Yes, I know my entire blog is based on the premise of making or breaking habits in 30 days. But it’s not that simple. Human behavior and habits are so complex that it’s impossible to say, “If you do or don’t do [insert habit here] for X amount of days, you’ll be cured!” Any publication or person that tries to tell you this is just plain wrong.
Why is There No Definitive Timeframe for Breaking Habits?
Some people can form or break habits easier than others. Humans are so vastly different from one another in brain chemistry, behavior, and environment. One person may be able to easily make lasting changes in their lives in just a few short weeks, while another struggles to maintain changes in their lives over the long term.
Some people have addictive tendencies. Some people have mental disorders that affect their ability to establish habits. Some people live in environments that encourage the formation of healthy habits while others live in environments that keep them chained to their unhealthy habits.
On top of that, habits themselves vary wildly in difficulty. For instance, do you think a 21 day timeframe would work for breaking a nail biting habit? Maybe. Do you think that same 21 day timeframe would work for breaking an IV heroin addiction? No. Hell no.
All of this to say: there is no definitive answer for the amount of days, weeks, or months it takes to break a habit.
So How Long Should I Try to Break or Make a Habit?
When it comes down to it, changing a habit is a lifetime endeavor. You aren’t trying to quit sugar for only 30 days or 21 days or 50 days, you’re trying to implement healthy habits around how you consume sugar for the rest of your life.
You’re probably thinking: “So then why the hell did you start a blog based solely around 30 day challenges?”
Well, the amount of days (30) is really a completely arbitrary number. It could be 21 days or 60 days or 6 weeks or 8 weeks or 2 months. It doesn’t matter! The reason we put a timeframe on our lifestyle changes is that we are giving our brain an end point that it can look to as a future relief.
Imagine this scenario if you will. You’ve decided to quit sugar. Instead of setting a 30 day challenge, you simply say that you are going to quit sugar for the rest of your life. As you begin the challenge, you have nothing but a sugarless life in front of you. Every delicious sweet you see, every craving you have, is a harsh reminder you that you will never eat sugar again in your life. That’s simply too much for an addicted, detoxing brain to handle. The part of your brain that wants to keep that sugar dopamine river flowing is going to tell you that quitting sugar is an insurmountable mountain. It tells you that you’ll never do it. And before you know it, you’re digging through the candy cupboard again.
This is why we set timeframes for making and breaking habits! When you declare that you are undergoing a 30 day challenge, the aspect of your brain that is addicted to that habit takes this 30 days at face value. It thinks, “Oh okay, we only have to put up with this shit for a month.” But as you roll through those 30 days, your brain’s attachment to that habit becomes less and less. With each passing day, the idea of continuing this habit past the 30 day mark becomes easier and easier for you and your brain to digest.
How to Set a Timeline for Making and Breaking Habits
If you’re reading this, you’re likely looking to break an unhealthy habit or establish a healthy habit. If there is no set amount of time that you can look to, what can you do? I’m going to lay out an easy timeline that will help you not only quit or make a habit in the short term, but for your entire life!
Set an Initial Quit Time (30 days)
Just like we talked about earlier, we need to set this initial amount of time for the new habit. It’s the only way to make this new undertaking less intimidating and overwhelming. I think the only real “initial time requirement” around making and breaking habits is that you have to give yourself some real separation from the habit. I personally believe that anything less than 3 weeks is not enough. You are still adjusting to this big lifestyle change and if you say “Oh, I’m done” before you really are, you leave yourself more vulnerable to falling back into your old ways.
My recommendation, as you can probably guess, is to simply do a 30 day challenge. It’s a nice round number, it corresponds to roughly one month, and it is a solid chunk of time to put space between you and the habit.
But what about when the challenge is done? It’s time to reflect and decide where to go from there!
Reflect on The Initial Quit Time
It can be tempting to simply extend the challenge, but it’s really important to reflect on how making or breaking this habit has affected your life. You may have noticed a ton of great benefits. You may not feel that different. You may have found that the new habit isn’t a great fit for your lifestyle. You may be feeling grateful and relieved to have finally quit a very unhealthy habit (maybe smoking).
It’s kind of pointless to extend a habit/broken habit that isn’t really positively affecting your life. On the flip side, it’s dangerous to NOT extend a habit/broken habit that’s lead to significant positive change in your life.
The most important thing you can do at this stage is make an honest appraisal of where your life sits compared to when you first made the change. Sometimes, especially if the habit you’re trying to change is really difficult, your brain can tell you that it’s not worth it and that you should quit trying to change it. That’s why it’s important to really sit down and consider whether you should continue this course of change. Make sure you aren’t dropping the habit simply because it’s too hard.
Extend the Habit (6 Months)
If you find this new lifestyle change to be positively impacting your life, I encourage you to extend it after the initial 30 days. My recommendation is to extend it to 6 months. A year can seem like a long time, especially only 30 days into a new way of living. 6 months is doable. From that 6 months you can extend to a year, but I’m guessing by that time you will be basically on auto-pilot with your new habit.
I can’t stress enough how crucial this “extension” is to truly making lasting change in your life. I’ve seen too many people (including myself) finish a 30 day challenge only to fall right back into the old habits when it’s over. Make an extension and commit to it just as strongly as you committed to the 30 day challenge. Those 6 months or 12 months will be much easier than the first 30 days, and the payoff is lasting personal growth that can last a lifetime.