The difficulty in turning actions into habits: why genetics are to blame

The difficulty in turning actions into habits: why genetics are to blame

It’s Monday today, so it looks like we’ll try to start going to the gym for yet another week (or learning Chinese, quitting smoking and drinking, whatever).

And for sure we’ll be doing it for the 21 days that are necessary to establish a new habit, right? Maybe not.

The good news is that habits are indeed made by intentionally repeating an action over and over. The bad news is that the supposed (relatively short) 21 days it takes to create a habit is a lie. The rumor comes from Dr. Maxwell Maltz first noticing that usually his patients get accustomed to their new faces 21 days after plastic surgery; he wrote this in his “Psychocybernetics” book. But getting used to a new nose in the mirror and getting used to physical exercise is not the same – these are different types of habituation presuming different mechanisms and energy inputs. By the way, Dr. Maltz is speaking only about 21 days minimum without mentioning the maximum. And that’s where the myth is coming from.


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Still, scientific research on habituation does exist. As usual, everything is individual-based and depends on the person and complexity of the habit. If you want to establish a simple habit (for instance, drinking a glass of water before breakfast), you will indeed need around 18-21 days. But for more complicated habits, like physical exercise or daily walks, more time is required. On average, 60-70 days are needed, and 264 days will theoretically be enough for anyone to establish a habit of any complexity.

GABAergic and glutamate-ergic cannabinoid receptors like CB1 are involved in habit establishment. Blocking them in a chemical or genetic way leads to the failure of habit establishment for mice. So, if it makes you feel any better, we struggle not due to laziness or hardships, we struggle because of the molecules in our brains.