Exactly How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit You Don’t Like?

smoking is a bad habit
Young man smoking cigarette.

How long does it take to break a habit that is costing you relationships and other important things in life? We all have them, but changing our behavior can seem like an uphill battle. The good news is that numerous scientific research shows that, compared to how long it takes to form an unsavory habit, it usually doesn’t take long to break the same. Read on to learn more about how long it takes to break a bad habit and what techniques you can use to make the process easier.

What is a Habit?

A habit is an action that we do often, without even thinking about it. Habits can be both positive and negative, ranging from brushing your teeth twice a day to smoking cigarettes.

Breaking a habit can be difficult and time-consuming, but it is possible. Research suggests that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to break a habit. This time frame is backed up by evidence from a 2009 study research, which examined the new habits of 96 people over 12 weeks and found that the average time it takes for a new habit to form was 66 days.

The 21-Day Rule is often cited as a way to break an unhealthy habit, but this is now considered a myth. The rule simply states that it takes 21 days to break an old habit or form a new one. Essentially, if you do something long enough it becomes habitual. What’s most important is having a plan and being consistent with it.

Once you understand the triggers and cues associated with your habit, you can start to replace the behavior with something healthier or more productive.

It’s important to remember that breaking a habit takes time and patience, but it can be done with dedication and commitment.

Why Habits are Hard to Get Rid Of

Habits are hard to break because they are deeply ingrained in our behavior and can be difficult to alter. It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for anyone to acquire a habit, and the process of breaking the newly acquired habit can be even more challenging. Our brains are wired to repeat the same behaviors, so it takes a conscious effort to replace a habit with a new one.

This is because the neural pathway that was created by the initial habit still exists, making the habit hard to break. To replace the habit, it’s important to first identify the triggers that cause it and then take steps to replace the habit with a new, more desirable one. This could include creating an action plan, rewarding yourself for positive behavior, and seeking support from friends and family. Needless to say, habits are hard to break, but it is possible with the right motivation, inspiration, and dedication.

The Power of Repetition

Repetition is a powerful tool when it comes to forming and breaking habits. The popular belief that it takes 21 days to break an existing habit has been debunked, but the fact that it’s been debunked is also empowering. Habits take practice and repetition to form, so the same is true when it comes to breaking them.

Scientific data informs us that breaking a habit can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days, depending on how much focus and emotional charge you put into breaking the habit. The best way to break free from a habit is by practicing the new behavior and being persistent, even if you backslide or doubt yourself.

Repetition can help you master a giant task with frequent and consistent actions, so if you want to make a habit change, set your expectations for at least two months to eight months and keep going. With your inner strength, courage and determination, it may only take 21 days to change. Don’t give up if you don’t see results right away. Stick with it and you’ll eventually see the results you want!

Understanding Your Triggers

Breaking a habit can be a challenging endeavor. To do so, it’s important to understand the role of triggers in the habit formation or breaking process. Habit change is more successful if you know what ticks you off. Triggers are essentially events or elements that kick off the automatic urge to engage in an unhelpful habit. By understanding the triggers associated with it, you can begin to take steps to change and ultimately overcome it.

The timeframe for breaking a habit can be different for each person. It’s important to set realistic goals and to know your reasons for wanting to break the habit. Additionally, replacing bad habits with better ones is more effective than “breaking” them.

Here’s a practical example when it comes to identifying the triggers. If you’re trying to replace a habit of eating unhealthy snacks with healthy options, you’ll have to identify the triggers that lead you to do this. Is it boredom? Stress? Hunger? Knowing what triggers your habit is the key to replacing it with something better and ultimately helping you reach your goal, in this case, healthy eating.

Learning to discipline yourself and focusing on the end goal over 21 consecutive days is one way to do this. Some people may need more or less than 21 days to break their habit, but staying focused and consistent is essential in any case. Additionally, some people may find that a 30-day trial-and-error period works best for them.

Reframe Your Thinking

One of the best strategies for breaking free of a habit is to use cognitive reframing. This means changing how you think about the habit and replacing negative thoughts with more uplifting, realistic ones. To do this, take some time to slow down your thinking, identify your triggers and pay attention to your environment.

You can also find an accountability partner or use techniques like journaling and positive affirmations to assist along the way.

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit explains how habits work and the best way to change them. He outlines three parts to breaking a habit and these are:

  1. identifying the cue,
  2. changing the routine, and,
  3. creating rewards for yourself.

Identifying the cues can help you recognize when you are about to engage in the habit so you can intervene before it happens. Once you recognize the cue, you can then start to replace the routine with something else, something better. Finally, create rewards for yourself when you do something new and better instead of engaging in the old, destructive habit.

To change a habit, celebrating your small wins en route to the final goal is crucial. This is one of the best tips and tricks you can take from this article. Many people, don’t do this. When you celebrate the small wins, it gives you the inspiration to go for the next little target and overcome the plateau days.

Identify your triggers, reframe your thinking, find an accountability partner and create rewards for yourself when you take steps towards new behaviors.

Replace Bad Habits with Good Ones

I’m not sure about you but ‘replacing’ a habit instead of ‘breaking’ it sounds better to me. Let me know in the comments if you agree. It’s well established on the time it takes to overcome habits that don’t serve you well: it may take anywhere from 18 days and up to change a habit. To this end, it is important to actively replace unhealthy routines with new, healthy ones.

One way to do this is by using the three Rs: reminder, routine, and reward. Reminders can be helpful in recognizing that a bad habit is present, while routine and reward can help you stay on track as you work to replace the bad one with a good one.

Be Aware of Emotional Connections to Habits

The individual and their emotional connection to the habit is the next crucial item to examine. It is important to be aware of the emotional connection to habits as this can often be the determining factor in how long it takes to break them.

To do so, one must recognize the three main parts of a habit: cue, routine, and reward. The cue is the context in which the habit takes place, the routine is the action, and the reward is the satisfaction that comes from performing the action.

Let’s say you want to break an addiction from smoking. The emotional connection is already well established. The cue will be perhaps seeing someone with a cigarette or passing by the spot where you usually smoked during your lunch hour, actually smoking will be the routine and the reward will be the feeling you get after the action.

Once you have identified these components, you can start to become aware of your root emotion and neuropeptide connection that is motivating your behavior. This understanding and recognition of your habits can help you break them by replacing the old routine with a new one that provides an equal or greater reward.

Make Changes Gradually

It can be all too tempting to make a complete change overnight. Miracles do happen but they are not the natural (normal) process. Although making changes to your habits can be a difficult process, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Taking a gradual approach to making small changes can be the key to breaking habits you don’t want and forming good ones.

Here are some practical steps:

Start small. Instead of trying to make major changes all at once, focus on one or two small habits that you want to change. This could be something like drinking more water throughout the day or taking 5 – 10 minutes each morning to meditate. A small step you can start with would be for instance, if your goal is to drink more water, start by drinking one glass of water in the morning and then gradually increase the amount of water you drink throughout the day.

Be consistent. To make changes in your habits, you need to be consistent with your efforts. Make sure that you’re taking your small steps every day and sticking with them. This will help you form a new habit over time. If you find that you’re having difficulty making these changes, enlist the help of a friend or family member who can hold you accountable and provide support.

Reward yourself. Celebrate your successes along the way and reward yourself for sticking with it. This could be something like taking yourself out for ice cream after a successful week or watching a movie after following through with your goal (whatever it is) for a month. Giving yourself rewards will help motivate you to keep going and make it easier to stay on track.

Set Realistic Goals and Expectations

You may have heard of a Chinese proverb that states that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a step”. When it comes to the time it takes to break some unwanted habit, this proverb illustrates the point very well.

You got to be realistic with your expectations. It is important to first set realistic goals and know your reasons for wanting to break the habit in the first place. Breaking down large goals into easy-to-manage steps and behaviors can help you reach your larger goal with less effort. Additionally, setting realistic expectations will help you stay motivated and on track with your goals during the days when you don’t feel like it.

Overall, there is no magic number of days or length of time it will take for you to break a habit, but if you set realistic goals and expectations, you can make progress and get there one step at a time.

Get Support from Friends and Family

When you’re trying to change, as hard as it may seem, it doesn’t have to be done alone. Your friends and family can be great supporting cast when trying to break a habit. Not only can they provide emotional encouragement, but they can also help hold you accountable.

Having a support system in place can make it easier to build new habits and break old ones. Ask friends and family to help you stay motivated and stick with your goal. You could even find a running buddy or someone else who is trying to break similar habits as you to help keep each other on track.

While it’s important to be patient with yourself, having friends and family cheer you on can make the process more enjoyable. Breaking bad habits isn’t easy, but with the right support system in place, it can be much easier to achieve success. Don’t hesitate to reach out to friends and family for assistance when trying to break a habit.

Seek Professional Help if Necessary

Many people struggle with the process of change, so if you’re struggling, you’re in good company. You’ve been used to your habit for so long and it can be difficult to break a habit you’ve been used to for so long. If you’ve been trying and failing to break a bad habit on your own, it may be time to seek professional help.

Therapy or counseling can help you identify the root cause of your bad habit and provide you with strategies and support to help you break it. A therapist or counselor can also provide you with emotional guidance and advice on how to cope with the challenges that may come.

In addition to counseling, a medical professional may also be able to provide you with medications or other treatments to make the process of breaking your bad habit easier. For example, nicotine replacement therapies such as patches and gum have been proven to help people quit smoking.

The most important thing to remember when trying to free yourself from a bad habit is that you don’t have to do it alone. It is perfectly acceptable and often recommended that you seek professional help if you are struggling.

Monitor Your Progress

This is one of my best mantras in life. I’m more concerned with progress, not perfection or even not the attainment of the goal. This is because I know that as long as I’m making progress, I will reach my destination.

Monitoring your progress is an important part of breaking a habit. It can help you to stay motivated and on track, even when the process is challenging. Monitor your progress in terms of the realistic goals you set for yourself.

Tracking your progress can also help you to identify any challenges or obstacles you may encounter along the way. You may consider using a simple tracking chart such as the “Yes List” to help you easily make sense of your progress.

This chart allows you to note the habits or behaviors that you are trying to break or replace, as well as the successes and challenges you experience along the way.

Don’t Give Up!

It can be easy to give up when trying to break a habit. We often overestimate how long it will take, and when it doesn’t happen as quickly as we thought it would, we start to doubt our ability to succeed. But don’t give up!

If you find yourself getting discouraged, take a step back and remind yourself that it’s okay to take your time. Habits are hard to break, and it’s important to be patient and understanding with yourself. Celebrate your progress, no matter how small, and keep moving forward! With patience and determination, you can break any habit and replace it with a new one.


Breaking a habit can be a difficult and lengthy process. According to a study conducted by researchers at University College London, it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit.

This estimate was first proposed by Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon who observed the habit formation process in his patients. The study also concluded that most bad habits are caused by stress and boredom and that the first step to breaking a bad habit is to figure out the triggers that lead to it.

With dedication and persistence, however, it is possible to break any habit and form new healthier ones in its place.

What do you think?

Written by Michael Allsworth

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