I stopped drinking  coffee.

It was excruciating. I felt like someone had put a vice on my earlobes, and it lasted for three days straight. I had heard that it is better to "wean" yourself from caffeine, to drink fewer cups and then switch to decaf. I went cold turkey, and after about four days, my body adjusted and I lasted another three weeks. I've already recounted my story of how this process worked, and how I ended up using a bike trainer in my office as a replacement.

It was a blast! I pedaled my way to a coffee-free life.

Except that I didn't. Not really.

On the first day of the month, I started drinking coffee again. I gulped down one cup, then another. By the end of the week, I had resumed my normal coffee habit--some eight cups per day, which is not exactly healthy. I "use" coffee as a motivator, long after the caffeine kicks in. I'm a coffee person, so I use devices like this pour-over coffee maker, scour Amazon for fine blends, and often work in a coffee-shop near my house for hours on end.

Coffee is baked into my DNA, and it was so easy to resume drinking the stuff, like reuniting with a good friend or starting to eat pizza again after taking a break. It doesn't take any effort at all. Resuming bad habits is like gliding down a water slide. You push off from the top and let the water take you down into the pool, glimmering in the hot sun.

But is that a good thing?

In my experience, it can take more than a few days to kick some habits. If I really wanted to kick the coffee habit, it might take three years. I've found there are three options that seem to be available, at least when I've tried to put something to bed (and keep it tucked in).

The first option is one week. I've seen it work, like when I tried eating only fruits, nuts and veggies last month. My habit of eating donuts, too much bread and desserts, and ice cream were all "extra" things in my life, and not really that troubling. After one week, the new habit became locked in with a simple click, no problems. There was no way after a week that I was going to go back to normal food.

However, one reason it worked is because I knew I was going to eat that way for the month, and then "celebrate" these healthy eating choices by having a hamburger. Side note here--you can argue with me about whether the celebrating step was worthwhile or wise, but in the end that was my plan and it only took seven days to switch to healthy food. Maybe I will switch back or customize my plan, but we'll see on that. For me, the length of time was ideal for the habit of eating too many desserts and bad food.

With coffee, it took much longer.

For starters, the first 3-4 days were spent in pain. By the seventh day, I was still adjusting to drinking water. With donuts and ice cream, I was giving up things I wasn't even eating that often. With coffee, I was abstaining from a beverage that was part of my fabric of life--part of my daily workflow. I had to "prove" I could abstain, mostly to myself.

What about more troubling habits? I remember deciding not to drink pop at one time in my life. Again, it was an "extra" thing, and yet it was also a daily ritual. Mountain Dew was a way of life for me, as important to my young adult years as dating or going out with friends. Seven days? A month? That's not even a blip on a health chart, and in no way proved I could abstain completely from what is essentially sugar water with some flavoring. For me, it took more like three years. And, because this habit of not drinking pop is now so ingrained in me, I can actually drink a Coke at a meal and then switch back immediately to not drinking the stuff for six months without any problems.

The switchback problem is important. My seven day test with healthy food worked fine because I was still eating good food, and still surviving just fine. The length has to match your dependence level, and your substitutions, and your overall goals.

So what is the lesson here? For me, it is really important to analyze what you are trying to give up in terms of food and beverages. Is this something you don't really rely on that much? Try seven days. Is it something you eat or drink often, and do depend but it's not a terrible habit? Try 30 days and see if you can really cope without it. I chose 30 days for coffee, partly because I'm not convinced the side effects are that detrimental (coffee doesn't have any calories, and it does help me stay focused as a writer).

But what about something that is really unhealthy? For me, pop was on a short list--it had to be cut from the team. It worked, too. After three years of not ever partaking, I know it is a well-formed, solid habit. It won't ever make a rebound.

To permanently kill a habit, stick with three years. To experiment, try 30 days. To find out how dependent you are on a food or drink, test your theory for seven days because you might find (as I did by not eating meat or bread) that it only takes a week.

And let's compare notes. We're all different, so let me know if you use a certain period of time to see if a habit is ingrained or if you hold so loosely to it that it falls to the wayside.

Published on: Feb 5, 2018
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