How long does it take to adopt a new behaviour?

By James Mulvey


Our clients sometimes ask how long exactly a behavioural change campaign needs to run before the target audience goes from awareness to actually adopting a new healthy behaviour.

Quick answer? Research shows that it takes between 18-224 days to make a new behaviour an ingrained habit, indicating a considerable variation based on the individual.

Why does behavioural change take so long? 

According to recent research, behavioural change involves physical changes in the brain. In the past decade, researchers have shown that when it comes to the duration of making a new behaviour an ingrained habit there is not a simple answer.

The problem is that behavioural change isn’t something that a person just suddenly chooses to adopt. You have to slowly learn a new habit. And this means that you have to ‘overwrite’ a new habit over the ingrained, existing habit. This takes time and repetition.

When planning the timeline of your behavioural change campaign, consider:

  • The length your subject has been practicing the existing habit (for example, eating unhealthy food for 25 years versus 5 years).
  • The benefit of learning a new habit--for example, trading fun week nights at the pub with greasy food for disciplined nights at the gym and a salad.
  • The frequency of the practiced behaviour. If someone has woken up everyday for 25 years and had a cigarette--then waking up and having an orange juice for 25 days is not enough to change that habit.

So how can you make behavioural change stick?

It’s not easy.

If you want to establish a new behaviour, you have to 'rewire' the neural network that enables the old behavior pattern. This means even in the best case the desired behavior may have to be repeated and reinforced for many months.

Research on time it takes to form new habits

Research can never provide a set answer for how long behavioural change takes as it varies from person-to-person and depends on the behaviour you are trying to change. However, a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 presented some interesting results. 

The researchers looked at 96 volunteers who each choose an eating, drinking, or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context (for example, exercising after breakfast) for 12 weeks.

The time it took participants to performing the new behaviour 95% of the time ranged from 18 to 254 days.

This shows that it takes a considerable variation in how long it takes people to make new behaviours into automatic, natural habits. And shows that it can sometimes take a very long time for people to form new habits.

Final tips for planning the length of behavioural change campaigns

Don’t focus on the amount of time--rather focus on repeating a specific behavior pattern over and over. This stimulates the involved brain cells to grow extensions (dendrites) to connect with each other. With enough repetition, all the related brain cells eventually connect, and the new behavior becomes an ingrained pattern.

  • Remember, a new habit feels awkward at first--but with enough repetition it will feel natural again.
  • Maintenance is important as it is easy to slip back into old habits. 
  • Consider the length of the existing habit--are you going up against 3 years of habit or 30 years? 
  • Budget for at least 3-6 months. 

If you’d like some help planning your next behavioural change campaign, the Redbird Communications Team is here to help. We have a proven track record with behavioural campaigns, including recent campaigns for BC Hydro. You can view some of our current behavioural change campaigns here.

We also offer behavioural change workshops, branding, and full-service media campaigns.

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Redbird Communications is a socially conscious marketing communications agency based in Victoria, British Columbia. Founded in March 2001, we help our clients create 'healthy people' and 'healthy places', by raising awareness and changing behaviour. 

Redbird has developed multi-year and province-wide awareness campaigns, including our recent ‘Signs of Stroke’ campaign for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. For that campaign, we helped to raise $250,000 from pharmaceutical sponsors to fund the media buy, and created TV and radio spots, print collateral, and online advertising.