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Crazy Old Virals (2) - Habits formation

Many myths about habit formation were dismissed by scientific research in the past decades, but they are still part of popular wisdom. This article covers some of them.

Myth 1: It takes 21 days to form a habit rule.

Fact: It takes between 18 and 254 days to form a new habit.

There's rarely a self-help book, a well-being program, or an article about habits that does not talk about the fact that we need 21 days of practice (mainly through repetition) to form a new habit. Research has demonstrated in 2010 (1) that it takes between 18 and 254 days to form a habit, with a median of 66 days. The duration variation is very significant and it depends on the individual that tries to form a new habit and the habit being formed.

The past seems too blurry to certainly identify where the 21 days come from, but it seems it originated from a self-help book written by Dr. Maxwell Maltz in 1960 called "Psycho-Cybernetics" where he wrote that it took patients who had undergone plastic surgery an average of 21 days to adjust to the changes in their appearance. He then extrapolated this observation based on anecdotical evidence to the idea of forming new habits and suggested that it takes 21 days to form a new habit.

Myth 1a: Habits can be formed only through repetition.

Fact: Habits can be formed through various routines and techniques.

Popular literature, self-help books and media have all perpetuated the myth that only by repeating the desired habit we can form it. While repetition is a key feature of habit formation, it is not sufficient or the only way to form habits.

In the late 1930s, B.F. Skinner proposed, in a series of articles and in a book called "The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis" (1938), the theory of operant conditioning which claims that behavior is shaped by the consequences that follow it and that habits are formed through the reinforcement of specific behaviors. While this experimental theory appeared in the animal-subjects context, later research (2) developed the theory and found evidence applicable to humans, ending up with the cue-routine-reward process of habit formation. Briefly, this model suggests that a specific sequence of events forms a habit:

- Cue is the first element, the trigger initiating the habit. It can be external (specific location, time of day, weather, feeling triggered by an external factor) or internal (a specific thought or emotion)

- Routine is the response to the cue, in the form of an action or behavior. It can be physical (washing hands, taking an umbrella) or mental (checking a device).

- Reward is the last item in the sequence, the positive outcome of performing the routine. Can be tangible (a prize) or intangible (a feeling of satisfaction).

Related to the cue-routine-reward habit formation model, substitution is a strategy used to change or form new habits. It involves identifying the cue, routine, and reward associated with the bad habit and replacing the routine with a new behavior that offers the same reward.

Myth 1b: Habits can be formed quickly and easily.

Fact: Habit formation is a complex process influenced by many factors.

21 days are not that many and repeating something 21 times cannot be that difficult, is it? This is how we ended up believing that we can quickly and easily change habits or form new ones. But science says something different. It not only can take 11 times longer, but many elements influence the ability to form a habit: motivation, self-regulation, social support (1), environment - access to resources and facilities, neighborhood design (3), culture (4), stress (5), age (6), genetics (7), past experiences (8)

Myth 2: One can only form a habit at a time.

Fact: Multiple habits can be formed simultaneously

Research (9) suggests that it is possible to form multiple habits simultaneously, but it may take more effort and self-regulation to do so. The study found that participants were able to form new habits alongside existing habits and that the formation of new habits did not disrupt the performance of existing habits. These results were replicated multiple times.

Myth 3: One needs to be in the right mindset to form a habit.

Fact: Habits can be formed in any mindset, but it can take more time and effort.

A study (10) found it is possible to create healthy habits when not feeling great (because of weight for example) and make physical exercises a routine.

Myth 4: Habits are formed through conscious decision-making.

Fact: Habits can also be formed through automatic processes.

A study performed in 1989 (11), found that habits can be formed both consciously and automatically and that people can perform habits without conscious awareness or intention, and that these habits can become automatic over time.

Another study (11a) suggests that habits are formed through two different processes, one conscious and one automatic and that both processes interact to influence behavior. One more research (12) having the same findings proposed a model of habit change that considers how habits transition over time, and how different types of reinforcement can be used to promote habit change.

Myth 5: Habits are formed only through consistent and regular behavior.
Fact: Habits can also be formed through intermittent behavior.

Though not widely accepted, some research (12) suggests that intermittent reinforcement can be used as a way to change or maintain habits.

Another study (12a) found that intermittent reinforcement can lead to the formation of habits because it increased the probability that the behavior will be repeated in the future, and another one (1) found that participants who received intermittent reinforcement for a particular behavior were more likely to continue the behavior in the future than those who received consistent reinforcement.

Myth 6: Habits are formed only through positive reinforcement.
Fact: Habits can also be formed through negative reinforcement.

Research (13) has shown that habits can also be formed through negative reinforcement, where behavior is performed to avoid a negative consequence. This 1999 study found that people who engage in habits that produce feelings of relief or avoidance of unpleasant feelings such as stress or anxiety are more likely to continue the habit. The study also found that negative reinforcement is a more powerful motivator for habit formation than positive reinforcement, which is the process of rewarding oneself when a habit is performed.

Myth 7: Habits are formed only through personal effort.
Fact: Habits can also be formed through social influence.

Research (14) has shown that habits can also be formed through social influences, such as the influence of friends and family. The study found that social influence plays a role in habit formation. The study found that people are more likely to form a habit when they perceive that the behavior is normative and when they receive social support for the behavior.

So, while forming habits is no easy task, is also not impossible. Probably more than anything, it requires patience - put in practice by not abandoning the new habit formation process when progress is slow and results are not as expected.

A few tricks that I've seen working (for me, for colleagues, for family):

- applying the cue-routine-reward process described earlier

- applying substitution, described earlier

- creating a plan of incorporating the new behaviors and the new habit into the daily life

- setting SMART goals and self-monitoring (a daily habit diary can be part of this)

There are, most probably other myths related to forming new habits that I did not think of. Do you know any?


(1) Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

(2) Charles Duhigg in his book "The Power of Habit" published in 2012, ISBN: 978-0812981605

(3) Wechsler, H., Devereaux, R. S., Davis, M., & Collins, J. (2000). Using the School Environment to Promote Physical Activity and Healthy Eating. Preventive Medicine, 31(2), S121-S137.

(4) Cannizzaro, Sara & Anderson, Myrdene. (2016). Culture as Habit, Habit as Culture: Instinct, Habituescence, Addiction.

(5) Schwabe, L., Wolf, O. (2009) Stress Prompts Habit Behavior in Humans, Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (22) 7191-7198;

(6) Quinn, J., Wood, Wendy. (2006). Habits Across the Lifespan:

(7) Albarracín, D. (2000). The Cognitive Impact of Past Behavior: Influences on Beliefs, Attitudes, and Future Behavioral Decisions. Journal of personality and social psychology, 79(1), 5.

(8) Collier R. (2012). Unhealthy behaviors influenced by genes and environment. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne, 184(8), E395–E396.

(9) Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.

(10) Rhodes, Ryan & Kates, Andrew. (2015). Can the Affective Response to Exercise Predict Future Motives and Physical Activity Behavior? A Systematic Review of Published Evidence. Annals of behavioral medicine: a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. 49.

(11) Bargh, J.A. (1997) The Automaticity of Everyday Life. In: Wyer Jr., R.S., Ed., Advances in Social Cognition, Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, 1-61.

(11a) Bargh, JA & Chartrand, T.L.. (1999). The unbearable automaticity of being. American Psychologist. 54. 462-479.

(12) Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: Thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1281–1297.

(12a) Bargh, J. A., Chaiken, S., Raymond, P., & Hymes, C. (1996). The Automatic Evaluation Effect: Unconditional Automatic Attitude Activation with a Pronunciation Task. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 32(1), 104-128.

(13) Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(6), 893–910.

(14) Elicker, Joelle & Foust, Michelle & O'Malley, Alison & Levy, Paul. (2008). Employee Lateness Behavior: The Role of Lateness Climate and Individual Lateness Attitude. Human Performance. 21. 427-441.


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