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…