How Long Does It Take the Brain to Create A New Habit?

All athletes need to create a series of healthy habits to have great performance. However, habits aren't adopted overnight.
How Long Does It Take the Brain to Create A New Habit?

Last update: 22 October, 2020

A very common question that everyone asks is how long it takes for the brain to create a new habit. Experts say that a person must repeat a specific behavior for 21 days for it to become a habit. However, we can’t help but wonder if this applies to every single person equally. What do you think?

The truth is that it’s difficult to predict how long it takes for the brain to create a new habit. After all, we acquire them through continuous practice over time, but there isn’t an exact number of days by which a behavior becomes a habit. It’s all subjective – the time to acquire it depends on the person’s interest, perseverance, and motivation.

If you want to create a new habit, you can’t let yourself be overcome by laziness or demotivation. In the field of sports, most, if not all athletes have routines before and after competing, which serve to optimize their performance.

It’s no secret that all athletes need to follow healthy practices. In this article, we’ll explain how they’re created and we’ll also give you some tips to create solid and strong habits.

How to create a new habit

Acquiring new habits is a learning process like any other. Within the brain, the learning process is carried out by strengthening connections between neurons and creating neural networks. On a practical level, the most common way to create a new habit is through classical and operant conditioning. Let’s see what they’re about.

1. Classical conditioning

This type of learning occurs when two stimuli, one that elicits an automatic response and one that doesn’t, are presented together. Now, conditioning occurs when the stimulus that previously didn’t elicit any response is capable of producing an automatic response without needing the other stimulus to be present.

The best example to understand classical conditioning is fear. Let’s better explain this by using an example. If a sports player suffers an injury on a certain court, they may become afraid to practice sports there again and experience an unpleasant sensation.

In this case, the neutral stimulus that didn’t elicit any response (the court) is associated with the painful stimulus (the injury) and is capable of eliciting the same anxiety response even when there’s no risk of injury.

2. Operant conditioning: create a new habit

In operant conditioning, the learning lesson comes from the consequences of certain behavior. Think of behavior whose consequences are quite positive. Said consequences become reinforcements given that they encourage the behavior to happen again. On the contrary, if the consequence is aversive, the frequency of the behavior will decrease since the consequence is a punishment.

This kind of learning goes very unnoticed, however, it’s present in many contexts of everyday life. For example, a coach who congratulates an athlete for performing an exercise well can make the athlete more likely to repeat that exercise. In this case, the coach’s congratulations are a reinforcement that will increase the frequency of the athlete’s behavior.

A woman with a knee injury.

Steps to building solid and lasting habits

Now that you’ve seen the processes to acquire a new habit, the next step is learning how to optimize them to make the habits learned more durable.

1. Reinforce each progress, a great tip to create a new habit

Something you must keep in mind if you want to create a new habit is that maintaining high levels of motivation and interest in the behavior is key. You can achieve this easily and effectively by reinforcing every advance you make.

To choose an appropriate reinforcement, you need to know yourself and what you really desire. Reinforcements can be material (money, gifts, or food, for example) or social (praise, gestures of affection, or congratulations). The latter tends to be more efficient and, of course, is less expensive than material goods.

2. Set concrete and realistic goals

People tend to quit habits because they tend to set long-term goals far beyond their capabilities. The inability to achieve the objectives produces feelings of demotivation and apathy.

Let’s see it with an example. If a person who’s never practiced sports decides to go out for a run every day with the aim of preparing for a marathon in two months, it’s very likely that they’ll end up dropping out because the goal is too ambitious. So it’d be much better for you to think of small, easy-to-achieve goals based on your capabilities.

3. Don’t procrastinate: create a new habit

It’s extremely common for people to procrastinate when it comes to making changes in their lives. You’ve surely heard (or even said) phrases such as, “I’ll start the diet on Monday”, or “I’ll start working out next month”.

Constantly putting off change does nothing but keep you in a state of inactivity. As a result, you can become stressed and anxious. It isn’t necessary to wait for a specific moment to create a new habit – take advantage of the present moment to begin a new life!

4. Surround yourself with supportive people

Without a doubt, it’s very gratifying to count on individuals who support you in what you do. Everyone needs people who motivate and help them through difficult times.

It’s true that acquiring new habits is a personal process, which means that it’s different for everyone. However, surrounding yourself with positive people is an added value that can encourage you to reach your goals. Additionally, it gives you positive energy to face challenges.

A man feeling happy because he was able to create a new habit.

Create a new habit: slowly but surely

As you can see, it isn’t possible to determine how long it takes the brain to create a new habit, but there are guidelines that do guarantee that behaviors become routines. The key to this process is having discipline and commitment to the habit. Always keep in mind that making changes and getting used to a new routine is difficult so don’t be too hard on yourself at first.

That being said, each person needs time to adapt to a different lifestyle. Being hasty and impatient will only make you anxious and will probably hinder your growth process. It’s more realistic to go step by step with confidence than to want to achieve everything all at once.

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  • Figueroba, A. (2014). Condicionamiento operante. Conceptos y técnicas principales.