How long does it take to form a habit?
If you are trying to start a daily meditation practice, you may be wondering how long it takes to form a habit. Depending on who you ask, you may get answers ranging anywhere from 3 days to 3 weeks to 66 days — and sometimes even longer!
But before we get too focused on a particular number of days or length of time, keep in mind that you could potentially be setting yourself up for failure by trying to develop a habit — particularly a daily meditation practice — within a precise window of time. That’s because forming a meditation habit isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Rather, it’s dependent on many things specific to you — namely, your familiarity with meditation and your circumstances. Here’s some more information for understanding how long it takes to create a habit, as well as tips for getting a daily meditation habit to stick.
The research on forming habits
There is compelling research that attempts to answer the question: how long does it take to form a habit? The infamous “21 days” myth spread after a 1960 book called Psycho-Cybernetics became widely popular. (It was written by a plastic surgeon who noticed his patients seemed to take about 21 days to get used to their new faces.) Since then new research has refuted this claim, suggesting that it takes much longer to form a habit. Most notably, researchers from the University College London found that it takes at least 66 days for “automaticity” to kick in.
The same University College London study also showed a huge variation in individual times among participants — anywhere from 18 to 254 days (which, notably, is 12 times longer than 21 days ). Of course, this isn’t so surprising when you consider that some people are more resistant to forming habits than others. Plus, some habits are simply more difficult to pick up than others.
That’s why when you set out to create a habit — whether that be establishing a morning meditation practice or something else — it’s important to focus less on the amount of time and more on the work needed to achieve your goal.
More tips for making daily meditation a habit
When it comes to meditation, it may be unreasonable to predict how long it will take to form a habit, but there are some things you can do to increase the chances that you’ll stick with it.
Choose a specific time and place that works for you. One of the best ways to turn your meditation practice into a habit? Try to do it the “same time, same place” regularly. Many people recommend meditating in the morning; you’ll be less likely to come up with excuses to put it off if you do it first thing. Plus, then you’ll be in the right frame of mind to start the day. But if the morning doesn’t work for you, don’t sweat it. Really, the best time to meditate is whenever you can prioritize it.
As for the best place — there’s isn’t any. All you need is somewhere that’s quiet and comfortable with minimal distractions.
Decide on a realistic amount of time to meditate. Like so many things in life, when it comes to meditation, it’s not the quantity of time that matters but the quality. What’s most important is to find an amount of time that’s effective, yet also feels achievable and keeps you motivated. That’s the only way you have a chance of succeeding. For some people, that might mean five minutes, for others, 60. To find the optimal amount of time for you — a.k.a. your personal sweet spot — start small with manageable chunks of time such as 3, 5, or 10 minutes, and build from there.
Use habit anchors. Sound weird? It’s actually a useful mental strategy. Habit anchoring is the practice of choosing a 30-second action that prompts you to start your new daily meditation routine, for example: “I will count inhale and exhale breath cycles for 30 seconds before I start meditating.” Then, you attach this new 30-second action to a habit anchor — an action you already do as part of your existing daily routine. So, “I will be counting my breaths as soon as I get out of the shower.” And it works! Research shows that anchor habits can be a powerful way to get new habits to stick.
Use the “habit loop” formula. Some experts believe that a process called habit loops — which is somewhat related to habit anchoring — are key for developing a new habit (or disrupting old ones). Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit”, describes a habit loop as a combination of cue, routine, reward, and craving. To establish a new routine like meditation, you need a cue (something that triggers your behavior); a reward (the benefit you get from completing your routine); and a craving (the urge you feel once your brain starts to associate your cue with an anticipated reward).
So, for example, if you’re trying to make meditation a habit, a habit loop could look like this: Choose a cue — such as taking a shower — and reward — such as feelings of calm and clarity you get when you’ve finished meditating. Allow yourself to anticipate those pleasant feelings. Eventually, the craving for that reward will make it easier to set aside some time each day for meditation practice.
Get comfortable. Sit with your legs and arms uncrossed, feet flat on the floor, and hands resting on your lap or by your side. Keep your back straight but not too tense — a small cushion or rolled up towel underneath your backside can help.
Use a guide. A guide or a guided meditation app — like the Headspace app — can be a useful tool for beginning a daily meditation practice. Most meditation apps are designed for both beginner and experienced meditators and offer valuable instruction, insights, and support on a variety of topics.
How Headspace can help form a meditation habit
The Headspace app has several features that can help you create a daily meditation habit. The run streak feature records the number of consecutive days you’ve meditated. This accountability tool is intended to serve as a framework for your meditation practice, designed to keep your intention, commitment, and discipline on track. When building a practice, a run streak carries a motivational element, too, in much the same way that mile-markers spur on the marathon runner.
For those who get bored easily, another feature, Everyday Headspace, is a daily meditation on a different topic every day; you can find one on your home screen every day. There are also super-short meditations that will keep you on track even on those inevitable days when you only have a minute or two to practice. Finally, there are Everybody Headspace, daily group meditations where our global community meditates together to support each other in sticking with our meditation habit.
If you’re ready to forget about the amount of time it takes to form a meditation habit and instead focus on the work needed to get you there, then give the Headspace app a try. But above all else, it’s worth remembering that meditation is intended to be a life-long journey. It’s not a quick-fix; it’s meant to be the habit of a lifetime. So whether you maintain the habit, or stop and start, the key thing to remember is to enjoy the journey, without being focused on any kind of destination. Meditation is a practice we can never stop honing, mainly because we show up with a different state of mind, and different thoughts and feelings, every single time we sit. And once you experience the calm, clarity, and contentment that regular meditation creates, you might well find it’s a hard habit to break.
When you’re ready, press play. Headspace is here to help you make mindfulness a habit. Sign up for your free trial to find some headspace today.
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