do you take an alternative? And which snack then becomes the alternative? It also demands attention and awareness. You will have to consciously reflect on your new behavior every day. The longer you maintain this (and the more often you repeat this), the more efficient and the less aware this new behavior will become. It also seems to be of extra help if you practice and repeat your new habit in the same setting. It will be a new automatism; a habit.

A matter of time?

In 2009, 96 Englishmen investigated how long it took for a new behavior (in the area of ??nutrition, drinking or sports) to become a habit. In the end, the data of 39 English were used. The time they needed to learn a new habit varied from 18 days (2.5 weeks) to 254 days (36 weeks). The median (the middle number) was 66 days (9.5 weeks). Just as in reality, it happened to these participants that they had forgotten their new habit one day. The next day they picked up their new behavior again. This one-off relapse turned out to have only a small influence on learning the new behavior (the degree of automatism) the day after. In the long term it had no influence at all on learning the new behavior.

Another approach is the Transtheoretical Model (or the Stages of Change model). This is a model for behavioral change that many health professionals use in practice. The model consists of five or six phases, one of which is called the action phase. During the action phase, someone actively gets started with learning a new habit. According to the Transtheoretical Model, this would take about three to six months (± 12 to 24 weeks).

In everything that we develop ourselves, the brain will also develop. According to Professor Jaap Murre (Professor of Theoretical Neuropsychology at the University of Amsterdam) it takes at least 42 days (6 weeks) to practice and repeat new behavior before it is a habit and feels comfortable. You need these six weeks to consolidate and integrate the new brain structures (as a result of your behavioral change) with the already existing neural networks in the brain. As a result, in these six weeks the brain will construct a new preferential pattern (with regard to our behavior). Brain research indeed shows that brain activity declines as new behavior has become a habit (automatism). That means it does not cost much attention anymore.

Frequency and complexity

It is necessary to practice and repeat a new learning behavior often enough and long enough before it becomes a habit. For example, thirty years ago Ronis, Yates and Kirscht (1988) suggested that you should practice and repeat a habit at least twice a month and in total at least ten times. The aforementioned English study, however, indicates that much more exercise and repetition is needed.

Perhaps something you repeat several times a day is easier than something that you repeat once a week. The complexity of your newly acquired behavior also plays a role. Drinking one glass of water every day when you get up is less complex (and easier) than putting the alarm clock on a daily basis to start running for half an hour. In that case, it may take longer for your new behavior to become a habit.


During behavioral change:

Make sure you know why you want to change your behavior. The benefits of the new behavior should weigh more heavily for you than the disadvantages of the new behavior. Why is the new behavior rewarding for you?
Look for a (respected by you) person in your area who supports you and gives you positive attention.

You can best break through your old behavior by placing a new habit ‘over it’. Repeat this in the same setting. Did you always have cookies in the afternoon when you came home from work? Now, for example, eat one piece of fruit in the afternoon when you come home from work.
Provide a good preparation (and a good plan). Take for example the temptations out of sight and ensure healthy alternatives.

Consider the successes you have achieved and be proud of this. Is there still something wrong now and then? Give yourself feedback and adjust if necessary.

During relapse

moments : Fallback is inevitable. That’s part of it. As the English study also showed, a one-off relapse does not have to affect your new habit. The most important thing is how you handle it at that moment. Ingrid Steenhuis (professor of Prevention at the Free University of Amsterdam) and Wil Overtoom (change management expert and coach) give the following tips for relapse moments in their book ‘Backslide and Seduction’:

Stop, look and listen to yourself. What happened? Under what circumstances did this happen? Were there warning signs? What preceded it?
Stay calm. Realize that one mistake is not yet a failure.
Replace negative (non-helping) thoughts with more constructive thoughts. Instead of ‘One error is total failure’ you can think better, for example ‘It is normal that it occasionally goes wrong. That is not bad, as long as you get up and continue. ‘
Renew your commitment. Think about your motivation. Why do you want to change your behavior again?

Learn from this moment and make a plan for next relapses. Call the next time for example the person who supports you and gives positive attention.

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