Break a Bad Habit & Build a Healthy Habit, With Help From Science

Whether you like it or not, you’re a creature of habit. Maybe you’re a coffee-first-thing-in-the-morning person. You might check your phone in bed every day just after waking up or before falling asleep. We tend to take the same route to work, eat the same breakfasts, shampoo before body wash, or vice versa. ALL humans are habit-formers by nature. But, figuring out how to break a bad habit, or get a new habit to stick, still remains a mystery to so many of us.

Let’s dive into the science behind habits and habit-formation to uncover the truth about why certain habits stick with us—and how to build healthy habits that last.

Habits Help Us Survive

Habits are an unstoppable piece of our biology. In fact, the ability to form habits is essential to our survival! It’s how we learn to do everyday things more effectively and efficiently. The first time you back out of a new driveway, it requires some careful thought and attention. But, as we perform the task over and over, we can do it almost automatically without thinking. If we had to focus so intently on backing out of the driveway, navigating to work, or scrambling our eggs EVERY single day, we wouldn’t have the mental energy to do much else!

Some habits free us up to direct our attention toward more complicated tasks throughout the day. But, other habits seem to enslave us, and often make our lives more difficult. We can’t resist the urge to check our phones, even when we have no new messages or emails. We bite our nails when we’re nervous. After a stressful day at work, we make a beeline for the ice cream freezers in the grocery store. Bad habits like these can become just as automatic, making those behaviors even harder to stop—even if we sincerely want to.

So, is there a way to break a bad habit? The answer might surprise you… But, by understanding how habits form, we can crack our bad-habit code. And, we can gain the power to build new habits that last.

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What is a Habit?

In simple terms, a habit is a ritualized behavior. It’s something we’ve done over and over again—or a behavior that affects us powerfully enough—to the point it becomes automatic. With any habit, we (at least once) decided and made a choice to engage in that certain behavior. After that stressful day at work, ice cream sounded like a good idea, so we decided to stop at the grocery store and picked out a stress-relieving pint of frozen goodness. But, sooner or later, we stop thinking about it and keep doing it anyway.

A behavior becomes a habit when it’s no longer a conscious decision that we have to think about. And, remember, we need some habits because they help move us through the day. According to one study, about 45% of the things we do daily are habits that we perform automatically! We’re really good at forming habits because we can’t afford to spend all of that time and energy thinking about every little thing we do. But, our habit-forming ability is a double edged sword.

Unfortunately, it’s much easier for certain behaviors to become habits than others. And, those are often the ‘bad’ habits we can’t seem to shake. For instance, forming an exercise habit can be difficult. It tends to require lots of repetition, discipline, and willpower—which is actually like a muscle that gets tired with overuse. (Understand the science behind willpower and learn How to Increase Willpower in our previous blog post!) But, we could form a chocolate-eating habit very easily, without much effort or repetition. WHY?!?

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How Do Habits Form?

There’s no concrete number of repetitions that are ‘required’ for a behavior to become a habit. Whether a habit is difficult to form (like exercise) or sticks with us easily (like eating chocolate), the same process is going on in our brains. To start, there are 3 building blocks of any habit that code into the brain:

  • The Cue: A certain, time, place, feeling, person, or action/event that triggers a habitual/automatic behavior. Some are very specific, some are more vague, and there can be more than one cue for a behavior.
  • The Routine: The habitual behavior itself that follows the trigger(s).
  • The Reward: The payoff that you (and your brain) get for going through the routine. This can vary for different people and different behaviors.

For example, if you have a habit of stress-eating ice cream, the feeling of stress is the cue. That stress triggers a routine of buying and eating ice cream, which then rewards you with a delicious taste experience and a sense of relief. Initially, a bad habit forms initially because we like the reward, and then keep seeking it out. That reward reinforces the routine until the brain learns to do repeat the sequence without thinking. Then, when something triggers that habit, it feels like we go on autopilot and are powerless to stop it. And, that’s almost exactly what happens neurologically.

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Your Brain On Rewards

In the midst of our routine or habit, the brain does turn to its version of autopilot. Remember, a habit is an automatic behavior. Our prefrontal cortex—the decision-maker part of the brain—actually powers down when a cue triggers a habitual behavior! Instead, the basal ganglia takes over, which forms and follows patterns but doesn’t make conscious decisions. With the prefrontal cortex offline, we actually are powerless to stop the routine from happening. But, how does our brain learn to follow those patterns in the first place?

Our brains LOVE rewards! And, that reward is why the brain remembers a behavior for later. It learns to recognize our cues, then assesses the rewards, and decides, “Should we remember this habit for the future?” Our brains pick up on the pattern: when stress triggers us, eating some ice cream helps us feel better. If the cue-routine-reward sequence is repeated enough—or if the reward is powerful enough—the basal ganglia encodes the routine so we can do it automatically.

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All Rewards Aren’t Created Equal

But, some rewards are more powerful than others. Making exercise a habit can be difficult. Exercise does offer some rewards—like improving our health, increasing our confidence, and even uplifting our mood. But, many of these are long-term rewards that come after exercising consistently. Our brains like instant gratification. On the other hand, starting an ice cream or chocolate-eating habit is pretty darn easy. There’s the instant reward of relieving stress or boredom, with very little willpower or work involved to get there.

But, ice cream, chocolate, and many foods also reward our brains chemically. In particular, processed foods that are high in fat and added sugars (especially when eaten in large quantities) can have addictive qualities similar to that of drugs! Foods like these flood the brain with lots of dopamine—a feel-good neurochemical that rewards the brain and helps reinforce all kinds of behaviors. Now, this isn’t to say that ALL stress-eating or boredom-eating is a sign of food addiction. But, dopamine still plays a key role in habit-formation.

Food, drugs, and even some compulsive behaviors like nail-biting can produce immediate dopamine surges in the brain that keep us coming back for more. A reward that gratifies us instantly—and, in some cases, chemically—has a more powerful effect on our behavior. That’s why it feels so hard to break a bad habit! And, because many healthier habits don’t have an immediate reward, it can be hard to build a habit like exercising or eating well. So, how do you break a bad habit that’s become automatic? The answer: you can’t…

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Old Habits Don’t Die Hard—They Don’t Die Ever

No, I’m not kidding. The general consensus among habit-formation researchers is that it is almost impossible break a bad habit. Once the basal ganglia encodes the pattern and that pathway forms in the brain, it remains there—for years or decades (or perhaps forever). All the willpower in the world simply can’t re-wire that pathway. But, don’t throw in the towel or close your browser just yet! Although the routine executes automatically, we do have some power over the cue and the reward.

Even after a behavior has become an automatic habit, the prefrontal cortex is active during the cue and comes back online for the reward. The cue and the reward provide us with real opportunities to make changes because we’re not on autopilot! So, rather than trying to break a bad habit, we can reshape it and replace it. Yes, that old neural pathway will still be there, which is important to be aware of. But, we can create a new pathway that’s stronger and takes the place of an old habit.

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Awareness is Key: Know Your Cues

First, if you want to break a bad habit, you have to identify the cue (or set of cues) that trigger it. But, we may not even be aware of our triggers because they’re often normal, everyday happenings. All cues tend to fall into one of five categories:

  • Time: A certain time of day may trigger a habit, like heading to the vending machine for a candy bar between 2 and 3 p.m. every afternoon at work.
  • Place: We may link ritualized behaviors to specific places, like having a drink when you go out to eat or smoking a cigarette when you drive the same route to work.
  • People: The presence of a certain person or people can cue our habit, like snacking on junk food when you hang out with your best friend.
  • Emotion: Feelings and emotions are some of the most powerful triggers, like when we turn to food to relieve sadness, stress, or even boredom.
  • Actions/Events: Sometimes another routine behavior can trigger or pair with a bad habit. Some people always smoke a cigarette with or right after their morning coffee. Maybe you always check social media while you’re waiting in a line. Or, specific events can trigger a habit, like going out to the movies and always buying candy at the concession stand.

Start observing your habit, tune into your possible cues, and write down what you notice. And, try to pinpoint the cue or set of cues with the strongest link to your automatic behavior. You may go to the vending machine at the same time, in the same place, whenever you feel bored, and you see the same people. But, is your trip to the vending machine most triggered by the time of day and the fact that you’re at work? Or, is the habit driven more by feeling bored and wanting to socialize? Look at your cues closely, be honest with yourself, and you’ll have more power to change the behavior!

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Recognize the Rewards: What’s In It For You?

To change a bad habit, we have to honestly examine the payoff that our brain gets from it. What’s in it for you? Does the ice cream simply taste good, does it relieve stress, or does it distract you from whatever you’re feeling? The reward you get from performing your habit provides you with something, satisfies some desire, or brings you some kind of relief. If munching on just about is just as rewarding as the pint of ice cream, you’re probably not in it for the taste. Or, if a different stress-relieving activity like watching a movie or taking a walk still leaves you craving ice cream, the reward might not actually be stress relief.

The reward may be your brain tuning out and not thinking for awhile—and that’s okay! If you can honestly identify the reward your habit provides, you’re better equipped to change a bad habit. Then, we can explore NEW routines that offer a similarly satisfying reward. Recognizing that you and your brain enjoy tuning out for awhile means you can seek out new ways to find similar enjoyment. And, that reward is the key to making a new routine a replacement habit!

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How to Break A Bad Habit…By Replacing It

Being aware of our cues gives us some power over the role they play in our lives—how often we’re exposed to them, and how we respond to them. And, knowing that habits are essentially reward-seeking behaviors, we can use rewards to our advantage to build new habits. So, whether you’re trying to break a bad habit of checking your phone too often or eating ice cream when you’re stressed, here are some strategies to try:

Eliminate the Cue

For some bad habits, recognizing the cue and doing what you can to steer clear of it can be extremely effective. If you want to stop checking your phone constantly, find a way to turn your cue off. (Pun intended.) You could try turning your phone off for a short time each day, or change your notification settings so your phone isn’t buzzing or beeping constantly. If you have a habit of stopping for a donut or smoking a cigarette on your way home from work, try taking a new route. Without the cue to trigger your routine, you’ll have some freedom from your bad habit!

And, since we can’t get rid of every cue, it can help to make lifestyle adjustments that reduce temptation. If you’re trying to eat less junk food, don’t buy it! Of course, there can be many cues that can trigger us to plow through a bag of potato chips. But, trying to ‘turn off’ things like stress and boredom in daily life just isn’t feasible. Instead, keep the goods out of the house and you’re much less likely to eat it. Plus, I know just being near junk food is a powerful enough cue for me…

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Change the Routine

It’s unrealistic to think we can eliminate or avoid ALL cues, like emotions, certain people, or activities. Someone with a candy-eating habit at the movies shouldn’t have to avoid movie theaters altogether! Instead, work on changing how you respond to your cues by developing new routines. For example, try choosing or bringing a non-candy movie snack, or chew on some gum to keep your mouth busy. Or, if you’re an emotional eater or boredom eater like me, seek out new forms of relief, comfort, or entertainment. Exercise, read a good book, make something with your hands, spend time with a friend—the possibilities are endless!

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Satisfy Old Desires, Offer New Rewards

Our bad habits provide us with something, or satisfy some desire. And, even if we want to break a bad habit, that old desire may still be there. As you build new routines, having a similar reward can help prevent returning to your old habit. If you try to replace a habit of boredom-eating with reading but you don’t like to read, you’re bound to fail! Reading will give you no reward to relieve your boredom like eating did. So, that new habit won’t stick and your brain will turn right back to mindless snacking to relieve your boredom.

Or, eating a salad probably isn’t a good replacement for your post-work de-stress donut habit. Yes, a salad is a wonderful, healthy thing to eat, and you may eat salads on other occasions. But the reward of eating that salad won’t satisfy your desire for relaxation like the donut did. Instead, choose a routine that YOU find relaxing or stress-relieving, whether it’s taking a bubble bath, sitting on the beach, or listening to your favorite artist or band. A satisfying reward that you want to seek out is the key to replacing your bad habit with a new routine that sticks!

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Choose Deliberate Rewards

We can’t always replace a bad habit with a new routine that satisfies a similar desire. Or, we may want to steer clear of that old desire and focus on new kinds of rewards. And, sometimes we just want to build a new, healthy habit that lasts. To make any new habit last, link that new routine to a deliberate reward that your brain can’t ignore. For example, if you want to make exercising a habit, try having a piece of chocolate right after you leave the gym. It sounds counterintuitive, but that piece of chocolate is an extrinsic reward that will instantly gratify your brain.

Over time, you trick your brain into associating the routine of exercise with the reward. That initial extrinsic reward helps to code the behavior into our brain. But, as we build a healthy habit, the intrinsic rewards become more important. With consistent exercise, we start experiencing improvements in our health, confidence, and mood. Or, we may even start to enjoy exercising! These become a new kind of intrinsic reward that reinforces the behavior, eliminating the need for the chocolate.

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Ritualize As Much As Possible

Rewards will reinforce a new behavior, but we also need deliberate cues to trigger the routine. Set out your gym shoes by the bed in the morning as a visual cue. Or, sleep in your gym clothes! If you’re trying to eat healthy, something as simple as packing a lunch or meal-prepping dinner can be your cue. Seeing your lunchbox or your prepped food in the fridge will cue you to eat the healthy food instead of ordering in. Over time, your brain will recognize the repeated cues leading up to the behavior.

And, as it recognizes those cues, you’ll see the routine starts happening more automatically! So, for maximum success in building a new habit, it helps to ritualize as much of the process as possible. Set out your shoes, sleep in your gym clothes, workout at the same time AND with the same workout buddy. Having more cues associated with a behavior will make that neural pathway even stronger!

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Trust the Process

The science is clear: we’re most likely to maintain behaviors that are habitual and become automatic in our brains. We can’t just rely on willpower to make changes in our lives! Granted, replacing bad habits or building healthy habits that stick takes time. In one research study, the average time that it took for new behaviors to become automatic for the participants was 66 days. But, the time range stretched from just 18 days up to 254 days—almost 9 months! Be patient and trust the process.

Luckily, that same study also found that slipping up or forgetting to do that new behavior a few times doesn’t significantly impact the likelihood that change will be long-term. So, if you skip the gym one day or have a ‘treat’ day, that’s okay! You can still make exercise or eating well a habit. In fact, having some rewards along the way is crucial to recharging our willpower muscles. And, we will need some willpower to get us to the gym or prep that healthy food until those behaviors become automatic.

As a society, we focus SO much on abstinence and self-denial. We make resolutions to lose weight, to stop eating junk food, to cut out soda from our diet, to use social media less. But, this approach directly contradicts what science tells us about habits. It’s insanely hard to break a bad habit, but we’re incredibly good at forming new habits. And, by understanding and reshaping our cues and rewards, we can take action to replace those old habits. Stop focusing on what you can’t or shouldn’t do—channel that focus toward what you can do differently!

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