How long does it take to break a habit?
NASA-based research shows how we can learn to break a habit, and create and sustain a new one.
In the early 1970s, NASA was running long-term tests on astronauts for the Mars program. I didn’t discover this until years later, but one of the scientist running these tests was actually two doors up from me on my street. They were running various different tests and studies, and one was putting astronauts in a six-month disoriented environment. And the way they did that was they put goggles on them.
This is a great metaphor because when you understand how you really see, do you realize that the way your vision works is you’re literally seeing things upside down? Because of the way the lens refracts images onto the back side of your brain.
So they put another lens in front of the eye to refract things right side up, so the brain now sees things upside down. And so they were going to stay in these goggles for six months and learn the psychological stress it caused and how they adapted. So ponder this, if you’re sitting at a dinner table with a fork, the table is upside down, and you’re trying to figure out how to eat upside down.
Two things came out of the study that were unintended consequences. The first thing was one day the astronaut would wake up, and everything was right side up again. Their brain adapted, they still had the upside down goggles on, and they’re suddenly seeing right side up. Which blew their mind! The earliest it happened was 14 days, the average time was 21 days, the longest was 30 days.
When you read studies and research on breaking habits, what’s the three times frames you generally hear it takes to break a habit? 14 days, 21 days, and 30 days to break a habit. That’s where the stuff came from.
Now, here’s the second unintended consequence that was really fascinating. Let’s say on day 18 it hadn’t flipped yet, and there’s family emergency and you have to take your goggles off for four hours and take care of your family, and you come back to NASA and put your goggles back on:
If you’re the type of brain that was going to flip at 21 days and this was day 18, do you believe that,
a. because you came out of goggles for four hours, you flip at 21 days plus 4 hours, or
b. by just coming out of the goggles for a minute, you completely reset the clock to zero. You’re at day 18, you disturb the routine, does it just add some time to the flip, or does it zero it out and you have to start all over again?
It starts all over again! And it pisses people off. “I only broke my habit one meal and it’s not 30 days to change. I’ve been seven months trying to change it and there’s no changing.” Because you don’t understand how your mind and brain work!
If you knew that you had to get through the flip. It’s not having one meal and it’s going to add time to change the habit. Every time you’re trying to break a habit, because habits are neural patterns, you have to persist through the flip if you want to break a neural pattern
It flips when you’re consistent. And if you do that, was the meal that broke the 14 days worth it? Was going back to the old habit one time, in that time window, worth it? No. Of course not. Not if you understand how it works.
So having access to this research and this tool allows you to say no. It helps you sustain the new habit because you understand how your mind actually works now. You have the science, the technology, to understand how to break habits and how long it takes to form new ones.