Making changes can be difficult. Making them stick is even harder.
As an entrepreneur, you have to continuously evolve to adapt. To ensure you’re always ahead of your competitors, you may need to adjust workplace processes — from how you conduct financial analysis to how teams collaborate with each other.
But research from Gartner found that employees’ willingness to go along with organizational changes decreased 31% between 2016 and 2022. Founders not only have to make sure they will practice new processes, but that their teams can stick with it as well.
One way to accomplish that is by establishing habits, which takes a lot of the mental workload out of new tasks. Doing things a different way eventually becomes second nature.
But how long does it take to form a habit?
The amount of time will vary, whether you’re forming a new habit from scratch or trying to replace a bad habit. Following expert tips for building habits can help, as can working in healthy habits throughout your daily routine.
How bad habits are formed
At their core, bad habits are formed out of routine and often in pursuit of instant gratification. There’s a reason most people would choose to scroll through their Instagram feeds instead of a spreadsheet.
According to the National Institutes of Health, these bad habits trigger the reward area of the brain. Since they’re enjoyable, they cause the brain to release dopamine. This chemical response can cause a vicious cycle where you continue the behavior because you’re chasing after that dopamine.
Although bad habits may make you feel good momentarily, they can wreak havoc on your physical or mental health in the long term. They can also impact your productivity.
Consequences of bad habits
The consequences of bad habits usually depend on the activity. For example, if you get into the habit of skipping breakfast, you may feel sluggish throughout the day or keep snacking at your desk.
Often, bad habits come back to hurt your well-being later. You make a trade between long-term success and short-term satisfaction.
How good habits are formed
Luckily, good and bad habits are essentially formed the same way — through repetition and reward.
Good habits may take a bit more work, as the gratification is often delayed. For example, people may want to focus on weight loss, but it’s still common to choose the instant reward of a delicious, sugar-laden cake over vegetable sticks.
Bernhard Tewes, a Berlin-based hypnotherapist and founder of the HypnoBox app, says you can successfully form a new daily habit when three conditions are met:
- You realize something has to change immediately
- You realize that you, and not someone else, have to make this change
- You realize it has to happen now
When you meet these requirements, you’re more likely to change your behavior.
Positive habits are formed when you repeat the behavior consistently.
So, if you want to get better at your people skills, it won’t help if you only go to a networking event once a year. You should find a way to build the habit more frequently. Maybe monthly or weekly meetings with a local association would be more effective.
How long does it take to form a habit?
There is no magic number when it comes to the habit-formation process.
“Developing a new habit can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, depending on various factors, such as the complexity of the habit, your motivation, and your environment,” says Dr. Marlin Chris Wolf, a board-certified clinical psychologist.
Part of this process depends on how often you perform the new behavior. Something you do multiple times a day may become a habit more quickly than something you only do a few times a month.
Don’t worry if it takes a bit longer than you’d like for your habit to become second nature. A 2021 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology found that people need an average of 59 days to successfully form a new habit in nutrition.
Other research has found longer and shorter durations for habit forming. A study from the European Journal of Social Psychology found an average of 66 days was required to form a habit, with a range between 18 and 254 days.
Notably, these researchers found that skipping the behavior once didn’t have a big impact on habit formation if participants picked things up afterward.
Often, participants have to perform their new activities at the same time and place in their daily lives. Another important factor is your motivation. Is this change really important to you? Or is it more of a temporary fancy?
When you zoom in on why you want to make this change, you may discover some additional motivation to help you stick with your new habit.
How long does it take to break a habit?
Breaking a habit is less well studied, but as it also involves a behavior change, the time frame can be similar to creating a habit.
Attempting to break a bad habit can be complicated by the urge to continue the activity.
“Sometimes it feels like the urge to return to a bad habit lasts forever. It’s important to remember it doesn’t. Putting off the [bad] action can get us through a rough time and help us break our old habit,” says Dr. Craig Kain, a licensed psychologist.
He suggests giving yourself a time limit. For example, see if you can go ten minutes without the habit, then build up the limit gradually.
How to start a new habit
Starting a new habit is often challenging, especially for entrepreneurs with a full plate. Try these tips to help with the process:
- Make a plan: Set a goal and plan when and where you’ll perform the new habit. Try to include details.
Say you want to stop procrastinating when you have a string of important emails to write. Try breaking down the task into more manageable chunks, like writing the first three emails by 10am.
- Write it down: Keep track of when you perform the habit, so you can review it later. This is especially important at the beginning, when the action probably won’t feel instinctual. It also helps you visualize your progress, so you can see how often you did complete the new action instead of always focusing on when you forgot to.
- Be patient with yourself: Don’t expect these changes to happen overnight. Remember it can take weeks or even months for habits to form, so focus on repeating the activity and accepting that you may make the occasional misstep.
- Add context: A 2022 study found people who ate fruit at the same time of day and with the same context (like always after breakfast) were more successful in adding the new habit.
Choose a specific time and context for your new habit. For example, say you want to take a short break in the afternoon to recharge, so you’re more productive for the rest of the day. You would be more likely to take the break if you stick with the same time (2pm) and context (after a daily meeting) every day.
Benefits of starting a new habit
Starting a new habit isn’t just a New Year’s resolution to check off — it can actually have some big benefits for your state of mind.
One study shows that starting good habits may improve your self-control. The researchers found that as habits were formed, participants reported it took less effort. They could handle motivational interference better, too.
As a founder, you can improve your habits in many ways. For example, if you struggle to remember routine tasks, doing them at the same time can help. Maybe you could reply to your morning emails right after making your second cup of coffee. Or perhaps you could conduct inventory on the first Monday of every month.
Alternatively, if you want to encourage your team to be more collaborative, then maybe set aside time for weekly brainstorming sessions so people get in the habit of working together.
Good habits help provide structure, and repeating the same behavior over and over makes the habit easier to stick with.
The small changes you start today will set you up for a more productive, less hectic life, both personally and professionally.