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Habits beyond 21 days?

The beginning of the year leads us to reflect on what we have achieved during the year that ends and what we want to modify or acquire during the new year. Many of the new year's resolutions have to do with developing healthy habits [1] (sleeping more, eating better, exercising regularly, etc.). Sounds familiar?

If we identify with this, we have probably also heard that we have to include it and practice it for 21 days to make it a habit. However, how effective and true is this? Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you. This popular belief is just a myth. Performing a behaviour for 21 days does not necessarily result in a new habit.

According to a study carried out by researchers at University College London (United Kingdom), habituation of behaviour takes an average of 66 days, with a range between 18 and 254 days (Lally et al., 2010). Therefore, developing new habits takes more time than people think. The good news? There are various strategies to facilitate these processes. Here are some of these.

1. Everything starts with intention.

Although it seems obvious, the first thing that must exist is the intention to change; in other words, the decision to take real action. Without that, we cannot develop any habit.

2. Establish an action plan!

There is a long way from preaching to doing. Therefore, do not allow your ideas and intentions to remain abstract objects; develop an action plan.

  • Set clear and achievable goals.

  • Use a self-monitoring mechanism to assess your progress.

In particular, self-monitoring has proven to be significantly effective when adopting new healthy behaviours (Michie et al., 2009).

3. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

One of the keys to transforming behaviour into a habit is to repeat that behaviour every day - sometimes several times a day, depending on the target behaviour.

This requires us to maintain motivation for an extended period. One way to stay motivated while developing new habits is to ask for support (emotional, instrumental or informational) from our friends and family (Gruenewald & Seeman, 2010; Umberson, Crosnoe, & Reczek, 2010).

4. Use your environment in your favour.

The essential characteristic of a habit is its automaticity. Therefore, when you want to convert a behaviour into a habit, such conduct must be developed and repeated within a stable context. The objective here is to establish an association between contextual factors - time of day, situation, place, etc. - and behaviour. Over time, contextual factors will automatically trigger the behaviour, which means you will progressively rely less on your motivation.

With this in mind, design your environment with elements that make it easier for you to practice the behaviour (e.g. reminders, instruments, etc.) and eliminate factors that make it difficult.

In general, bettering our health requires establishing new practices. This is why transforming these into habits is essential since it allows us to maintain healthy behaviours without much effort, even when we look for excuses to avoid them.


[1] Habits – In psychology, habits are defined as automatic reactions driven by situational cues. They develop through the repetition of an action in a stable context and depend on contextual activation rather than conscious deliberation (Gardner, 2015; Gardner, Sheals, Wardle, & McGowan, 2014; Phillips & Gardner, 2015).


  • Gardner, B. (2015). A review and analysis of the use of ‘habit’ in understanding, predicting and influencing health-related behaviour. Health Psychology Review, 9, (3), 277-295. doi: 10.1080/17437199.2013.876238

  • Gardner, B., Sheals, K., Wardle, J., & McGowan, L. (2014). Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: a process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behaviour change intervention. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11, (135), 1-13.

  • Gruenewald, T.L. & Seeman, T.E. (2010). Social Support and Physical Health: Links and Mechanisms. In A. Steptoe (Ed.), Handbook of Behavioral Medicine: Methods and Applications (pp, 225 -236). New York, USA: Springer Science & Business Media.

  • Lally, P. & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting Habit Formation. Psychology Review, 7, (1), S137 – S158. doi: 0.1080/17437199.2011.603640

  • Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C.H.M., Potts, H.W.W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 998 –

  • Phillips, L. A., & Gardner, B. (2015). Habitual Exercise Instigation (vs. Execution) Predicts Healthy Adults’ Exercise Frequency. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/hea0000249

  • Umberson, D., Crosnoe, R., & Reczek, C. (2010). Social relationships and health behavior across life course. Annual Review of Sociology, 36, 139 – 157. doi: 1146/annurev-soc-070308-120011

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