To consistently improve yourself, you’ll occasionally want to make behavioral changes. Sometimes, this is easy. You decide what you want to alter and then do so. Other times, you might feel challenged in your efforts to change, even if the change is for the better.

So what can you do to make relatively permanent changes in your behavior, if you’re having trouble sticking to new ways of doing things? How do you go about establishing a new habit, something you do automatically without considering alternatives?

Forming Habits

We’ve all heard that we must repeat a behavior for a certain number of days to establish a habit. You might even have applied this information by marking off days on your calendar until you passed that last “magic” day, as you tried to form healthier practices in your life. However, recent research disputes what we once thought was necessary to form a habit.

Researcher Phillippa Lally and others at University College London determined that you actually must do an activity for 66 days in a row before it becomes a habit! They found that if you want to do a behavior automatically, you have to repeat it daily 66 times, consecutively.

Lally, et al also discovered that when first forming a habit, the behavior is cue-dependent. This means that in order to carry out a behavior you want to establish as a habit, you require exposure to a cue that serves to “remind” you to perform the action. Such cues can be either situational, (such as your environment or location) or contextual (based on something else that you do).

  • Situational example: When you rise in the morning and enter the bathroom, you probably see your toothbrush or your sink. Those objects serve as cues for you to brush your teeth.
  • Contextual example: Every morning before you eat breakfast, you want to remember to eat a piece of fruit. Your cue for this is getting out of bed in the morning or reaching the time of day when you’re about to eat breakfast.

Also relevant to forming a habit is consistency. Although you can skip a day, the research recommends you go right back to performing the desired action. Even though the researchers admit that they can’t say exactly how many times in 66 days you can skip and still form a habit, they do stress if you’re too inconsistent, the behavior won’t become automatic.

How to Establish a Habit

Based on the research:

1. Clarify what habit you want to establish. For example, “I want to increase my vegetable servings to 5 a day” or “I will walk 30 minutes a day.”

2. Commit to repeating the behavior every day for 66 days. If you already know you’re taking a vacation in 3 or 4 weeks, now might not be the time to work on forming a habit.

3. Consider what will be your cue. Will you see some object at home or will there be a time of day when you do something already? Just trusting yourself to remember to do the new behavior during your busy day may not be effective. Cues are potent reminders to help you as you work on bettering yourself.

4. Think about the location. The location at which you perform the behavior matters. Will you be at home when you do the new activity? At the office? If you can stick with the same location, at least until the habit forms, you’re more likely to be successful.

5. Be consistent. Refrain from skipping the behavior during the time of establishing the habit, if you can.

6. Notice when the activity becomes automatic. You’ll know a habit has been formed when you’ve reached the point where your day seems lacking if you don’t perform the behavior. Success, at last!

Now you have science to apply when you want to establish a habit. No more guesswork! Just 66 days of dedication and reminders, and you’ll be well on your way to a better you.