Forget the 21-Day Rule — Here’s How Long It Really Takes to Break a Habit

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Aaliyah Barnes30
Proof that literature degrees aren't impractical
May 18, 2024 at 11:14AM UTC

We all have them whether we’re open to admitting it or not — bad habits. From serial procrastination to mid afternoon caffeine addictions we tend to seek out that rush of endorphins from the rewards center of the brain; even if it hurts so good. But when bad habits begin to negatively impact your lifestyle and livelihood, how do you begin to break away from these habits that are holding you back from being your best self? 

Learning to discipline yourself for 21 consecutive days might do the trick. Perhaps a 30 day trial and error period sounds more your speed? Maybe sticking to a consecutive timeline to form a habit is a complete myth. Below are some helpful tips to help you explore the best tactics for kicking that bad habit.

How do you break a bad habit?

1. Be honest with yourself. 

One very important step in breaking a bad habit is recognizing that you have one. This generally requires a certain level of self awareness and honesty that we must develop with ourselves. As simple as this step may seem, it is necessary to have the self awareness to recognize when habits are negatively affecting you or those around you. Only then can follow up and follow through with the next few steps.

2. Know your triggers.

Often times the development of a bad or self-sabotaging habit is triggered by emotional or environmental cues. By being mindful of which triggers are causing you to indulge in bad habits, you can help yourself by avoiding those situations or practicing self control when met with the temptation to practice a certain self-destructive behavior. 

3. Set goals. 

Setting goals for yourself can make developing better habits and purging detrimental ones easier to do. By setting realistic goals for yourself, not only does it  provide you with a motivational guideline but, in some cases a timeline that allows you to track your progress. This makes for the development of healthy habits and the purging of self-sabotaging ones more appealing because rather than forcefully disciplining yourself to make good habits stick, you can remind yourself why you are developing good habits by revisiting goals; and acknowledge your achievements by checking in with yourself about your progress over time. 

4. Reward yourself for developing good habits. 

Have you decided to replace eating sweets when you're stressed with journaling instead? Or maybe you’ve stopped scrolling through social media when you’re bored at the office and replaced it with creating a to-do list for the next few days. This doesn’t mean you can’t reward yourself with the occasional bowl of ice cream or Instagram binge when you need it. You’ve earned it! Just do it in moderation.

5. Don’t beat yourself for slipping up from time to time.

 Bad habits can be hard to break on the first or even fifth try but, effort goes a long way when developing good ones! Making mistakes and veering off course is normal. You’re only human, after all — but with discipline, determination and continued effort, you can kick any bad habit as long as you don’t stop trying. 

The 21-day rule — fact or fiction?

Wash, rinse, repeat. Do this for 21 days and you’ve formed yourself a habit — or have you? As it turns out repeatedly completing a task for 21 days — while it may be a show of great discipline on your part — may not actually be a scientifically accurate way to form a habit.  According to Forbes the 21-day rule as the rule of thumb in habit formation was actually a misappropriation of a study on self-image, “Maltz did not find that 21 days of task completion forms a habit. People wanted it to be true so much so, however, that the idea began to grow in popularity.” 

So, if the 21-day rule is a myth, how long long does it actually take to genuinely form a habit? Well, the research of psychologist BJ Fogg suggests that one of the most successful ways to form a habit is to ride what he calls the "motivation wave." Let’s be honest, as human beings we aren’t always the most reliable or consistent when it comes to our goals and responsibilities. This doesn’t mean, however, that we are incapable of conditioning our habits to meet our goals through forming them in the moment that motivation and inspirations strikes. This is why setting goals is one of the key factors in forming healthy habits. Goals motivate us, and when we’re motivated we’re more inclined to make the appropriate decisions that align with the goals that we’ve set. Habit formation and the length of time that it takes for them to form really depends on the individual. 

A rough estimate of how long it actually takes habits to form — according to science 

If you're one for a more solid answer to this question than "it depends," don't worry. According to a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology and cited by Author James Clear in his works on habit and human potential, the average length of time that it generally takes to form a habit is about 66 days — or 2 months. However, keep in mind that there are still variables involved that depend solely on the individual. 

Forcing a habit on yourself can lead to strings of disappointment, fear of failure and ultimately giving up on the goal. If you can learn to form habits in an organic way that doesn’t call for immediate and constant perfection, but instead gradual progress and effort you’re more likely to form good habits — even if you veer off track every now and again. It’s much easier to convince yourself to get back on track by being gentle with yourself and your human tendency to be inconsistent. 

The most common bad habits that people practice:


Procrastination is a habit that much of the population struggles with. While it can be satisfying to binge another Netflix series instead of working on that presentation, or scroll through social media instead of answering the hundreds of emails in your inbox, the anxiety and stress that it causes as deadlines close in and responsibilities pile up does you more harm than good. Become aware of what triggers you to put your responsibilities off and try setting a daily or weekly productivity goal to ensure that you save yourself from the vicious cycle that is procrastination. 

Serial lateness. 

Are you constantly the person tip-toeing into the meeting 10 minutes late with Starbucks? Constant lateness is a habit that not only reflects badly on you, but gives the impression that you don’t take other people’s time seriously. Sure, sometimes public transportation blips and traffic jams can put a damper on your arrival time, but always try to give yourself a 10 to 20 minute buffer in your commute time to ensure serial lateness is kept at bay. 

Chronic self-criticism

Sometimes we are our own worst critics; and because of that we can tend to speak to ourselves in ways we would never think to speak to others. Sometimes innocent mistakes can send you into a spiral of harsh self criticism; which puts a hamper on your self confidence and ultimately your motivation to meet goals. Negative self-criticism is a self destructive behavior that can keep you from your full potential. The next time you're ready to scold yourself for an innocent mistake, try having empathy for yourself. Note something that you did right that day, week or month, to remind yourself that you are doing your best, because you are! Everyone makes mistakes, so it’s better that you learn from them. 

Toxic comparison. 

Did that new coworker getting a raise before you leave you wondering what you did wrong? That old college friend of yours just bought a new house; are you green with envy just thinking about it? It happens — but toxic comparison is a bad habit that many people have developed especially in the age of social media where everyone’s highlight reels are available 24/7. The next time that little green monster sneaks up on you, try instead practicing gratitude and listing off things in your life that you’re grateful for or that are going well. When you acknowledge the progress that you’ve made, you spend less time worrying about how other people’s achievements compare to yours. 

Constantly checking social media.

 As mentioned above, social media is a breeding ground for toxic comparison, but also the number one preferred method of procrastination. Each time someone wants to disconnect from what’s going on in their immediate surroundings, they tend to look for comfort in Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or the multitude of other digital social spaces available to them. But while there’s nothing inherently wrong with checking social media occasionally, checking every five minutes seems a bit extreme. The next time you find yourself checking social media every few minutes, try checking in with yourself instead. Are there any small tasks that you’ve been putting off that you could finish in the five minutes you would’ve spent scrolling? Is there a person in your immediate surroundings that you could or should be checking in with? Not only will this practice help you be more productive, but it will also help you practice being present. 

People pleasing.

If you find yourself being the “yes” person all the time — almost to a fault — then you may be giving yourself way more responsibility than you can handle. While disappointing others may be the last thing you want to do, you have a responsibility to yourself to get into the habit of saying “no” to requests when it is necessary. If this is a source of anxiety for you, consider practicing phrases like “I can’t commit to that task right now” or “I’d love to, but I can’t help you at this time.” This way you’re equipped with useful pre-planned phrases that can help you prioritize the tasks important to you while keeping professional or personal relationships in tact when you have to tell others "no." For further reading on this topic you can check out Fairygodboss' “10 Signs You’re a People Pleaser — And What to do About it.” 


"Multi-tasking" is in quotes here because it has been proven to not actually be a thing that people can do or be good at. In fact, the act of multi-tasking is really just procrastination on caffeine. Switching between multiple tasks at once can actually stunt productivity and increase anxiety as a number of uncompleted tasks pile up on your to-do list. Instead of multi-tasking, try to prioritize and focus on tasks based on urgency and importance and tackle them one at a time. 

Constant apologizing.

When “sorry” becomes your filler word of choice in a conversation it may be time to re-evaluate. Women and femmes are especially put in positions to feel sorry for their existence or for taking up space, particularly in professional settings. If you find yourself in the “sorry” rut, try replacing “sorry” phrases with “thank you”phrases so that “Sorry I’m late!” turns into “Thank you for waiting for me!” 


Nobody’s perfect and while it may seem like it sometimes, no one is really expecting you to be. Perfectionism is a bad habit to have, mainly because perfection is unattainable— no matter how hard you try to make something perfect you may never truly be satisfied with the outcome. This can cause a slew of extended deadlines and a de-prioritization of other important tasks in your quest for perfect one. Instead of striving for perfection practice acknowledging when projects are completed to the best of your ability. Recognize that your projects are a reflection of who you are in the moment; the more you evolve as a person, the more the quality of your work evolves with you. 

Addiction vs habit — how to tell the difference

There's a thin line between habits and addictions that we should be particularly cautious of because both are often motivated by emotional triggers and environmental cues. Habits can be thought of as second nature behaviors or mannerisms that one does involuntary as a result of the brain becoming familiar with the contexts that trigger them through repetition. Addictions on the other hand are more of a compulsion that is usually activated by emotional triggers that inhibit our impulse control. Habits have the ability to be either helpful or harmful whereas addictions are universally recognized as harmful and are known to impair one’s ability to identify risk factors. Because of this, habits can be controlled with the development of self awareness and the rewiring of the brain’s understanding of repetitive patterns in your routine, while addictions tend to be harder to control without the help and support of professional addiction counselors.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, please refer to the resources on the ASAM (American Society of Addiction Medicine) website for help with identifying and coping with symptoms of addiction. 

Last Word

Habit formation is a very personal experience. How you form, maintain and replace habits really depends on finding a method that works for you; whether it’s practicing discipline for 66 days or conditioning yourself to complete a task only when motivation strikes. The bottom line is this: forming good habits requires having a level of honesty with yourself about whether or not the tasks you’re engaging in are contributing to your overall short and long term goals — whether they’re personal or professional. Self sabotage keeps you from your full potential so don’t make a habit of selling yourself short. 

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Aaliyah Barnes is a New Jersey based freelance writer with a thirst for adventure and a need for constant change. When she isn't writing about how to live one's best life, she can be found at the nearest airport in search of cheap flights and new friends. 

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