What can psychology tell us about how to stop bad habits? At some time we’ve all had habits – be they smoking, eating junk food, or drinking too much alcohol – that we would like to stop, yet doing so can often be surprisingly hard. We go for a day or two without performing the habit, yet sooner or later we get lured back by the temptation. Often its when we are feeling stressed, or if we find ourselves in the same place or situation where we always do the habit. The effects of bad habits can be extremely negative, and what’s worse is that they don’t always happen instantly. For example, a poor diet may leave you feeling tired or unhappy the next day after you’ve eaten a take-away, but because the feeling isn’t instant (or within an hour or two) we don’t connect it consciously with what we ate. Or, even worse, there can be delayed health effects that only arise years after we began eating poorly. In that case we probably don’t feel the connection at all, and may only be consciously aware of it if someone else points it out.
A 2006 study at Duke University found that around 40% of our daily actions are habits, rather than things we’d consciously decided to do. Of course, as we have to do things routinely (working, driving, shopping etc.) its not surprising that we fall into habitual patterns, but how do these patterns begin in the first place? And why do our brains make it so hard for us to stop bad habits?
Many habits work because of something that psychologists call ‘Operant conditioning’. Basically this is a voluntary or conscious behaviour (e.g. choosing to have a bar of chocolate), which we then get rewarded or punished for. Obviously, over time, we learn to do more of the behaviours that result in rewards and less of those which result in punishments. In terms of bad habits, there is always some reward that is causing us to do the behaviour over and over. Also, there tends to be a ‘cue’ that triggers off the behaviour in the first place. For example, walking past the cake shop (triggering eating too many unhealthy cakes), socialising with friends (triggering smoking or drinking) or maybe being tired or stressed at the end of the work-day (triggering the habit of negative thinking, or binge-shopping). These cues trigger the habit behaviour as they start to make us anticipate and crave the reward. Pretty simple really.
So the key thing is that bad habits are a kind of loop: there is the cue, the habit itself, and the reward. The more we go around and around this loop, the deeper the habit gets ingrained in our brains. It’s a bit like the flow of a river carving a deeper and deeper channel in the earth.
The dangerous thing is that because our subconscious mind is so good at forming habits (which often have a beneficial effect, as they help make regular behaviours more efficient and save us mental energy), they are also always looking for new behaviours to turn into habits.
Every time we do something which provides a reward, our subconscious minds are eager to turn that into a habit. Sometimes habits even begin as irregular activities, maybe the ‘treat’ that you have once in a while, gradually becoming more frequent. The other annoying fact is that the brain patterns that form to evoke these habits are often dormant, even when we think we’ve given up the habit, they are waiting to be re-activated. We never truly rid ourselves of them.
So how can we stop bad habits? In his book ‘The power of habit’, Charles Duhigg describes what he calls the ‘golden rule’ of habit change:
“You can never truly extinguish bad habits. Rather to change a habit, you must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but insert a new routine.”
For example, if the cue is that you arrive home on a Monday evening after work and feel tired and stressed, and then eat a whole tub of ice cream to make yourself feel better, you might do the following:
1. Become conscious that you are likely to feel tired and stressed on a Monday evening.
2. Think about healthy alternative habits that are still going to make you feel good, that you can still do at home (this is recognising the time and place where you experience the cue).
So you then put in place a new habit that you can do at home on Monday evenings. Perhaps you could do 15 minutes on an exercise bike (which would give you the reward of ‘feel-good’ endorphins), or maybe you have prepared the night before (to minimise effort on the Monday evening when you know you will be tired) your absolute most favourite healthy meal. You will enjoy the taste, but you won’t suffer the bad effects of binging on the ice cream.
So half of the battle is creatively thinking up a new habit that can replace the old one, that nicely slots into the old cue, and delivers an equivalently pleasurable reward (or as near to one as possible) yet with a more desirable behaviour. The other half of the battle is thinking ahead, planning for what you are going to do when you next experience the cue that used to trigger the old habit.
As well as ‘writing over’ a bad habit, there are two other approaches you can try:
1. Remove the cue
Because it is the cue that triggers the habit in the first place, if you avoid the cue you can avoid the habit. This is just a matter of figuring out what the cue is for your bad habit. It could be a place, a person (or people) or simply a bodily state (feeling hungry, tired, stressed). Then you either avoid it, or work out a plan to deal with it differently than your usual habit when you next encounter it. Feeling tired or stressed is one of the biggest cues for triggering bad habits, as these things weaken our willpower as well as make us feel bad, a perfect storm for triggering the craving for a reward.
2. Ruin the reward
By their very nature, rewards are tempting and self-reinforcing. If something feels good to us, then why wouldn’t we crave it? Sometimes, however, you can weaken the lure of a reward by raising your awareness of the bad effects of it, or even by building a link between the reward and negative feelings like disgust. For example, if you eat a lot of junk food, you could try thinking deeply about what the food is doing to your body. Maybe think about what it would be like to eat non-food items like plastic or paper, and then associate the non-nutritious junk food with those items. You wouldn’t fill up your body with non-food items, so why fill it with unhealthy supposed ‘food’?
In my experience, trying to think more about the negative side of a habit is helpful in getting rid of it, but on its own it’s not enough. Its best used in tandem with developing a new habit that wipes over the old one.
We can overcome bad habits if we take charge, become conscious of them and develop a plan to change them. It does require some creative thinking in terms of devising a more positive habit to over-write the old one, creating a new reward that is healthier than the original.
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