How long does it take to break a habit | The 21/90 rule is a lie

What you will learn:

So really, how long does it take to break a habit?

Feeling ugly, unworthy or unproductive? Blame Facebook…

We’ve known for quite some time that social media can be harmful. I set out to answer the question, how long does it take to break a habit when it comes to social media?

79 billion people use Facebook daily, myself included. What’s even more troubling is that we carry devices with the world’s knowledge in the palm of our hands but choose to use them to look at cat memes and misinformation.

Even with the numerous reports and studies confirming social media apps are harmful to our mental health, the big tech giants roll on placing profit before social good. And why?

Because almost nobody cares. Or worse yet, they’re too paralysed to take action.

Recently, I set out to break my own reliance on social media to not only improve my mental health but my productivity. Being in an industry that requires social media for operations (health and fitness) i’ll share with you strategies and tactics that you can apply instantly to take back control of your time, mindset and execution. And i’ll answer the question, how long does it take to break a habit?

How Social Media Works

Credit: Hooked by Nir Eyal

Habit Loops

Nir Eyal summed this up in his book “Hooked” perfectly. When an individual or company sets out to build an app with the intention of becoming a “viral” sensation they overlay habit looping psychology into its code.

In order to make a successful product, at some point they need to get the user to become hooked. This happens in the following way:

  1. External Trigger. Ads or marketing that gets the potential user to take action. Usually by downloading the product or app.
  2. Reward. Once the user completes the initial action the time to value (TTV) needs to be almost instant. Rewards can come in the form of notifications or timely and relevant content where a new user will receive immediate value. This will usually trigger the release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine.
  3. Investment. Once the initial reward has been given this should spark a new user to invest in some way. This can be in the form of data, time or other actions that keep them on the platform. The aim is to increase investment over time in a way that is not obvious. How many times have said to yourself “i’ll just check my Facebook”…
  4. External to internal. Once the user has been exposed to enough external triggers and rewards the end goal is to make the behaviour become intrinsically driven. This means we don’t even think about doing it, it just happens as we associate the action with the reward (dopamine release)

Variable Reinforcement

I used to train dogs to find bombs in Afghanistan. This is where I first learned about variable reinforcement and its ability to increase the drive in an animal to complete a task. We used this style of training to keep a dog motivated during long and arduous searches.

2012 Helmand Province, Afghanistan

When a user takes their first actions inside a product or app the rewards will be almost immediate for every positive action, they take. Over time rewards will become further apart to keep driving you towards action.

Numerous studies have shown that it is in fact the anticipation of the reward that increases one’s drive to continue using a product. Apps like tinder that use a swipe function have optimised their experience for this exact response.

Now combining the elements of reward and anticipation we can now use a variable reward model that increases the perceived value of the reward even though the reward itself has not increased in value at all.


What’s the easiest way to spark action? Pain or fear.

In order to keep such high daily active user numbers, apps like Facebook and Instagram are designed to place emotionally reactive content in front of you. This causes you to feel obliged to take action, comment on or defend your standpoint.

With our always-present want to feel valued and understood, it’s very easy for companies to target insecurities, pain or fear to drive action. In this case, action is comments and shares.

This is not a new thing. Marketers have been using pain or fear as a motivator for hundreds of years, creating a standout headline that causes a negative emotional reaction is usually the path to profitability.

The experiment

It’s no secret that I’ve built my business twice. After suffering burnout during my initial foray into business I took a much-needed break from social media for 2–3years. When I nuked my social media accounts (I deleted everything permanently) something amazing happened. In the abyss I learned:

  1. Ignorance is bliss
  2. Your real friends will stay in touch
  3. Cognitive fatigue is a real thing

By using the proverbial “delete all” approach I had rediscovered ample time, space and cognitive ability to pursue the things I needed to deal with and in this case, it was personal growth and my own mental health.

Getting back to business

In 2021 I decided to quit a stable, well-paying job in a tech start-up to rebuild my fitness business. Rediscovering my passion for helping people become fitter and more mentally resilient was easy during the lockdown and the pandemic.

It was at this point I realised that I’d need social media again to reach the right people who needed my product. Alas, Facebook returned to my daily life.

Not everyone can be a tech nomad like I had been.

Being right back in the trenches and having to use social media to build my email list was a fact of daily life but it wasn’t until another lockdown and nearly 12 months back in business that it dawned on me that my mental health and productivity were being impacted once again.

How long does it take to break a habit?

After realising that I’d fallen back into Mark’s (Zuckerberg) trap I set out to break my bad social media habits once again.

Most of your bad habits are caused by two things… Stress and boredom.

James Clear

Atomic Habits

We often don’t like to deal with the root cause of a problem as it uncovers something we usually don’t like about our life or ourselves. Realising that I was in fact just stressed about building my business and feeling isolated during a four-month lockdown I finally understood the root cause which would allow me to fix the problem and not replace it with equally destructive behaviour.

Here’s an actionable guide that you can use to do the same based on James Clear’s tips on how to break a bad habit:

Make It Invisible

If you’re a small business owner like me you can’t avoid it. It helps your business grow and you will need it for customer acquisition. However, how much do you use your mobile device to “just check” what’s going on in your business which leads to mindless scrolling?

Delete the apps from your phone. This was the simplest and biggest impact thing I did to rid myself of the pull when I was bored or looking for an outlet to avoid a task.

Result: We all have an app that tracks screen time on our mobile devices. In the first week alone I reduced my screen time by 21% and I condensed 5 days of work into 4.

Make It Unattractive

It’s no secret, that an unhealthy attachment to social media is not good for you.

Start by reading the documented evidence and science behind why. From there start making notes of how certain people and influencers make you feel about yourself. If it’s negative, unfollow or delete them.

Even if it’s me.

Make It Difficult

The first big impact tip was deleting the apps from my phone. The results also speak for themselves. Accessing the apps via desktop to complete your tasks will limit functionality but using design apps like Canva will allow you to create most of the content you can post.

If you absolutely need to, download the app, post the content and then delete them. There’s also a function on your smartphone that controls when you have access to apps. Set the limit to be a finite amount of hours during work and have the phone lock the app outside of these hours.

Make it Unsatisfying

If you are someone that struggles with mental health as a result of social media user, you will soon see the benefits. Addiction is a hell of a thing though, you will first go through withdrawals wondering about what everyone is posting and talking about. This is normal.

If you find yourself being the journey only to find yourself back on social media a couple of days later, don’t stress. Keep repeating the process until you break free. Enrolling with the help of an accountability partner works wonders here.

How long does it take to break bad habits?

I guess you could say the use of social media is a bad habit but there’s probably worse out there. From experience coaching thousands of people the answer to “how long does it take to break bad habits?” really depends on the individual.

If we have had the habit for a long time or through the transformational years as a teenager or young adult, chances are it’s going to take some time. For big behavioural changes, I strongly recommend setting out on the journey for it to take 1-2 years to really break that bad habit. Sometimes, it’s even longer but if you use the tips above you could be accelerating your progress.

How long does it take to build a new habit?

Research states that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to build a new habit. Depending if this new habit is to override an old one or on a fresh sheet of paper will greatly impact the adoption. If you are trying to build a new habit over the top of a bad habit, remember in times of stress we revert to “first learned” or our strongest response which is usually the old, ingrained bad habit.

What’s the 21 90 rule?

Some people say that it takes 21 days to build a new habit and 90 days to create a lifestyle change. I call bullshit on set time frames because it all comes down to how far down the path of “readiness” you are. If you’re trying to break free of an uncomfortable place, don’t be surprised that your motivation leaves after you have managed to release the pressure a little bit.

Each journey is different, be sure to tread your own path.

Finally, what happened to my business and my mental health?

Over the course of this experiment, I suffered zero negative impacts to my business. I even grew my mailing list by 50% to 1500 subscribers through Facebook ads.

Mentally, I’m happier and more productive. I’ve optimised my week to give me time back to enjoy more of the things I love like my family, keeping fit and helping people like you.

So, to answer the question of how long does it take to break a habit? Well, it depends. Over this journey I felt the biggest change from week two onward and working with others on similar habits this is where we start to feel like we are gaining momentum.

The important takeaway here is when answering how long does it take to break a habit is giving yourself time. If it took you years to build the bad habit, it will take some time to pull apart the habit and build a stronger one in place of it.

Learn more about goal setting and how to build goals you actually want to achieve here or check out the 30 Best Books For Personal Trainers to continue the journey!