A person can break a habit with the right techniques and guidance. Some evidence suggests that a person can break a habit within 21 days. However, others suggest it may take much longer than this.

Many people may have some form of habit they would like to break. It is possible to do this if they follow appropriate techniques to try to address the issue.

Rumors suggest that a person can break a habit in 21 days. However, this may not always be accurate. For some, it can take a much longer amount of time.

In this article, we look at ways a person can try to break a habit. We also consult scientific research and sources to provide an estimate on how long it may take to break a bad habit.

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Some examples of habits that people may wish to break include:

  • Nail biting: Nail biting, also known as onychophagia, is a common habit.
  • Smoking: Approximately 12.5% of adults in the United States smoke cigarettes.
  • Excessive alcohol consumption: Research suggests that mortality as a result of alcohol consumption in the U.S. has been growing for over a decade.
  • Snacking: Unhealthy snacking can have an impact on a person’s health.
  • Inadequate sleep habits: A person may not get enough sleep or be sleeping at irregular hours. A good night’s sleep is important for certain brain functions.

The 21 day timeframe does not appear to relate to the breaking of a habit. Instead, the myth seems to suggest that it only takes 21 days to form a new habit.

The myth that a person can develop new habits within 21 days relates to anecdotes from individuals who had received plastic surgery. Research suggests that people can psychologically readjust to their new appearance within 21 days.

However, people’s belief in this theory may also apply to breaking habits. This is because a person may form a new habit in order to break one.

Research suggests that this 21-day timeframe is not accurate. This misinformation can lead to individuals feeling frustrated when they have not formed a new habit or broken an old one within this time.

The above research goes on to suggest that 66 days is a more realistic timeframe for new habit formation.

An older study from 2009 suggests that people will take varying lengths of time to break or form a habit.

This study contained 96 participants who all had the task of forming a new habit. The researchers conclude that habit formation and breaking can take anywhere between 18 to 254 days.

2018 research states that people may be more likely to change a physical habit rather than a habit of thought.

Further research looked at the act of learning a new behavior in order to counteract the old habit. They found that, although individuals were able to learn the new behavior, this did not necessarily result in the disappearance of the old habit.

In some cases, they conclude, this may even strengthen the habit a person wishes to get rid of.

The time it takes for a person to break a habit may depend on a variety of factors. These may include:

  • Motivation: Everybody will have a different motivation for wanting to break a habit. For example, a person who is pregnant may have more motivation to quit smoking than others.
  • Length of time they have had the habit: If a person has been biting their nails their whole life, they may have a difficult time when they try to stop. However, if a person wishes to give up consuming large amounts of alcohol and has only been doing so for a few months, it may be easier for them since the habit is less ingrained.
  • Rewards someone associates with the habit: For example, a person may smoke cigarettes socially. The reward they get from doing this is that they socially connect with friends or get to take a break from work with colleagues. This may make it more difficult to break the habit, as they may perceive an unhealthy habit as having an upside to it.

Below are a few behavioral practices that may help a person break a habit.

Have realistic aims

A person should ensure that the goals they set for themselves are realistic and within an appropriate timeframe.

People should not expect to change their habits overnight and should take small steps to achieve their goals. Research suggests that simpler actions can lead to quicker habit changes.

People should also be aware that they may experience setbacks and the process of breaking a habit will usually not be an easy one.

Know the why

A person should know why they want to change their behavior. This may be for many reasons, including health reasons or because they want to spend more time with family.

Once a person identifies the why, they have a motivation that may help the breaking of a habit. It can also allow them to identify triggers and environments that they associate the behavior with.

In some cases, a person may need to find an alternative behavior to replace their bad habit.

Break habits with friends or family

A person may find this process much less challenging if they have support from friends or family.

If a friend or partner also wishes to break a habit, they may wish to consider doing it together. This can offer encouragement, mutual accountability, and another person to share their struggles with.

Enlist professional help

An individual may wish to enlist the help of a professional for habits for which they have experienced significant consequences, such as smoking or drinking alcohol, or if they have had difficulty making changes on their own.

People may wish to try to break the habit themselves before enlisting professional help.


By practicing mindfulness, a person may be able to break bad habits. This is because mindfulness can clear and relax the mind. People may also be able to use mindfulness exercises to visualize themselves breaking the habit.

According to research, mindfulness may help to manage withdrawal symptoms, anxiety, stress, depression, and pain.

There are a variety of different habits a person may wish to break. The myth that a habit only takes 21 days to break is not necessarily true. The timeframe will vary for different people.

Realistically, a person will take anywhere from 18 to over 250 days to break a habit completely. This timeframe can vary from person to person.

To break a habit, a person should set realistic goals, know their reasons for wanting to break the habit, and identify triggers. They may also wish to seek professional assistance and practice mindfulness exercises.