There has been a myth, relayed mostly through Chinese whispers, that you only need 21 days to form a habit. Imagine, three weeks of dedication, applying yourself daily to perform a new routine and suddenly, magically, the pattern was ingrained deeply inside you. These actions would now come effortlessly, without even thinking about them.
This thinking has been debunked for a few years, thanks to a study conducted by Dr. Phillippa Lally.
With her partners, she scientifically measured the number of days it took for the research’s participants to “increase automaticity” of a behavior, basically developing a habit. Results varied from as little as 18 days to the staggering number of 254 days¹. This investigation highlights that there is no golden rule defining how long you need to hit the gym to make it part of you and, without a hitch, return every day sweating on the treadmill.
Disappointed? Instead of numbering the days on a wall, silently waiting to serve our time, let’s explore the psychology behind habit formation to skip the countdown and directly go to the part where we become awesome.
How do habits work?
Three main components constitute habit formation², which are, according to the neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer, the trigger, the behavior, and the reward³.
The trigger also known as the context cue is a reminder of the habit. It could be the delicious smell of freshly baked cookies, seeing your mobile phone on the table, or simply hearing the notification sound that we received a message. It also starts from a mental discomfort such as boredom or rumination. By association, the trigger pushes the behavior to resurface. We see the cookies, which spark a hunch for a bite and we end up eating them all. We hear the characteristic sound of message notification and we wonder who it might be. Is it just gossip, or an urgent matter to deal with? Unknowingly, we go straight checking our emails, or scrolling on the Facebook newsfeed.
The positive feelings we have while snacking or reading a message are perceived by our brain as a reward. At a chemistry level, pleasurable moments lead to releases of dopamine, which has been proven to train us to seek and repeat these behaviors⁴. This three-stages loop is inherited from millennia of evolution, where our survival required to maximize the beneficial outcomes and minimize the negative ones⁵. Consequently, one key-ability to thrive over time was to link reward with behavior, searching cues to replicate it as much as possible.
Indeed, our lives are not solely regulated by Pavlovian reflexes, and scientists have theorized that reinforcement-learning is composed of two distinct decision-making strategies, called model-free and model-based⁶.
We already discussed the former, which is based on habitual control, where we act in retrospective: we make choices to repeat actions that were previously rewarded. The latter, the model-based decision-making strategy, is a prospective learning mechanism, where we evaluate choices based on possible future outcomes through mental simulation. So, in this case, when we are triggered, we use our reasoning capabilities to perform actions (behavior) in order to reach goals that we perceive good for us (expected reward); for instance, your belly is growling insistently and you start feeling hungry, you choose to eat a salad rather than some junk food, as you perceive this behavior to be healthier, thus “more” rewarding.
These two methods to come up with a choice are running in parallel and constantly compete one with another⁷, and can be very simplistically summarised as a conscious (goal-directed) and unconscious (habitual) decision.
Understand our relationship between trigger and behavior
“Perhaps the biggest tragedy in our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns” — Tara Brach
As this quote underlines, how come “bad habits’’ remain if we are capable of consciously acting on our behavior, once triggered? It seems that we are not always capable of reasoning with ourselves and apply a goal-directed approach to our decisions. Stress has been shown as impeding cognitive capabilities (by shutting down the part of our brain called prefrontal cortex), thus shifting our decision-making toward habitual control⁸. Another study proves that consciously choosing your behavior is “more cognitively demanding” and replicating “performance of demanding task results in a shift towards habitual behaviors” ⁹.
Facing temptations or impulses, we tend to use our mental capabilities to inhibit them to drive us toward perceived better outcomes. This coercion of our behavior is called self-control, or willpower, and may exist within oneself in limited amounts as suggested in Baudmeister’s ego-depletion theory¹⁰. Like a muscle, we could strengthen and fatigue our willpower by, respectively, exercising it regularly or in excess. This would explain why after an intense fitness session, where we pushed ourselves beyond our limits and overexerted our self-control, we cannot resist storming the ice cream shop on our way back from the gym. We saw the well-known banners, the appetizing pictures and even though we know that we might lose the whole benefit of our sport session (if not more), we cannot resist the yearning.
Ego-depletion does not make us act more recklessly or conservatively, it pushes us towards our habits, either good or bad¹¹ ¹².
Nonetheless, it is to be noted that this theory is still strongly debated, as flaws in the scientific measurements¹³, supporting ego-depletion, have been uncovered and other researchers failed to replicate the previous findings¹⁴.
Despite not being personally the best to argue whether or not self-control can be depleted after strenuous mental activity or while resisting urges, I can assert that using my willpower failed me repeatedly while fighting against my lousy habits. Scott Adams, the author of the famous comic strips Dilbert, wrote that “in the long run, any system that depends on willpower will fail”¹⁵. As insane as it might sound, I vote for the cartoonist rather than any neuroscientists that would beg to differ, because my personal experience (and certainly some strong confirmation bias) indicates that relying too much on my self-control is a receipt for disaster.
No willpower for me, so what’s left to control my habits?
Tame your bad habits by surrendering to them and diminishing their rewards
“I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it” — Mae West
Dostoevsky, a Russian novelist, gave birth to the white bear problem, also known as the ironic process theory. You are asked not to think of a polar bear, and the attempt to deliberately suppress the thought of the massive white animal leads it to be more vivid in your mind¹⁶. Although amusing, one can understand that the endeavor to refrain a craving, using self-restraint to stop thinking about it, might simply exacerbate it.
What if we just stop fighting?
That is exactly the focus of some experts in behavioral sciences, who explore mindfulness as a method to apply against detrimental habits, such as smoking. They established several methods to do so, such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). One of the main concepts of the therapy is to become aware of what you are feeling when triggered. Take a step back and observe your thoughts and emotions, rather than acting on them. This process tends to dissolve the longings. A similar approach, called “surfing the urge”, where you should wait and observe yourself for 10 minutes before acting, was described by Nir Eyal, in his book, Indistractable¹⁷.
This mindful approach was compared to standard treatment for smoking cessation and surprisingly proved to have better results¹⁸. One explanation lies in the fact that participants had an increased level of awareness regarding their habit¹⁹.
For instance, one could have identified smoking as being part of a group, or improving his or her self-image by association with a famous person — also smoking. Nowadays, we might not seek the same group inclusion than when we were in our teens. Other participants realized the bad smell and taste of the cigarette with their increased self-awareness, leading them to pair a bad feeling with the behavior, reducing its appeal.
By improving the understanding of how the behavior is rewarded, we can “cut” the link, we can “devalue” the association, and as a consequence, slowly tune down the pattern.
You can trick yourself to unlearn a habit. And the contrary is also true.
Get new habits without willpower
One of the most famous rejoinders from Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t come out from one of his movies, but from his own life, while intensely working out his body for competition. Whenever told: “we never want to look like you”, he replied: “don’t worry, you never will”. The witty answer was hinting that his detractors would never have the amount of self-discipline required to shape themselves as the world bodybuilding winner. Though, I would raise the question, did he solely rely on its willpower to maintain his willingness to practice or did he invent his own reward system?
Do the world champion athletes, serial entrepreneurs, and successful artists only live by the motto: no pain, no gain?
At first, maybe, they do. But quickly they change their mentality, they rewire their brain to enjoy the journey, to fall in love with the process of getting better. Studies show that when doing progress monitoring, upward trends bring you happiness²⁰. Also called small wins, they can be as simple as doing one more repetition of a difficult exercise, doing one more lap, every day doing a bit more than yesterday.
They leverage one of our survival skills, to move from a goal-directed decision, relying on self-control, to a habitual decision, by associating a positive experience to their actions.
There are many ways to break your old patterns and create new ones. We are all different and we have to find which techniques work better for us. Without shame or pride, acknowledge it could take months or only a few days to set up a routine. As you are competing with your old self, the arrival time is irrelevant so long as you become better day after day. No matter which tactics you decide to apply, the key takeaway to master your habits is to do. Just start the motion, one step after another, one small win after another, building your momentum to never stop again.
“Today, many will choose to free themselves from the personal imprisonment of their bad habits. Why not you?” — Steve Maraboli
 – Brewer J., 2015, ‘A Simple Way To Break A Bad Habit’, TEDMED, accessed on 12 April 2020
 – Decker J.H. and others, 2016, ‘From Creatures of Habit to Goal-Directed Learners: Tracking the Developmental Emergence of Model-Based Reinforcement Learning’, Psychological Science, 27 (6) pp. 848-858
 – Eyal N., 2019, ‘Indistractable – How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life’, Bloomsbury Publishing, Great Britain
 – Amabile T. M, Kramer S. J., 2011, ‘The Power of Small Wins’, Harvard Business Review, May 2011 Issue, accessed on 14th of May 2020