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How long does it take to form a habit?

A new study used machine learning to show that there is no magic number to develop new habits

The new study shows that it takes an average of few weeks to develop the habit of washing hands. (Pexels)
The new study shows that it takes an average of few weeks to develop the habit of washing hands. (Pexels)

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Going to a zumba class or making your way to the gym every morning can seem like a chore at first. It doesn’t come easy but if you keep at it, you might swiftly make it a habit. But how long does it take for it to become something you just do, almost reflexively, rather than constantly pushing yourself to keep at it? Well, according to a new study by social scientists at Caltech, it takes an average of six months to acquire a gym habit.

The study also looked at how long it takes healthcare professionals to develop the habit of washing their hands: an average of a few weeks, according to Caltech’s press statement. 

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The study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that there is no magic number for habit formation "You may have heard that it takes about 21 days to form a habit, but that estimate was not based on any science," Caltech's Colin Camerer, one of the authors of the study said in the statement. “Our works support the idea that the speed of habit formation differs according to the behaviour in question and a variety of other factors.”

This is the first study to use machine learning tools to study habit formation. The researchers employed machine learning to analyze large data sets of tens of thousands of people who were either swiping their badges to use their gym or washing their hands during hospital shifts. For the study, the researchers tracked more than 30,000 gymgoers over four years and more than 3,000 hospital workers over nearly 100. 

“Machine learning also let the researchers study people over time in their natural environments; most previous studies were limited to participants filling out survey shifts,” Anastasia Buyalskaya, one of the authors and assistant professor of marketing at HEC Paris said in the statement.

The findings showed that certain variables did not affect gym habit formation, such as time of day. Other factors including past behaviour, played a role. For instance, for 76% of gymgoers, the amount of time that had passed since a previous gym visit was an important predictor of whether they would go again. This showed that as more time passed since they last went to the gym, the less likely they were to make a habit of it, according to the statement. 

"Overall, we are seeing that machine learning is a powerful tool to study human habits outside the lab," Buyalskaya said. 

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