The 21 Days Myth: How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?

The 21 Days Myth: How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?

Have you ever heard that it takes 21 days to form a habit? Well, it might be more complicated than that. A new study from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) sheds light on the question: how long does it take to form a habit? Researchers discovered that it takes an average of around six months for individuals to develop a habit of going to the gym regularly. In contrast, healthcare workers took only a few weeks to establish the habit of consistently washing their hands.

How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit? No Magic Number

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenges the common belief that it takes precisely 21 days to form a habit. According to Anastasia Buyalskaya, an assistant professor of marketing at HEC Paris and one of the study’s authors, there is no “magic number” for habit formation. The speed at which habits develop depends on various factors and the specific behavior in question.

This groundbreaking research employed machine learning tools to analyze vast datasets. The team used data from tens of thousands of individuals who swiped their gym entry badges or wore radio frequency identification (RFID) badges to monitor hand-washing during hospital shifts. The datasets included over 30,000 gymgoers and more than 3,000 healthcare workers.

Machine Learning Methods

By leveraging machine learning, the researchers could observe numerous variables that might predict behavioral patterns. They found that factors such as the time of day had no effect on gym habit formation. However, past behavior played a crucial role. For most gymgoers, the time elapsed since their previous gym visit significantly influenced their likelihood of returning. The longer it had been since their last visit, the less likely they were to make going to the gym a habit. Additionally, the majority of gymgoers preferred going on the same days of the week, with Mondays and Tuesdays being the most popular.

In the hand-washing segment of the study, researchers analyzed data from healthcare workers who were given RFID badges to monitor their hand-washing activity. Although some workers already had the habit in place, the introduction of the RFID technology acted as a “shock” that allowed researchers to observe the habit formation process.

This study demonstrates the power of machine learning in studying human habits outside the confines of a lab setting. It provides valuable insights into the factors that influence habit formation, highlighting the complexity and individuality of the process.

The research, titled “What can machine learning teach us about habit formation? Evidence from exercise and hygiene,” received funding from the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, the Ronald and Maxine Linde Institute of Economics and Management Sciences at Caltech, and the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience at Caltech.

The Key? Be Persistent

In conclusion, the journey to forming a habit is not bound by a fixed timeframe. Understanding the intricacies of habit formation can help individuals and organizations develop strategies for effective behavior change. Whether it’s hitting the gym regularly or adopting healthy hygiene practices, persistence and patience are key to establishing lasting habits.

Source: Anastasia Buyalskaya, Hung Ho, Katherine L. Milkman, Xiaomin Li, Angela L. Duckworth, Colin Camerer. What can machine learning teach us about habit formation? Evidence from exercise and hygieneProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2023; 120 (17) DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2216115120

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