How to break bad habits, scientifically

And understanding the habit loop

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Photo by My Life Journal on Unsplash

Do you want some help with your New Year’s Resolutions?

Have you picked up some bad habits while trying to make new ones?

Each year millions of Americans start to peter out in their resolutions around this time, while many more create bad habits while trying to make new ones.

Maybe you’re eating out a lot more because it’s convenient to after going to the gym.

Maybe you’re drinking too much coffee because it’s easier to do so to remain productive at work.

The traditional way of dealing with this is to cut out the triggers: but that might just eliminate your New Year’s resolutions.

So what do scientists say you should do?

Track it.

We’ve heard about tracking before. Bullet journals, to-do lists, picture diaries, the list can go on and on.

But honestly, tracking habits shouldn’t be that complicated.

The goal is simple: you want to be aware of how you’re feeling when you decide to indulge in a bad habit.

From there, you want to see if it falls into one of 3 categories:

  1. I do this because I’m stressed
  2. I do this because I’m bored
  3. I do this because of something else.

That’s it.

Surprisingly, a lot of bad habits come from stress and boredom.

Part of the reason why is related to how we form habits, both good and bad.

Every habit starts with a pattern called the “Habit Loop”, which is a three-step process.

First comes the cue, or trigger, that tells your brain that a particular behavior should be turned into an automatic routine. So, if you are used to parallel parking, the cue of shifting into reverse primes your brain to switch to automatic mode.

Then comes the routine, which is the behavior itself.

Then comes the reward, which is tied to something your brain likes so that they’ll remember that habit loop in the future.

And as this habit becomes more and more automatic, the brain starts working less and less.

But the interesting part of the science is that this loop activates a different part of the brain than decision making.

Neuroscientists have tied habit-making behaviors to the basal ganglia, which is tied to emotions and memories, while decision making is tied to the prefrontal cortex.

So intentionally trying to do something not only requires a lot more effort: it requires a different part of the brain to activate. As a result, falling back on a habit is an easier path to the point where sometimes the quality of the result doesn’t matter.

If you have a habit of eating popcorn at movies, for example, you’ll eat just as much stale popcorn as fresh popcorn if you’re not thinking about it.

So how do stress and boredom play a role in this?

Well, stress is a cue that triggers due to too much stimulus, and boredom is a cue that triggers due to too little stimulus.

As you’re trying to form a new habit (let’s say, going to the gym), this is a completely new environment and routine.

This is what Wendy Wood, a psychology professor at USC, calls “a window of opportunity”, where you have a clean start where your bad habits don’t have the same cues or context to trigger.

However, new can be scary or disorienting. There may be loud music, people talking, large crowds, or other things (such as traffic, remembering gym clothes, etc.) that add to the stress of trying to create a good habit.

Or, if you’re doing something like meditation in the morning, the lack of usual stimuli (coffee, breakfast, TV, etc.) may lead to a bit of boredom as you’re trying to get used to a quieter than usual morning.

As a result, what happens is that ‘well-intentioned habit’ that you’re trying to create can get side-tracked by what bad habits you may have.

“The thoughtful intentional mind is easily derailed and people tend to fall back on habitual behaviors,” Wood says. “Forty percent of the time we’re not thinking about what we’re doing.”

Intentional habit-making (such as a New Year’s Resolution) can be derailed by nearly anything, and the ease that your brain can slip into automatic habits results in people falling back on bad habits.

So what do you do about this?

The first step towards breaking bad habits is to track them.

According to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, the best way to change a habit is to understand the structure.

“Once you tell people about the cue and the reward and force them to recognize what those factors are in a behavior, it becomes much, much easier to change.”

So what is the cue that is triggering this bad habit?

  1. Is there something stressing you out about this routine? Think about ways that you can make it easier by perhaps substituting your bad action with another. So instead of eating junk food immediately after working out (because you’re hungry and tired), perhaps have meals ready to go home.
  2. Is there something about this routine that’s boring? Think about ways you can join forces with somebody. So maybe your meditation becomes going to a meditation class in the morning.
  3. If there’s something else besides stress or boredom that is driving these habits (such as a traumatic experience), then perhaps try and write down how you feel or why this happens.

I write about productivity, UX Design, Healthcare regularly. You can check out my course on Design Communication here.

Written by

Healthcare-focused UX designer and researcher. Creator of two online courses on design communication and UX research planning:

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