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The Science Behind Building Habits


It’s easy to feel like habits are all an issue of willpower, but that’s not the case. Science plays a pretty big role here. When you understand the science behind building habits, it’s a whole lot easier to kick that willpower into full gear.  

To make sticking to new good habits and breaking bad ones easier, we want to give you a little context surrounding the science of habits and will dispel some really unhelpful misconceptions. 

How the 21 Day Myth Sets Unrealistic Standards

Let’s get a misconception about habits out of the way early. For years we’ve been told that it takes 21 days of repeat behavior to establish a habit. While you can set a habit that quickly, you aren’t likely to and this false timeline creates unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment. 

Where did this 21 day timeline come from? We have Dr. Maxwell Maltz and his 1960 book titled “Psycho-Cybernetics” to thank. 

Dr. Maltz isn’t fully to blame here. Ready for the kicker? He didn’t actually claim that it takes 21 days to build a habit. Instead he referenced this number as an observable metric in both himself and his patients at this time. The book became so popular eventually with more than 30 million copies sold, that soon this misconception spread like wildfire and was considered “fact”.

How Long It Really Takes to Build a Habit

So how long does it actually take to build a habit? Studies have shown it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit—a timeline that feels much more realistic. That’s not to say you shouldn’t take that timeline with a grain of salt. Life happens and even if you’re making great progress on a habit, it’s possible to get derailed. 

Restarting without the guilt is key here and only focusing on your progress (and not the progress others think you should be making) is key.

Why Bad Habits are Hard to Break

Of course, there will be times when you’re more focused on building bad habits than setting new good habits. 

Which is why it’s important to understand why breaking habits can be so challenging. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it’s especially difficult to break pleasure-based habits (like eating chips every night while watching tv or checking Instagram first thing in the morning) because enjoyable behavior prompts your brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is the reward that strengthens the habit and creates the craving to do it again. This is why it can be so much easier to develop bad habits than good ones. It’s not like you get a dopamine rush by reviewing your spending and adjusting your budget for the week on a Sunday morning. 

We want to be super clear here—if you’re struggling to break a bad habit you should not beat yourself up. This is hard to do and giving yourself grace here will make it easier to keep pushing forward and making progress. 

Now that you know more about the science behind building habits, it’s time to start building some great habits into your daily routine! We’ll teach you how to do just that in our upcoming course A Lesson in Building Healthy Habits.

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