Five Tips You Can Use to Break Bad Habits

From the Lecture Series: Outsmart Yourself — Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You

By Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., The College of William & Mary

While bad habits can seem like minor, unimportant behaviors, they are, in fact, significant activities that can derail an otherwise healthy, happy lifestyle. How can we use the tools of cognitive neuroscience to help us break bad habits?

Image of Breaking bad habits

1. Take Notes

Consider this simple tip—one that is startlingly effective for reducing the frequency of a bad habit. An effective strategy for behavioral training is to call attention to the problem behavior whenever it appears. An additional step is to write down the times when this problem behavior occurs, and then read that list at the end of the day.

Walk around with a notepad and pen. At the start of the day, write the date at the top of a page. Any time you engage in your problem behavior, don’t unduly criticize yourself.

Just pull out the notepad and write down the time of day and a few words summarizing the details. If you’re trying to cut down on television, note the start and end time of the television watching. If you have a doughnut-eating habit, write down the time, place, and flavor of the doughnut.

At the end of the day, as you are about to go to sleep, read over your list of incidents. Then, turn the page and put the notepad and pen away.

Since unconscious processes are often in control of behaviors, you may not actually be aware of how often you engage in a particular habit. As you see the pages of your notebook filling up, you will tend to eliminate some of the unconscious repetitions of the behavior.

Image of person taking notes to help break bad habits
An effective strategy for behavioral training is to call attention to the problem behavior whenever it appears.

Learn more about surprising and counterintuitive conclusions about our behavior and decision-making processes

2. Stretch Mental Muscles

Researchers have explored another technique of behavioral modification using the theory that self-control is like a muscle. After an exercise workout, the muscle will be fatigued and less useful; however, when it heals, it gets stronger.

This is a transcript from the video series Outsmart Yourself: Brain-Based Strategies to a Better You. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The same process seems to apply to our self-control. The more frequently you exercise self-control, the better you will become at refraining from bad habits.

In one set of experiments, conducted by a team led by Mark Muraven, participants were recruited and asked to refrain from eating any sweets for two full weeks. The participants noted whenever they ate something sweet. The experiment was largely successful; participants reduced their sweet-eating habits.

It seems that if you practice self-control, you improve self-control—just like a muscle.

Learn more about how to best optimize your brain fitness

3. Develop Links to New Behaviors

The human brain is remarkably effective at making associative links. In fact, making associative links is an unconscious tendency that we all share and that we cannot fully turn off.

If you think about something that you don’t want to think about, you are, in a sense, already thinking about it. The same process happens when we try not to think about engaging in some habitual behavior.

Instead of turning off an existing associative link—which is impossible—you can create an alternative associative link and make it stronger. In other words, to stop a bad habit, you need to replace it with another behavior.

Image of woman eating unhealthy food instead of eating healthy
You need to create a new, automatic, unconscious process that will take the place of the problematic one.

The goal of this training procedure is to create a new, automatic process that will take the place of the problematic one.

A great deal of research supports this strategy. A study conducted by Marieke Adriaanse and her colleagues asked participants to identify situations that triggered the performance of a bad habit—for example, “When I feel anxious, I tend to go to the kitchen for a sugary snack.”

In the next step, participants were asked to come up with an alternative behavior to pursue when the trigger showed up—for example, “When I feel anxious, I will eat an apple.”

Learn more about how the unconscious plays a strong role in developing bad habits

The experimenters found that the focus on associating an alternative behavior with the trigger resulted in a greater reduction in the habitual behavior. Additionally, after forming and practicing the alternate association, your brain starts to process the new action faster.

If this happens quickly enough, that new behavior will tend to be triggered instead of the bad habit.

4. Stay Positive (and Negative)

Both positive and negative reinforcement have been proven to effectively shape behavior.

In positive reinforcement, something pleasant gets added to your experience after you perform a behavior. In negative reinforcement, something aversive gets removed after you perform a behavior.

In positive punishment, something negative is added to your experience after you perform a behavior. In negative punishment, something positive gets removed after you perform a behavior.

Generally, to promote more general and long-lasting learning, most research suggests that you should focus on the reinforcement side of things.

Image of hand and remote control for breaking bad habits article
Make a contract with yourself: Starting tomorrow, if you remember to turn off the television, give yourself a cookie when you come home.

For example, imagine that you have a bad habit of leaving the television on when you leave for work, and you want to lessen the incidence of that habit. Make a contract with yourself: Starting tomorrow, if you remember to turn off the television, give yourself a cookie when you come home.

Remember that you are not trying to change your conscious behavior. You are, to use the language of a behaviorist like B.F. Skinner, shaping the behavior of your unconscious action control systems. The cookie is for that part of your brain.

Learn more about how the brain works when confronted with multiple tasks

5. Remember — Change Takes Time

Over the course of several decades, a wide range of studies have been conducted on self-administered reinforcement. Students have used it to improve study habits. Dieters have used it to enhance healthy eating practices. People with phobias have used self-administered reinforcement to train themselves to deal with their fears.

You can pick almost any practice, make a contract with yourself, and then change your behavior.

Image of frustrated student studying
One hallmark of behavioral shaping is that it can be a slow process.

One hallmark of behavioral shaping is that it can be a slow process. It might be several weeks before you reach the final behavior that you seek.

While the training process is slow, the good news is that once the new behavior is set, unlearning the training will also function slowly.

Eventually, you won’t have to reinforce yourself all the time; you will only require periodic reinforcement for good behavior.

Common Questions About Breaking Bad Habits

Q: Is there a time frame for how long it takes to break a bad habit?

The European Journal of Social Psychology found that habits can be formed on average in 66 days, just over two months. A book from 1960 called Psycho-Cybernetics made a popular claim that it takes at least 21 days to break a bad habit, but it varies for different people depending on the type of habit.

Q: Why is it hard to break a bad habit?

Breaking bad habits is difficult because of dopamine release. When we start a “bad” habit, it generally isn’t quite that bad to begin with. The brain releases dopamine as a pleasure reward. The “bad” descriptor begins as the overuse of the habit develops problems for other aspects of survival. By then, the habit has become automatic in the brain and additionally, is associated with pleasure.

Q: What does the 21/90 rule mean?

The 21/90 rule is a recipe for building a habit by maintaining a new practice for 21 straight days. After this, it theoretically becomes easy to continue it for 90 more days, and by then it should be a permanent lifestyle change.

Q: Is 21 days actually how long it takes to break a bad habit?

There is no hard evidence that it takes 21 days to break or form a habit. Further studies have shown that everyone has a different reason for a habit as well as varying degrees of depth of habit, making it extremely difficult to give a useful general recipe for making or breaking a habit.

This article was updated on 9/13/2019

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