Is There a Set Time Threshold Before a Task to Become a Habit?

Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Check out this answer from Consensus:

The formation of habits is a complex process influenced by the interplay between goal-directed and habitual response systems. While there is no single time threshold applicable to all tasks, research indicates that habits can form relatively quickly under certain conditions, particularly when responses are prepared automatically and practiced extensively. Understanding these dynamics can help in designing interventions to promote positive habits and mitigate negative ones.


The formation of habits is a critical aspect of human behavior, influencing everything from daily routines to complex skill acquisition. Understanding the time threshold required for a task to become a habit can provide valuable insights into behavioral psychology and practical applications in various fields such as education, health, and workplace productivity. This article explores the concept of habit formation, examining whether there is a specific time threshold before a task becomes a habit.

Theoretical Background

Habits are often conceptualized as learned associations where a specific stimulus triggers an automatic response. This process is thought to involve a competition between goal-directed and habitual response systems. The goal-directed system is responsible for deliberate actions based on current goals, while the habitual system triggers automatic responses based on past learning2 3.

Time Threshold for Habit Formation

Research indicates that the time required for a task to become a habit can vary significantly depending on the nature of the task and the individual’s engagement with it. A study by Hardwick et al. (2020) suggests that habits may be better understood as processes where a stimulus triggers the preparation of a response rather than its immediate initiation. This allows for the possibility that a habit can exist without being overtly expressed if a goal-directed response replaces the habitual one before it is initiated2.

Experimental Evidence

In an experiment involving a visuomotor association task, participants practiced for four days, after which the association was remapped. The study found that participants could easily learn the new association but habitually expressed the original association when forced to respond rapidly (within 300-600 milliseconds). More extensive practice reduced the latency at which habitual responses were prepared, increasing the likelihood of their expression2 3.

Computational Modeling

The time-course of habit expression was captured by a computational model in which habitual responses are automatically prepared at short latency but are subsequently replaced by goal-directed responses. This model illustrates that practice affects habitual behavior in two distinct ways: by promoting habit formation and by modulating the likelihood of habit expression2 3.

Threshold Awareness in Driving Tasks

Another study examined the concept of threshold awareness in the context of driving tasks. Participants drove in a simulator at various time headways and rated their feelings of task difficulty, risk, comfort, and effort. The results showed a threshold effect around the 2.0-second mark, where participants’ ratings of these variables began to noticeably increase. This suggests that there is a critical point at which the perception of task difficulty and risk becomes significant, potentially influencing habit formation in driving behavior1.


Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Wendy Wood has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Southern California in Habits, Behavioural Science

Habit memories form slowly, with repeated performance of a rewarded action in a given context. Habit formation is the standard way that repeatedly rewarded actions restructure the way information is stored in our brains. But before you have a habit, it’s going to be some work. Until you have laid down a habit in neural networks and memory systems, you must willfully decide to repeat a new action again and again, even when it’s a struggle. Gradually, it becomes second nature, and you can sit back and let autopilot drive.

But how many times do we have to repeat an action before it becomes automatic? Maybe you’ve heard that it takes 21 days of doing something to turn it into a habit. This is a myth. Research provides better insight. In one study, students at the University of London participated in a three-month-long project. Each student chose a healthy behavior that they were not currently doing but wanted to perform regularly. Then they chose some daily event in their lives to which they could connect the new behavior. One student decided to eat a piece of fruit every day at lunch. Another chose to run for fifteen minutes right before dinner. Still another determined to drink a bottle of water with lunch.

At the end of each day, participants logged onto the study website and reported on a scale how automatic the behavior felt to them—to what extent they did it “automatically,” “without thinking,” and “by starting before I realize.” As you’d expect, the more the actions were repeated, the more they felt automated. Automaticity increased the most during the first few weeks of repetition. The third time participants performed an action, they might have gone up a full point on the scale; the fortieth time they repeated it, maybe only half a point. When the action is hardest to do, right at the beginning, your habit memory is learning the most.

Different behaviors required differing amounts of repetition to become automatic. For eating something healthy, participants had to repeat the action for about 65 days before they did it mostly without thinking. Having a healthy drink took slightly less, some 59 days of repetition. Exercise, however, required more like 91 days of repeated action to become largely habitual.

It’s sort of obvious that we learn simple behaviors faster than more complex ones. Actions with multiple components, like getting to the gym and working out, might be particularly difficult habits to pick up. But there was no clear threshold for when habits formed. Actions became more automatic gradually, with repetition 

Ratings of how automatic an action feels provide only one answer to the threshold question. On average, it took participants 66 days of repeating a simple health behavior until they experienced it as automatic. Adopt a new behavior, do it repeatedly for two months and a week, and you’ve significantly increased that automated feeling.

There are other ways to test how long it takes to form a habit. Instead of asking how an action feels, we can ask what cognitive processes drive action: When does decision-making drop out so that we are not acting intentionally?

One answer comes from a study of several thousand Canadian blood donors. Blood donation in Quebec is highly structured. Donors get a call from Héma Québec when there’s a local blood drive, and they just show up at the usual donation spot. Quebec thus establishes driving forces to perpetuate donations by scheduling and encouraging people’s participation. The study participants were selected from those who had donated at least once, with an average of fourteen times in the past, ranging from 1 to 98 times. Participants reported their intentions to donate during the next six months. The researchers then tracked what they actually did the following year. 

As expected, beginning donors were intentional, giving blood if they had strong plans to do so, and not giving blood if they said they were less inclined to. This was true for those who had completed fewer than twenty donations in the past. More than twenty times as a donor, and their actions became less intentional, with each additional past donation incrementally reducing the decision-making involved in giving blood again. For the group who had donated 40 times or more in the past, intentions had essentially no impact—they just kept giving blood regardless of what they planned to do. 

But again, there was no clear line separating habits and non-habits. Instead, habits seemed to gradually develop and take over to bypass conscious decisions. The more often participants had donated in the past, the more likely they were to just show up without consulting their intentions. For those of us wanting to form a habit, 40 repetitions is a more optimistic answer than 66.


Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Benjamin Gardner has answered Unlikely

An expert from King’s College London in Psychology, Behavioural Science

To the psychologist, habitual behaviours are action episodes that are triggered automatically when we encounter situations in which we have repeatedly done the action in the past, due to the activation of learned situation-action responses.

It is not possible to state how long it takes for habit to form, for several reasons. First, habit is not a dichotomy; people do not either have habits or not have habits. Rather, habit varies on a continuum of strength, such that actions can be more or less strongly habitual. We cannot therefore identify a point at which someone ‘has a habit’ where previously they did not ‘have a habit’. Second, there is tremendous variation in the level at which habit strength peaks. A study by Phillippa Lally and colleagues, published in 2010, showed that, with once-daily repetition in a given setting, habit strength for new actions increased asymptotically, with rapid early gains in habit strength levelling off over time. Lally’s study suggested that it took on average 66 days for people to reach their personal peak habit strength. However, some people peaked at a very high level of habit strength, suggesting the action had become very strongly automatic for them, whereas others peaked at a middling level of habit, suggesting the action had become more automatic but was still not a strong habit. Third, Lally’s ’66 days’ figure was only an average. One person in her study reached their habit peak after just 18 days, whereas another did not reach their peak in the 12 weeks of the study, but it was predicted that if they persisted, they would reach their peak afte 254 days of repetition. We suspect that the level at which habit peaks, and the speed with which that level is reached, differs across people, behaviours, and possibly settings. For all of these reasons, a meaningful answer cannot be provided to the question of how it takes for habit to form.


Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

John Monterosso has answered Unlikely

An expert from University of Southern California in Psychology, Addiction

The time it takes to learn a habit would depend on (among other factors) 1) the simplicity of the action to be learned, and 2) on the power of the outcome that provides the reinforcement. So anything that could be reasonably viewed as a minimum time threshold is unlikely. There is relevant research on “one trial learning” in conditioning literature.


Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Phillippa Lally has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from University College London in Psychology, Behavioural Science

This question implies that a behaviour either is, or is not, a habit. In reality automaticity is a continuum, a behaviour can be more or less automatic. This is evidenced when you track the habit formation process; the shape is a curve with gradual increases over time until a plateau is reached. In our 2010 paper where we modelled this process (note participants were asked to perform a behaviour once a day) we used the point (on the modelled curve) at which a participant had reached a height that was 95% of their final plateau height, as the point at which we considered the habit to be formed. We calculated how long it took for participant’s to reach this point. The often quoted result was that the median was 66 days but what is more important is that the range was 18 to 254 days. In answer to this question therefore, no there is no set threshold and there are likely many factors that impact the number of repetitions required before a behaviour feels somewhat automatic, and how automatic it needs to be before it is considered a habit is up for debate.


Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Samuel Nordli has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Indiana University Bloomington in Cognitive Science, Psychology

A habit forms when a pattern of behavior repeatedly achieves a reward or goal within a recurrent ecological context. How quickly a habit forms will in part depend on how frequently and consistently the pattern of behavior is repeated in its context.

You can experiment on yourself by reversing the scrolling direction for your computer’s trackpad or mouse wheel. At first, you will likely catch yourself automatically scrolling in the wrong direction (which is evidence of your normal habitual scrolling behavior); however, because this action is simple and frequently repeated, you will tend to adapt quickly and rapidly form a new habit (which should, if you’ve kept it up long enough, similarly reveal itself with temporary automatic wrong-direction scrolling errors when you return to your default setting).

This process will progress much more slowly if a pattern of behavior is being repeated only once a day or several times per week (e.g., a morning exercise routine); the process will be slower still if the behavior is in competition with other existing habits/behaviors (especially if they are desirable) — scrolling direction settings are mutually exclusive, but if you have a habit of reading the news (or hitting the snooze button) in the mornings, the speed of formation for a new morning exercise habit will depend on how consistently it is performed to the exclusion of competing options.


Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Klaus Rothermund has answered Uncertain

An expert from University of Jena in Psychology, Behavioural Science

The role of time or temporal distance on the emergence of habits has not yet been systematically investigated. What is currently discussed in the literature are other factors, like:

(a) number of previous repetitions, regardless of when they occurred

(b) similarity of the situation or context, in which the previous behavior occurred, and the current situation, and

(c) the consequences that the previous behavior produced (i.e., whether it was rewarded or punished).

Of course, temporal distance could also have an influence, with more recent behaviors exerting a larger influence on current behavior than more distant behavioral episodes. In this case, the decisive factor that controls the influence of previous behavior on current behavior may not be time per se but rather whether the previous behavior occurred during the last occurrence of the current situation.


Is there a set time threshold before a task to become a habit?

Gina Cleo has answered Extremely Unlikely

An expert from Habit Change Institute in Habits, Behavioural Science, Health

Habit formation is a process by which behavioural control shifts from goal-dependence to context-dependence. Through context-dependent repetition, a habit can be formed. Automaticity means that, when an individual perceives a trigger, they directly retrieve the associated response from memory instead of effortfully calculating an action. 

Development of automaticity is the aim of habit formation, and discontinuation of automatic responding, the aim of habit disruption. 

Although automaticity is a continuum, a plateau can be reached where the action feels somewhat automatic and little deliberation is required to perform it. How long this process takes is dependent on a myriad of factors including, history of repetition, consistency, level of complexity of the task, environmental conduciveness, individual positive affect and temperament, to name a few. For example, less complex tasks reach automaticity faster compared with more complex tasks. However, due to the many factors that determine successful habit development, there is no set time threshold before a task becomes a habit.

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