We're creatures of habit, and change can be difficult, inconvenient, and terrifying. Some reports indicate that self-help has ballooned into a $10 billion a year industry in America. We are a society constantly in search of perfection. Books, therapists, support groups, online gurus, and life coaches all promise to help us break our "bad" habits—overeating, overspending, smoking, nail-biting, and other vices or addictions that prevent us from being "mindful" as they destroy our self-esteem.
While we know it's possible to break a habit, the task often feels insurmountable when we face the challenge by ourselves. One popular claim is that a habit can be broken in only 21 days, an idea that seems to reference Psycho-Cybernetics, a 1960 self-help book written by cosmetic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. Other vernacular accounts very from 72 hours to two weeks. But how long does it really take to break a habit? We got a reality check with a few experts in the fields of psychology, brain and behavioral sciences, and, of course, self-help.
Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D.
This is really an impossible question to answer because it depends on the person and the habit. As psychologists would say, it's always the individual and the situation together. Breaking a habit really means establishing a new habit, a new pre-potent response. The old habit or pattern of responding is still there (a pattern of neuron responses in the brain), but it is less dominant (less potent).
Given this understanding, what might I estimate as a time? Six months minimum, and that's only if you're committed to the change and you are conscientious in your practice of a strategy for change.
Commitment (a person characteristic) and a strategy (what you bring to the situation) are key. After that, it's practice, which is typically experienced as two steps forward, one step back. This may sound pessimistic, and we may want to believe that we can break a habit much more quickly, but you only really know if you've broken the habit when you're challenged some how, for example you get very stressed or "off-balance" in your life, because we typically regress to old ways of being (habits) under duress. So, at first you may think you have "broken the habit," but change the circumstances a bit by adding some stress, physical fatigure or emotional exhaustion, and you realize that the new habit may not be as well established as you think.
It took me a couple of years to learn to floss my teeth every day (break the habit of avoiding the floss). Many other habits are still a work in progress.
The self-help industry by the numbers
The net worth of the self-help book industry
The net worth the self-help audio book industry
The number of life coaches active worldwide, with 15,800 in North America
1/3 to 1/2
Of adults in America have purchased a self-help book at least once in their life
Self-help books as a percentage of total books in print in 2000 (compared to 1.1 percent in 1972).
Elliot Berkman, Ph.D.
The time it takes to break a habit depends on three factors, which I describe in order of descending importance: First is the availability of an alternative habit. It's much easier to start doing something new than to stop doing something habitual without a replacement behavior. That's one reason why smoking cessation aids such as nicotine gum or inhalers tend to be more effective than the nicotine patch.
Second is the strength of the motivation to change. People who want to kick their habit for reasons that are aligned with their personal values will change their behavior faster than people who are doing it for external reasons such as pressure from others.
Third is the mental and physical ability to break the habit. Longtime habits are literally entrenched at the neural level, so they are powerful determinants of behavior. The good news is that people are nearly always capable of doing something else when they're made aware of the habit and are sufficiently motivated to change.
17.8% OF AMERICAN ADULTS (or, 42.1 million people) age 18 or older were active cigarette smokers in 2013.
Source: Center for Disease Control
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.
Professor, Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Author, The Search for Fulfillment; Blogger, "Fulfillment at Any Age," PsychologyToday.com
Breaking a habit means that you break the link between the behavior and the reward it provides to you. In extreme cases, the habit can be broken instantly, such as if you happen to become violently ill when you inhale cigarette smoke or nearly get hit by a bus when texting and walking. There is no "typical" time to break a habit, but you may be able to tackle it over a period of weeks by arranging the appropriate contingencies. Start small by giving yourself a new reward for not engaging in the habit and build until you can go for longer periods of time. Eventually the behavior will drop its old reward value and the new "non-habit" will take its place.
Science writer; Public Education Specialist; Author, Brain Changer and What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why Your Should Do the Opposite
The surprising (and to some, alarming) answer to this question is that it's altogether possible none of us ever truly "breaks" a habit in the sense we mean by the term. To understand why, it helps to think through what a habit really is. We experience habits as patterns of thought and behavior imbued with automaticity. Automaticity—a sort of internal momentum that no longer needs overt, conscious fuel to keep going—is the result of learning. And in effect that's exactly what a habit is: the logical outcome of learning something, whether or not that something is beneficial or dangerous.
Learning is a powerful dynamic in brains across species, particularly in the human brain. Neural patterns are established within the structure of the brain that underpin whatever we've learned, and once established, they're not easily changed. Rather than "breaking" those patterns, what we're really trying to do when facing a difficult habit is redirecting energy around them or deny the patterns the external fuel that keeps their supporting neural networks from activating and strengthening. Many people who "break" a gambling habit, for example, say they never lose the urge to gamble (the pattern is still there), but they've learned to redirect their mental (and quite often physical) energy in other ways, while also not exposing themselves to situations that fuel the urge.
Because our brains are such proficient learners, the habit challenge is inherently difficult, and how long it takes for any given person to overcome ingrained patterns is case-specific. What's important to remember, however, is that thanks to neuroplasticity —the brain's ability to adapt and adjust at the level of neural connections—we have the inbuilt tools to do it.
Steven Covey's 1989 book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has sold more than 15 million copies in 38 languages worldwide.
The 7 habits of highly effective people
Begin with the end in mind
Put first things first
Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Sharpen the saw
Toni Bernhard, J.D.
Author, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (forthcoming); Former Law Professor and Dean of Students, University of California, Davis School of Law
We're learning from neuroscientists that the mind is malleable; this is good news because it means you can change your bad habits. How long it takes to break a habit depends on your willingness to make the effort. The key is to start small. Every time you make an effort to break a negative habit, you're laying down a new groove in your mind. Even a small groove makes it easier to break the negative habit the next time. As you do this over and over, the groove gets deeper and deeper until you've truly changed the way your mind reacts.
For example, if you want to break your habit of getting angry every time something doesn't go your way, start by setting the intention to change. This is a type of mindfulness practice: deciding to pay attention to the way your mind reacts and committing to changing that reaction. Paying attention with a commitment to change in this way makes it likely that the next time something doesn't go your way, you'll be able to catch yourself before you get angry. That's a big first step because, having broken the habit once, you've laid down a new groove in your mind and the next time something doesn't go your way, it will be easier not to get angry. And, after a while, it will be natural not to get angry.
Thomas G. Plante, Ph.D., ABPP
Director, Spirituality & Health Institute, Psychology Department, Santa Clara University; Adjunct Clinical Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University School of Medicine
There are a wide range of variables that determine how long it takes to break a habit with no simple answers. First, it depends on how much you really want to break the habit. Many people are ambivalent. They want to lose weight, but they like the foods they eat. They want to reduce their alcohol consumption, but love their happy hour. They want to stop picking their nails, but it reduces stress for them. So, one important issue is how strongly do you really want to break the habit in question. Second, how established is the problem habit? It is easier to break a new habit than an old one. Third, what are the consequences of not breaking the habit? Will a partner leave you? Will you lose a job? Will you get sick? Will something really bad happen if you don't change?
Additionally, some people have addictive or obsessive personality types that might make breaking a habit much harder to do. Others may not really see themselves as having a problem but their spouse, boss, co-worker, kids, friends, etc. do and are more invested in behavior change than the person who needs to change.
Behavior and habits (especially when long-standing) are very hard to change. All the stars must align to make it happen. Attending to biological, psychological, social, cultural, and other factors can help. But in the end, to answer your question, it all depends.
Yes, there's a name for chronic nail-biting. It's called "onychophagia," from the Greek onycho- (the combining form of "nail" or "claw") and
-phagy (the suffix form of "to eat").
Source: The Free Dictionary