How to Break a Bad Habit

Interrupt the Cycle

Woman biting her nails
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Habits are a valuable part of a healthy lifestyle because good daily behaviors get locked in as they become automatic. However (though we may not always like to admit it) we all have bad habits, which can range from the merely inconvenient (biting your nails) to seriously longevity-threatening (smoking). So how can you break a bad habit?

According to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), there's no single answer that will work for everyone, but just becoming aware of your negative behaviors is an important first step. Since habits develop with repetition, understanding the pattern that supports a bad habit can then help you short-circuit the loop.

As New York Times investigative reporter Charles Duhigg outlines in his authoritative book The Power of Habit, all undesirable behaviors share these fundamental traits:

  • An external cue or trigger
  • A routine which ensues
  • An inherent reward for the behavior

How Is a Bad Habit Reinforced?

It's easy to see that a habit like brushing your teeth may be triggered by bedtime (the cue), the teeth brushing itself (the routine) follows, and the reward delivered (mouth tastes clean and fresh, bedtime readiness is underway). But, as Duhigg writes, even negative behaviors offer a reward of some kind. Perhaps it's anxiety relief, as it might be in the case of cigarette smoking; maybe you crave social contact and find it most easily over too many drinks at the bar after a stressful day at work. Unless you try and dissect the powerful components of this loop, you are doomed to repeat the bad habit.

According to Duhigg's research, the only way to short-circuit the habitual pattern is to identify the cue, the routine, and the reward they deliver. Since the habit (the routine) might be more obvious as the behavior you're trying to eliminate, the greater challenge can be isolating the cue and the reward.

1. Find the Cue

He suggests writing down at least five events that occur the moment the urge for the automatic behavior hits, to reveal the cue. Ask yourself who else is on the scene, what time of day it is, or what happened immediately prior? After a few days, the cue should become evident.

2. Identify the Reward

This can be more difficult, writes Duhigg, and may require a bit of experimentation. Try altering the routine to get a different reward (is it fresh air? a distraction? an energy boost?). Be curious and open to whatever you discover — he recommends writing down your impressions or emotions as the routine wraps up — after a few tries, the reward may be revealed.

3. Small Changes Make a Big Difference

Sometimes a simple tweak can derail an entrenched habit. For example, a team of psychologists led by David Neal of the University of Southern California studied subjects eating popcorn at a movie theater. The cinema setting was the contextual cue, and subjects ate the popcorn regardless of whether they were hungry, and even when it was stale. When asked to use their non-dominant hand (for example, a right-hander forced to eat with their left hand), however, the habitual eating stopped.

Published in 2011 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the study concludes that disrupting the automatic consumption pattern brought the subjects' eating under "intentional control". In other words, the unconscious eating habit stopped, and the subjects became more aware of what they were doing.

A Word From Verywell

All this information should help you devise a plan to break a bad habit, and perhaps substitute a healthier or more positive behavior in place of the negative one. If it's social contact you desire, plan a walk with a friend instead of drinks at the end of your work shift; if it's a calm moment in a frantic day, consider a mini-meditation session to refocus.

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