Does It Really Take 21 Days to Break a Habit? Nooo!!!!!
It is either done in a split second or never. No, it does not take 21 days.
Why? Because a habit in its basic form is a neural sequence hardcoded in your brain. The only way to “break” it is a lobotomy. You lose your brain, and you lose your habits as well.
In other words, habits are unbreakable.
However, they are changeable. You cannot break your habits, but you can manipulate them.
If a habit is a pattern saved in your brain, you can “overwrite” this pattern with a new behavior. Abstinence may be a new behavior as well.
But first, you need to understand how a habit is stored in your brain. It is saved in your neurons as a habit loop that consists of three elements: a cue that triggers a routine; a routine that follows the trigger; and an endpoint that finishes the loop; it’s often mistakenly called a reward.
Everything may be a cue: a place, time of the day, your emotional state, even words or specific events. What is more, because of the associative nature of our memory, very often the cue is the set of specific conditions. If you are bored at work, it will trigger different behavior than being bored at home.
Changing the trigger is impossible. The same set of conditions will always start the habit loop. But with your conscious intervention, you can change the routine. For example, that is what people who replace smoking cigarettes with chewing a mint gum do.
There are several ways in which you can change your behavior so radically that it seems like you broke the habit. The change may be instantaneous. It may take just a few days when the strong impulse for change overwhelms old patterns.
With very diligent focus and high emotional charge, it may take about 21 days. Usually, the change of habit takes about as long as forming AND practicing it in the first place.
But in most cases, the habit is unscathed and it only seems like it is.
Let’s go over them one by one.
Such a change is impossible in normal circumstances. It takes enormous external or internal force to change a person in a moment. By external, I mean divine or spiritual help that we simply don’t comprehend. Saint Paul experienced something like that on his way to Damascus (Rev. chapter 9).
There are (and were) very few people on this planet who can change their behavior in the moment of decision. For example saints, who blindly succumb to the will of their superiors and do whatever they order them to do. Or monks, who trained control over their emotional states for decades. Let’s say this is their internal power.
Sometimes it happens to ordinary people, and we call it an enlightenment.
Very Fast Change
When it requires seemingly little effort and happens in a span of a few to several days, it’s usually an enlightenment that works inside a person for a little longer than a second.
In fact, such enlightenment may work in you even for weeks before you change for good. When I read “The Slight Edge” by Jeff Olson, it took me about a month before I took different action. My approach, attitude and worldview were affected during the lecture, but I needed to ponder this change to affect my behavior.
There is also another explanation: the cue was removed from your life. One of the three ways to permanently change human behavior is change of the environment. When you move to a different city, change job or get married, your life changes so much that many old triggers disappear.
I was very proud of me when I quit playing computer games in less than a week. I thought I was self-disciplined and had an iron willpower (yes, I can be an arrogant prick).
Nope. In that week, I developed my personal mission statement and eliminated the trigger for playing: I no longer was bored, overwhelmed or aimless. The combination of those three emotions was my trigger to indulge myself in fictional achievements in computer games. When they disappeared, my old behavior disappeared as well.
If you put lots of effort into the change of your routine, you can change a habit within a few weeks. It takes lot of mindfulness and preparation, plenty of repetitions, and often, a superb emotional charge invested into a new behavior. All those factors can accelerate the change of your routine.
It can take you 15 days, 21 or 43. Anyway, after this initial period, your new routine will no longer be forced. It will become a part of your identity. When an old behavior raises its ugly head from time to time, you will be dismayed and surprised that something like this is still inside you. I’m always puzzled by my own returns to binge YouTube watching of talent shows. After such binge, I feel like someone hijacked my body and mind for a few hours.
It’s rare, because most people give up too early. When you decide to change your routine, you take precautions to avoid old behavior and design a new one. You repeat, repeat and repeat the new behavior, but when you put your guard down the old habits slips in unnoticed.
After some time, you realize what happened and go back to your new routine. This battle can last for years because in the end, it is about the number of repetitions.
If you smoked cigarettes for 10 years, 20 cigarettes a day, it takes 73,001 repetitions of a new habit triggered by the exact same cue to overwrite a new routine in your habit loop.
If the habit is broken fast, it is an illusion. Either the trigger was eliminated from your life, or you experienced enlightenment that confused and reshaped your whole identity.
Enlightenment is outside of human power to control. If you only eliminated the trigger for your old habit, you’d better be aware of that. When the trigger returns, it will release your old behavior without a fault.
If you want to break a habit, you need to identify its cue and replace the old routine with the new one. If you want to make it relatively fast, let’s say in 21 days, it will take an insane amount of focus and repetitions. For 99% of people, it’s out of the question.
The best course of action, the hack, is to know yourself, know your triggers, and painstakingly eliminate them from your life. Then put your attention in creating totally new habits that will fill the void.
This article was originally published at www.quora.com.