How long does it take to build a habit?

A woman building the habit of flossing her teeth

Every month or so, I watch a video of James Clear talking about habits. Here’s the one I watched yesterday.

It’s always a refreshing realignment. His explanations are scientific, actionable, and best of all…simple. His book Atomic Habits is one I feel everyone should read.

Be it from his book, his blog, or his interviews, here are the big things I need to remind myself each month:

1) The quality of our habits tells us everything about our lives.

The number in our bank account is the sum total of our financial habits. The way our bodies look and feel is the sum total of our diet and exercise habits. The state of our living space is the sum total of our cleanliness habits.

We don’t need to “clean our room”; we need good cleanliness habits and then our rooms will always be clean.

2) We repeat what we enjoy.

Discipline and willpower will only get us so far…and most of the time they don’t get us far at all.

This is why the failure rate of fad diets is so high. Torturing ourselves into being healthy is wildly unsustainable. Statistically, the best results come from tiny, progressive changes in our daily habits.

Short exercises. Eating fewer processed foods. Drinking a glass of water.

None of these sound glamorous. That’s because they’re not. What sounds sexy (and I see this in coaching sessions all the time) is throwing five new habits on our plate at once.

“I’m gonna…”

• do an hour-long workout five times a week.
• finish four books this month.
• wake up at 5am on weekdays.

The same thing happens every time. The person, fueled by motivation, crushes the first day or two. But then when they return to their normal state, they remember they don’t enjoy the work needed to sustain any of these systems. They went from 0 to 1000 and gassed out. They ran a marathon without training for it.

It doesn’t sound as cool but the effective approach would be: “I’m gonna…”

• work out for five minutes before I shower.
• read at least two pages each morning.
• wake up five minutes earlier each morning.

It’s the unsexy, incremental changes which move us toward the person we want to be. But those changes have to be easy and enjoyable.

3) It takes forever to build a habit.

I don’t mean: Ugh, this is going to take forevvverrr.

In the personal development world, we often hear numbers thrown around for how long it takes our brains to feel something as habitual. I’ve heard 21, 66, and 100 days.

These are all averages so there’s no guarantee how long anything will take for anyone. It could happen this week or in eight months.

The truth is, building a habit takes a lifetime. If we stop doing the thing for any reason then we’ll have to start over.

I’ve been doing the same morning routine for almost four years now. There have been plenty of weeks where I’ve strayed or neglected to do parts of it. And each time, I have to slowly build it back into my ritual.

As James says, when people ask how long it takes to build a habit, what they’re really asking is, “How long do I have to work?” In other words, How long until I can just go on autopilot?

But our autopilot capabilities will always be tested, no matter how deeply ingrained the habit is. Changes in schedule, priorities, interests…Anything can throw us off course.

It’s up to us to steer ourselves back toward where we want to go.