The Psychological Concepts That Make You Better at Breaking Bad Habits
Understanding the mental processes that underpin habit formation can help you break out of harmful patterns and build newer, better ones
Most of the things you do each day are based on habit: The way you run through the steps of getting ready in the morning, the route you take to and from the office, and the same groceries you always pick up on your way back home.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Habits give life structure. They provide stability. They help you focus on the important things. Letting yourself slip into autopilot sometimes is part of what makes the world go round. It’s only when you start doing self-destructive things in that autopilot mode that a habit becomes something to break.
That’s a tough thing to do, of course, and there’s a neurological reason for that. Researchers have found that patterns of neurons form around repeated behaviors, and the more you do those things, the stronger those neural connections become.
When you have trouble breaking a bad habit, then, you’re trying to alter the wiring of your brain. But your brain is built to like habits, which require a lot less mental energy than critical thinking or conscious decision-making, so it fights back against the prospect of change.
The good news is that you can give yourself an edge by understanding the psychological concepts that underpin habit formation. Regardless of whether you’re looking to form a good habit or quit a bad one, having these skills in your pocket can help you change your behavior over the long term.
Most people know their bad habits are, well, bad for them, but that knowledge alone usually isn’t enough to stop someone from having one more cigarette or putting off that time-consuming work task until the day before the deadline. This is cognitive dissonance, the psychological term for continuing behavior that conflicts with your beliefs.
Anthropologist Alan Barnard, a research scientist in South Africa who studies how and why we make decisions, says that contrary to an all-too-common belief, it’s not ignorance that perpetuates bad habits.“We assume it’s ignorance, and that the way to fix you is to tell you how bad this habit is, or how good your life will be without it,” he says. But if lack of awareness was really the driver, people would quit their habit once they were better informed.
More often, though, they counteract that knowledge by focusing on the benefits the habit brings (the stress relief of smoking, the free time you gain in the moment by procrastinating) or a negative that would come with quitting (the discomfort of nicotine withdrawal, the frustration of having to skip plans to tackle something on your to-do list). Knowing something is unhealthy, but conjuring up reasons to keep doing it anyway, is classic cognitive dissonance, Barnard says.
To train your brain out of this pattern, find a way to bring your behavior back into balance with your beliefs. One tactic that can help is making a cost/benefit analysis of continuing your habit, using facts to overwhelm the misguided reasoning that’s making you cling to it. Take procrastination: Yes, it’d be more fun to go out to dinner tonight and put off those emails you’ve been meaning to send, and you hate feeling left out of plans; on the other hand, you’ve done this before, and it almost always means forgetting about a few of them and then missing deadlines.
“If I’m getting frustrated with my own inability to stop or resist a temptation, and I want to know why it’s so hard for me, this technique can expose the reasons behind why it’s so hard,” Barnard says. “It’s just about being brutally honest with yourself.”
According to B.J. Fogg, head of Stanford University’s Behavior Design Lab, all habits exist on a spectrum of automaticity, the brain’s ability to complete behaviors without you actually thinking about them. It’s why you can carry on a conversation while also driving a car.
“For any person in any context, you can place a habitual behavior on that spectrum,” Fogg says. “When you’re calculating and making decisions about a behavior, that’s not a habit. When you do something you’ve done a million times, you’re on autopilot. The extreme point on the spectrum is a reflex.”
When a behavior becomes a habit, it’s almost always triggered by something. Identifying the trigger is the first step towards avoiding the resulting behavior — if, for instance, putting your dinner plate in the sink triggers you to head to the freezer for a bowl of ice cream, you could work on deliberately replacing it with a glass of water. (Not all bad habits need a replacement behavior, though: “If I’m in the habit of getting up at 3 a.m. and eating a cupcake, I don’t need to replace that,” Fogg says. “I can simply stop eating the cupcake.”)
When it comes to creating new, better habits, automaticity is your goal, and it’s built one small step at a time. Fogg’s model, and the title of his forthcoming book, is Tiny Habits, and it’s tied to the long-established idea that the brain adjusts best when you change things slowly. “William James wrote about this in 1890 in ‘Principles of Psychology,’” Fogg says. “He uses the analogy of playing the piano: At first, you think about each note. Then, it becomes a passage your fingers just play.”
To put this into practice, first, pick out a trigger. If you want to get in the habit of flossing regularly, for example, Fogg suggests telling yourself that as soon as you finish brushing, you’ll floss just one tooth. The key is to start with something that feels utterly doable; even if you really don’t feel like it, one tooth will just take a second. Eventually, you’ll get in the habit of giving your whole mouth a deep clean, without having to force yourself.
It’s important, Fogg adds, to think strategically about your trigger if you want the behavior to really stick. For instance, “I do push-ups after I pee,” he says. Most people go to the bathroom at least a handful of times every day, and a couple of post-pee pushups only take a few seconds to knock out.
“If you design it well, something can become part of your life immediately,” Fogg says. “If you’re not taking out the trash, it’s not a willpower problem; it’s a design problem. Don’t beat yourself up, just redesign it.”
A lot of habit formation is tied to emotion — specifically, people condition themselves to respond to emotions with certain behaviors. When your phone buzzes in your pocket, your immediate emotional response is interest; without thinking, you pull it out to see who’s texting. A stressful situation might prompt you to pour yourself a drink. A routine annoyance might make you unintentionally lash out.
Emotional response is a tough thing to change, but it can be done, and regulating your emotions is a lot like forming other kinds of habits: To start, focus on the desired outcome, and then pick a behavior to help you get there.
Fogg’s recommendation, taken from his own daily routine: “In the morning, when you wake up and you put your feet on the floor, you say, ‘It’s going to be a great day.” That’s a habit in itself, and it’s meant to counteract the way most of us are conditioned to feel when we first get up: Annoyed at the alarm clock and anxious about the day’s to-do list. Regulating your emotions to lean toward happiness and optimism, right from the first moments of the day, can have ripple effects, Fogg says. “You’re setting the trajectory of your day, and skewing your perception of everything that happens in a more positive way.”
You can also use your existing feelings about certain behaviors to build up a healthier routine. People tend to believe that creating positive, healthy habits is a slog because it requires making yourself do things you don’t particularly want to do. But, Fogg says, it doesn’t have to go that way. In fact, you’ll build habits better and faster if you’re enjoying yourself.
“If you hate the treadmill, but want to build a habit of working out, does that mean you should suffer through an hour on the treadmill? No,” Fogg says. “Make sure you’re picking habits and behaviors you like doing, and actually want in your life.”