It takes 66 days to form a habit

October 20, 2010 by
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

One of the main ideas to emerge from the Social Brain Steering group in year one of our project is that the dynamics of human behaviour are best captured in a three-part rather than two-part relationship.

We are not just a controlled system and an automatic system, in which our automatic and largely unconscious behaviours are supplemented and informed by occasional conscious deliberation. In fact our behaviour is mostly habitual.

Habits are important because they define who we are, but also because they can be changed. You breathe automatically, you see automatically, but you think, decide and act habitually. Confucius captures the point nicely when he says:  ‘Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.’

Habits are driven by our automatic (principally limbic) system, and often feel automatic due to the way our brains predict events, and reward us when those predications are accurate, principally through the release of the ‘feel good factor’ in the form of dopamine. But  habits are acquired and conditioned behaviours rather than strictly automatic. They are second nature rather than first, and therefore amenable to the influence of deliberation and reflection.

You breathe automatically, you see automatically, but you think, decide and act habitually.

However, no matter how much knowledge, reflection, and deliberation you bring to bare, you need behaviour to change behaviour.  Thought alone will rarely change a habit, because willpower is scarce and depletable, and rarely sufficient to turn the thought into action on an ongoing basis.

Yet the right kind of thoughts can help you to outsmart your automatic system. By using whatever conscious control you have, you can change your environment, such that your automatic system is not given the fuel of familiarity, and your habitual behaviour is not repeatedly reinforced. ‘Nudge‘ therefore seeks to change what we do by shaping the environment to make best use of what we know about our automatic behaviour.

You can also free yourself from your habits to an extent by shifting your goals and expectations. In this respect,  ‘Think‘ seeks to change our conscious thoughts, such that we change our sense of who we are and what we should want, and thereby recalibrate our habits by seeking out different kinds of reward.

The RSA Steer approach takes the best of both approaches. We seek to bring people’s conscious attention to the power and strength of automaticity,but we also respect the role of conscious deliberation. Changing habits is the main aim of this endeavour, which is one reason why the first principle of our Steer report is that ‘habit is king’.

We know a lot about how hard it is to change bad habits, but much less about how we form good habits. This asymmetry is perhaps in the process of changing, because a recent study authored by Phillippa Lally at UCL suggests that it takes about 66 days for a behaviour to become habitual, by which she means completed without thinking about it. Commentary on this finding can be found here and some ruminations about different numbers of days for different kinds of habits can be found here.

66 days? In other words it is not easy to form a good habit. You need repeated practice, and need to find a way to keep motivation high. As Canadian Magician Doug Henning once put it:

‘The hard must become habit.  The habit must become easy.  The easy must become beautiful.’

Comments

  • Jules Evans

    Hi Jonathan,

    Good post. Made me think of some parallels with ancient Greek philosophy:

    The Greeks were good on the importance of making the automatic conscious, and the conscious automatic (ie forming good habits). Greek philosophy is based on the idea of askesis, or repeated exercise and training, which turns our conscious insights into automatic habits, so that they become ‘second nature’, as Aristotle put it.

    Aristotle wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit…It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”

    The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus insists that, just as athletes become stronger through repeated training, so too “the learning of lessons appropriate to every virtue should always be followed by training.”

    We have to repeat exercises over and over, until we have turned our conscious insights into automatic habits. Epictetus told his students: “If you want to do something, make it a habit; and if you want not to do something, abstain from doing it, and acquire the habit of doing something else in its place.”

    Mindfulness, for example, is a habit. And mindlessness is also a habit. Epictetus warned: “When you relax your attention for a bit, do not fancy you will recover it whenever you please; but remember this, that because of your fault today your affairs must necessarily be in a worse state on future occasions. First, and this is the gravest consequence, a habit arises in you of not paying attention”.

    All best

    Jules

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Jules, It seems no matter what you say, the Greeks have already said it!I particularly like the expression ‘making the automatic conscious, and the conscious automatic (ie forming good habits)’As you noted, making mindfulness a habit is crucial because most of us already suffer from the fact that a ‘habit has arisen in us of not paying attention’. This is indeed of ‘the gravest consequence’. Last Thursday’s RSA event on Future Minds suggests that this habit is becoming more pervasive, reinforced by technology that serves to shorten attention spans and continually distract us.

  • Jules Evans

    Hi Jonathan,

    Good post. Made me think of some parallels with ancient Greek philosophy:

    The Greeks were good on the importance of making the automatic conscious, and the conscious automatic (ie forming good habits). Greek philosophy is based on the idea of askesis, or repeated exercise and training, which turns our conscious insights into automatic habits, so that they become ‘second nature’, as Aristotle put it.

    Aristotle wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit…It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”

    The Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus insists that, just as athletes become stronger through repeated training, so too “the learning of lessons appropriate to every virtue should always be followed by training.”

    We have to repeat exercises over and over, until we have turned our conscious insights into automatic habits. Epictetus told his students: “If you want to do something, make it a habit; and if you want not to do something, abstain from doing it, and acquire the habit of doing something else in its place.”

    Mindfulness, for example, is a habit. And mindlessness is also a habit. Epictetus warned: “When you relax your attention for a bit, do not fancy you will recover it whenever you please; but remember this, that because of your fault today your affairs must necessarily be in a worse state on future occasions. First, and this is the gravest consequence, a habit arises in you of not paying attention”.

    All best

    Jules

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Jules, It seems no matter what you say, the Greeks have already said it!I particularly like the expression ‘making the automatic conscious, and the conscious automatic (ie forming good habits)’As you noted, making mindfulness a habit is crucial because most of us already suffer from the fact that a ‘habit has arisen in us of not paying attention’. This is indeed of ‘the gravest consequence’. Last Thursday’s RSA event on Future Minds suggests that this habit is becoming more pervasive, reinforced by technology that serves to shorten attention spans and continually distract us.

  • John Macgregor

    Intriguing stuff, though the Steer Report was too dense for the average person to get through – & not that lucidly written IMO.

    Also I couldn’t find much in the way of practical steps – what you are meant to do to change habits.

    • Anonymous

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the clear and pointed feedback. I didn’t write Steer, but it has had a lot of positive feedback on style and substance. It is very hard to write about the complexities of human behaviour in a lucid way, and I personally think Matt did a good job.
      In any case, Steer was a promising outline of a model of behaviour change that actively works with people to change behaviour rather than just shifting the environment to shape their automatic decisions. I wrote a short blog about it (http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/06/changing-behaviour-change/) just after it came out to make sense of what I understood as its core message.
      In terms of practical steps to change habits, we are working on it, but it is important to get the diagnosis right before rushing the prescription. For my own part, I think some sort of personal practice may be necessary to change habits on an ongoing basis, which is why I am trying to get a mindfulness project off the ground.
      Best wishes,
      Jonathan.

      • Jules Evans

        New technology might have a role in spreading mindfulness / attentiveness habits.

        Here’s a piece I wrote for an upcoming issue of Psychologies, looking at what iPhone apps can do in this area – it’s still pretty early days for this technology, but the possibilities are exciting.

        http://www.politicsofwellbeing.com/2010/10/happiness-is-warm-phone.html

        I like the new RSA app by the way – ahead of the game.

        All the best

        Jules

      • John Macgregor

        I probably should have put more emphasis on the positive side of the findings, which are tremendously important.

        But the ‘average’ of 66 days surely needs more explanation. How long might one be expected to take to change habits such as smoking vs. nail-biting vs. not exercising, for instance? I assume it’s not 66 days for all?

        Above, I much enjoyed your (amateur?) Greek scholar’s classical Greek parallels. Seems much ancient psychological wisdom can be validated by science.

        Below, re the ‘new technology’ poster: Unhappily there is a whole school developing which makes plain the disastrous habits that the new technologies themselves are instilling – viz. their role in destroying attention, emotional and educational development in children, etc. A better idea might be to study this phenomenon, as much of it is the result of bad modern habits, such as watching television, and obsessive texting, emailing and Facebook-browsing.

        Finally, what about the very dangerous habit of taking one’s clothes off in public? You did write, after all: “However, no matter how much knowledge, reflection, and deliberation you bring to bare…”

        • Anonymous

          Hi John, I think your concerns about technology are well founded. We had an RSA event recently that explored them in more detail: http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2010/future-minds2
          That said, we have to be sure that appropriate caution doesn’t collapse into generalised fear.
          On the issue of 66 days, I can only refer you to the paper, which is linked in the original blog.

          • John Macgregor

            Scanned through the Steer Report & various supporting docs, & could not find anything on how many days to change one habit vs. another.

            As it was stated that habit X might take a shorter time to break/make than habit Y, I assume there is some data on this somewhere else…?

          • Anonymous

            John, as I mentioned, it’s linked in the original blog. The 66 days finding is based on new research that has no direct link with Steer, beyond the fact that RSA Social Brain cares deeply about understanding habit formation and change.
            As a short cut, please go to http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0908/09080401 for more information on the study about 66 days.

          • John Macgregor

            Thanks, but that link doesn’t contain any information on how long it takes to change specific habits.

            I read your original story & perhaps 6-8 links from it, so I forget what I read where now. But in general it was claimed that whilst 66 days was an average, complex habits took longer. (I think 184 days was cited as an example for a more complex habit. And I recall a graph showing the 66-day curve for the average, but a slower curve for some form of exercise – perhaps daily push-ups.)

            My question is: where is the data showing the average time it takes to retire or create each of the specific habits measured in the study?

            Thanks again.

  • John Macgregor

    Intriguing stuff, though the Steer Report was too dense for the average person to get through – & not that lucidly written IMO.

    Also I couldn’t find much in the way of practical steps – what you are meant to do to change habits.

    • Anonymous

      Hi John,

      Thanks for the clear and pointed feedback. I didn’t write Steer, but it has had a lot of positive feedback on style and substance. It is very hard to write about the complexities of human behaviour in a lucid way, and I personally think Matt did a good job.
      In any case, Steer was a promising outline of a model of behaviour change that actively works with people to change behaviour rather than just shifting the environment to shape their automatic decisions. I wrote a short blog about it (http://www.leftfootforward.org/2010/06/changing-behaviour-change/) just after it came out to make sense of what I understood as its core message.
      In terms of practical steps to change habits, we are working on it, but it is important to get the diagnosis right before rushing the prescription. For my own part, I think some sort of personal practice may be necessary to change habits on an ongoing basis, which is why I am trying to get a mindfulness project off the ground.
      Best wishes,
      Jonathan.

      • Jules Evans

        New technology might have a role in spreading mindfulness / attentiveness habits.

        Here’s a piece I wrote for an upcoming issue of Psychologies, looking at what iPhone apps can do in this area – it’s still pretty early days for this technology, but the possibilities are exciting.

        http://www.politicsofwellbeing.com/2010/10/happiness-is-warm-phone.html

        I like the new RSA app by the way – ahead of the game.

        All the best

        Jules

      • John Macgregor

        I probably should have put more emphasis on the positive side of the findings, which are tremendously important.

        But the ‘average’ of 66 days surely needs more explanation. How long might one be expected to take to change habits such as smoking vs. nail-biting vs. not exercising, for instance? I assume it’s not 66 days for all?

        Above, I much enjoyed your (amateur?) Greek scholar’s classical Greek parallels. Seems much ancient psychological wisdom can be validated by science.

        Below, re the ‘new technology’ poster: Unhappily there is a whole school developing which makes plain the disastrous habits that the new technologies themselves are instilling – viz. their role in destroying attention, emotional and educational development in children, etc. A better idea might be to study this phenomenon, as much of it is the result of bad modern habits, such as watching television, and obsessive texting, emailing and Facebook-browsing.

        Finally, what about the very dangerous habit of taking one’s clothes off in public? You did write, after all: “However, no matter how much knowledge, reflection, and deliberation you bring to bare…”

        • Anonymous

          Hi John, I think your concerns about technology are well founded. We had an RSA event recently that explored them in more detail: http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2010/future-minds2
          That said, we have to be sure that appropriate caution doesn’t collapse into generalised fear.
          On the issue of 66 days, I can only refer you to the paper, which is linked in the original blog.

          • John Macgregor

            Scanned through the Steer Report & various supporting docs, & could not find anything on how many days to change one habit vs. another.

            As it was stated that habit X might take a shorter time to break/make than habit Y, I assume there is some data on this somewhere else…?

          • Anonymous

            John, as I mentioned, it’s linked in the original blog. The 66 days finding is based on new research that has no direct link with Steer, beyond the fact that RSA Social Brain cares deeply about understanding habit formation and change.
            As a short cut, please go to http://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/news-articles/0908/09080401 for more information on the study about 66 days.

          • John Macgregor

            Thanks, but that link doesn’t contain any information on how long it takes to change specific habits.

            I read your original story & perhaps 6-8 links from it, so I forget what I read where now. But in general it was claimed that whilst 66 days was an average, complex habits took longer. (I think 184 days was cited as an example for a more complex habit. And I recall a graph showing the 66-day curve for the average, but a slower curve for some form of exercise – perhaps daily push-ups.)

            My question is: where is the data showing the average time it takes to retire or create each of the specific habits measured in the study?

            Thanks again.

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