Most of us want to know how to break bad habits but are probably going about it the wrong way. (The whole I just need more willpower thing.) Fortunately, science has a lot to say about how to change a bad habit. Like that one you’ve been trying to kick since last year. Okay fine, the year before that too.
Let’s make today the day that you take on that pesky habit with clear eyes and make a plan for changing it—for good this time. Heads up, though: Your habit won’t change without some effort. For this to have a shot at working, we’ll ask you to do some honest thinking about what gives your habit such a strong emotional pull in the first place. I.e., we’ll dig into the psychology of habit and ask you to do the same. Once we’re done, though, you’ll have concrete ways to break bad habits using tested strategies and can share your newfound knowledge with the world. Or, you know, with your cat. Ready?
How to Break Bad Habits, Step 1: Understand Your Habit Loop
Let’s start with a popular and simple model from New York Times reporter and habit researcher Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. He sees habits as a recurring loop with three parts:
- Cue—trigger from the environment
- Routine—physical or mental action (the habit)
- Reward—reinforcement that the action is worthwhile
Here’s an example that might feel all too familiar: When you finish cleaning up after dinner (cue), you instinctively grab your phone and flop on the couch (routine) to rake in the steady flow of dopamine spikes (reward) from Instagram or LinkedIn. Before you know it, it’s been two hours, you forgot your first name, and the book you’ve been meaning to read is sitting untouched on the table. How has your phone changed from a nifty gadget to an attention-pulling force that feels as strong as gravity? Duhigg explains:
Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic.”
Every time the loop repeats, it gets stronger. In most cases, self-reinforcing habits are a great way to reduce your brain’s workload and generally make your day breezier. But sometimes, you end up stuck with a pesky bad habit that’s both persistent and nearly invisible. To break the cycle, the first step is to identify not just the bad habit, but the cue and reward that make up the rest of the loop.
Here’s Duhigg explaining habits in greater detail:
How to Break Bad Habits, Step 2: Know Your Emotions
Yeah, we know. But seeing your bad habit from the habit-loop perspective is just part of it. We need to keep digging to make real progress. Duhigg continues:
The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.”
Your habit loop—in other words— is not so tidy and simple as it first appears. Instead, it’s all wrapped up in a web of cravings, anticipation, and emotions represented by a mysterious circle inside the habit loop.
Thinking back to your phone, assuming you’re just drawn to the steady dopamine rush is way too simple. The reality is a mix of positive and negative emotions, important and trivial concerns, and all the other realities that can’t be captured in a 2D model. In short, we need to take your tidy habit loop and toss it into a big bucket of your messy emotions. Duhigg, again:
That craving is what powers the habit loop.”
How to Break Bad Habits, Step 3: Hack the Loop
The well-tested method for how to break bad habits is to keep the cue and reward the same while replacing the routine with something new. This technique leaves the whole mess of cravings and emotions intact while you neatly nip the undesired habit from your life. Translation: Keep satisfying those cravings and emotions, but do it with something else. This might allow you to avoid digging into the mysterious inner circle of thoughts, needs, desires, and feelings. Because it’s scary in there, yeah?
Duhigg calls it the “Golden Rule of Habit Change.” Here’s how it might look like with our previous example:
- Decide to change your after-dinner routine.
- Choose a behavior that you could substitute for phone scrolling that would give you a similar reward. (E.g., Next time you finish washing the dishes, try a Sudoku puzzle instead.)
- See if the puzzle gives you the same dopamine kick as phone scrolling. If so, congrats! You’re on your way to breaking that bad habit for good.
How to Break Bad Habits, Step 4: Try, Try Again
Or maybe you’re not. Honestly, your first idea probably won’t quite work. But that’s part of the process. The Power of Habit emphasizes how difficult it is to get the details correct in practice.
Let’s think about that pesky social media habit one more time. Even if millions of people have the same basic habit loop of:
- Finish cleaning up after dinner (cue)
- Grab the phone and fire up social media (routine)
- Feel the dopamine (reward)
There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution because everyone’s cravings and emotions are different. One person’s Sudoku could be another person’s old-fashioned phone call. (Remember those?) The former just needed a one-off dopamine spike reward while the latter had a deeper craving for socializing.
Struggling with hacking your routine? Go after the cue. This might look like putting off doing the dishes until the morning—causing enough of an environmental tweak to short circuit the habit loop where it starts. Be creative. Do some trial and error to break your bad habit loop wherever its weakest point may be.
Breaking the habit = doing the work
Were you hoping that science would tell us how to break bad habits using sheer force, mind control, anything other than work? Nope, sorry, not a thing. You can’t force your way out of a habit without breaking down how and why it happens. And then finding a way to get those good feelings without the habit you hate. Run through the steps until it works. Then start again with unwanted habit number two. It’ll get easier. Promise.
Which part of Duhigg’s habit loop will you target to break your bad habit? Do you have any other ideas for how to break bad habits? Tell us in the comments.
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Author: Scott Trimble
Scott researched human motivation at The University of Texas at Austin. He spends most of his time traveling, reading, teaching, and writing.