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Health, The Mind

It’s ‘Stoptober’ – but 28 days isn’t long enough to change a habit

Habits aren't easy to breakA month feels a very long time when you’re trying to give something up. Crikey, if you’re trying to give up cigarettes then even a weekend seems an eternity. And now that October is upon us, scores of smokers are going cold turkey on the fags for a 28 day stint. It’s all part of the NHS’s annual ‘Stoptober’ stop-smoking campaign; the logic being that if you can kick the cigs for a month then you can kick them for good. A nice idea, but does it really help?

Everyone’s heard that it takes 28 days to make or change a habit. Granted, some of us have been told that it’s 21 days; but the general ‘if you can stick it out for three-four weeks’ rule has long been accepted wisdom of counsellors, agony aunts and your mates down the pub. But just know this: the idea that it takes a month to change your ways is a load of tosh. For actual science says that changing any routine – be it smoking or otherwise usually takes much longer than 28 days.

The best research we have tells us that it is 66 days on average before any repeated behaviour becomes automatic. But the time it takes to change our habits is different for everyone: some people can do it in about 18 days whereas others need 250 days (!) or longer. You never know how long it will take you until you start trying. And while you’re at it, it’s good to know that if we miss the odd day then it won’t make much difference to the ultimate outcome. The data shows that time and perseverance are what is needed.

We all know what it is like to have our nearest and dearest get irritated by our quirky routines – but this is nature: habits designed to stick. Habits exist precisely so that we do things automatically without thinking about it. It preserves our brain power for more important things. Imagine how difficult it would be to deliberately “mirror, signal, manoeuvre” every time you drove the car from the kerb. Because that procedure has been rehearsed enough times, it is an ingrained habit (hopefully). And the same goes for how we unthinkingly brush our teeth, turn on the TV with the remote and pick our nose while waiting at the red lights. (I know that the last one is not just me.)

Of course, smoking isn’t just any old habit – it is a drug addiction. Nicotine is a drug that numbs the smoker’s mind to the foolishness of smoking. It is considered the third most addictive drug we will ever come across (behind heroin and cocaine) and so makes putting down the fags far more challenging than other habits. For smoking, extra help is usually called for: support groups, nicotine replacement therapies (with support), self-help materials, quitlines and medication. Each can help and every year national campaigns like ‘Stoptober’ give the extra motivation for smokers to beat the nicotine monster for good.

So if you are choosing to stop smoking this month, or even taking it as an opportunity to change another bad habit, just remember to be kind on yourself. For while 28 days can feel a long time it is only the start. It’s the beginning of a new way of life.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: Chris JL via Compfight cc

Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C., Potts, H., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world European Journal of Social Psychology, 40 (6), 998-1009 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.674

About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...


2 thoughts on “It’s ‘Stoptober’ – but 28 days isn’t long enough to change a habit

  1. First off I think “Stoptober” is fantastic because it can give motivation to smokers everywhere. I know that to stop smoking can be very difficult because it is a physiological addiction along with a psychological addiction because with the nicotine it increases wakefulness and arousal by stimulating a neurotransmitter called Acetylcholine. Smokers say it ‘relaxes’ them which it does and doesn’t. Nicotine causes tension in your body and once your addicted to go without causes even more tension which is why so many struggle to quit. If people were to find a new way to deal with stress such as a stress ball, yoga or working out then I think they’d be able to quit easier. Also they seem to struggle with being responsive to pleasant events so they smoke to have that feeling.

    Posted by Paige S. | October 5, 2014, 12:04 am

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