How to Stick to Healthy Habits

Habits are something you do automatically, without thinking, and are a key component of positive behavior change.

You probably brush your teeth every night before bed, not because you consciously think about it but because it has become a habit.

Habits are powerful, as they require little mental energy and motivation, but forming new habits is not always easy. So, how long does it take to create a healthy habit that becomes a permanent lifestyle change?

Science shows that small behavior changes coupled with consistent routines are the equation for lasting healthy habits.

How Long Does It Take to Create a Healthy Habit?

The popular 21/90 rule, echoed by many self-help leaders, states it takes 21 days to make a habit and 90 days for it to become a permanent lifestyle change. While it's encouraging to think that any change is possible in just three weeks, the reality is more complicated.

The 21/90 rule was initially presented by Maxwell Maltz, a plastic surgeon in the 1960s who based it on his observations of patients adjusting to their new appearance and his own experiences adapting to change. It wasn't a rigorous study, but rather anecdotal evidence. Regardless, it gained popularity and has been widely and incorrectly repeated for decades.

When diving deeper, there's little evidence to back Maltz's claims. There's no magic number of days to form a habit or make a lifestyle change. The issue with this is that many people who buy into the rule will give up if they don't see immediate results. The science does, however, provide insight into factors that may contribute to a healthy habit becoming a permanent lifestyle change.

The Science of Habit Formation

Habits are automatic responses to specific cues in your environment. For instance, a person might develop a habit of going for a walk or run (response) every morning after waking up (cue) because they've repeated this behavior pattern so often.

Although researchers have attempted to pinpoint it, there's no way to predict how long it takes to form a habit because there are so many different factors such as environment, personal motivation, the type of habit and more.

In a recent study, researchers discovered that the time required to form a habit varied greatly, ranging from less than a month to over six months, depending on the individual and the behavior itself. Different goals and habits may take more or less time to become ingrained in your daily routine based on factors like environment, personal motivation and type of habit.

Researchers suggest incorporating environmental cues to help you remember to perform the behavior and make it easier to repeat the behavior. For example, if you always follow lunch with a 15-minute walk, the context of lunch now triggers you to associate it with moving your body right after.

Is It Harder to Form Healthy Habits Than Bad Habits?

Maybe you've decided to cut back on sugar to help lose weight, but once you're home and relaxing for the night, temptation wins.

“So-called ‘bad habits’ like mindless snacking or constantly checking your phone may feel easier to form because you usually experience an immediate reward, like the taste of a sweet snack or a new message in your inbox,” says Mary Weiler, PhD, RD, senior nutrition scientist at Abbott.

The weight loss goal seems far off, so there's less of an immediate gratification even if it feels important to you.

The more satisfied someone feels after a behavior, the more likely they are to repeat it. So, finding external and internal rewards to increase the motivation to continue any habit is one way to support that goal.

Strategies for Establishing and Maintaining Habits

Try these tips to help yourself stick to your goals:

  1. Choose a realistic habit. Setting a behavior goal based on your lifestyle, values and what feels attainable increases the chances of success. If you don't regularly workout, aim to walk several days a week as opposed to running a half-marathon next month. This may be more achievable.
  2. Be specific. Knowing the where, when and how of your habit can help create a routine with the right environmental cues. Instead of saying "I'm going to eat healthier this year," change that goal to "I'm going to include at least one vegetable at dinner each day."
  3. Ditch the all-or-nothing mentality. Skipping a day here and there won't derail your progress. Expect slip-ups and know that imperfection is part of the process. Celebrate the small wins too, so you don't get discouraged. Keeping a journal of your progress can help.
  4. Pair with something you enjoy. If getting on the treadmill or heading out the door for a walk is associated with something you enjoy, like listening to a podcast or catching up with a friend over the phone, you'll get immediate gratification while creating a positive association.
  5. Try habit stacking. Habit stacking is when you pair a new habit with something you already do regularly. For example, if you want to start a meditation practice, try meditating for a few minutes while you sip your morning coffee.

Transform Your Habit Into a Lifestyle Change

The science of habit formation is not straightforward and is influenced by factors like the complexity of the habit, individual circumstances and personal perseverance.

The key to successful habit formation lies not in rigid adherence to a strict timeline but in setting realistic actions that you practice with consistency. It may take longer than 21 days, but with the right supportive environment, you can set yourself up for success.

Share this post

Other news

Marathon Talk meets Mallory Creveling - Runner’s World Deputy Editor, Health & Fitness

Marathon Talk Episode 43: Mallory Creveling - Runner’s World Deputy Editor, Health & Fitness

Marathon Talk meets Mallory Creveling - Runner’s World Deputy Editor, Health & Fitness

Running in the Family

Running marathons brings an Abbott employee and his 80-year-old father closer together
Marathon Tours & Travel sponsors Abbott World Marathon Majors Age Group World Championships

Marathon Tours & Travel to sponsor Age Group programs

AbbottWMM Age Group program joins forces with global marathon tour operator