We’ve all heard the idea that it takes 90 days to form a habit that sticks. This is often talked about in conjunction with diet and exercise programs. But, is it true? 

The reality is that the time to build a habit can vary greatly depending on the individual and the behavior itself (it’s a lot easier to watch television than it is to exercise). But habits are absolutely formed through repetition, which actually rewires our brains, creating new neural pathways.  

The Pattern

Researchers at MIT discovered a pattern that governs all habit formation:

  • Cue. This is a trigger that signals the brain to go into automatic mode.
  • Routine. This is the action of doing the actual thing.
  • Reward. No surprise here—this tells us whether something is worth doing again or not. The speed of the reward is key.

Together these steps form a loop. Over time, this loop becomes automatic and a habit develops—whether we want it to or not.  Looking at these steps, it’s easy to see how they can apply equally to destructive habits (use disorders) and positive ones (daily meditation—or even flossing). 

Changing Habits

If building a habit occurs through repetition that changes how we think, then how can a habit be changed or undone?  It’s not easy to change a habit. The very definition of a habit is doing something automatically, without much thought. Breaking a habit takes considerable effort. This can involve identifying triggers and cues and how to work around them to change a learned behavior. Just a reward is a function of building a habit, it can also help change or break a habit.