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3 Steps for Changing Any Bad Habit or Forming Any Good One

Changing habits isn't simply about motivation. It's about cues and responses.

Do you have a bad habit that you have been desperately trying to change for quite some time? Maybe it is quitting smoking or ending your love affair with donuts. Or maybe you are trying to cultivate a good habit such as going for daily runs or calling your mom more?

Whatever the case, you know it isn't from a lack of trying.

We Are Semi Creatures of Habit

Our habits run deep. Very deep in fact. In our daily lives, habits make up 40% of our daily activities. To revise the popular saying, we are semi creatures of habit.

Why are habits so hard to change and what can we really do about it?

In a session entitled "Habits in Everyday Life: How to Form Good Habits and Change Bad Ones" presented at the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention, Wendy Wood, psychology professor at the University of Southern California, provided not just hope for change but strategic steps for getting a handle on our habits.

In her presentation, she begins by explaining the underlying mechanics of habits.

Habits are formed through a specific type of learning process called associative learning. Associative learning is just like its title suggests in that we learn to form connections between different activities. These connections then becomes patterns of behaviors.

"We repeat what works, and when actions are repeated in a stable context, we form associations between cues and response," Wood explained during her session.

Intentional Mind vs. Habitual Mind

Here is one of the most important things to know about associative learning and habits: it is largely unintentional. As Wood explains, we have two minds at work: the intentional mind and the habitual mind. The first mind is aware and makes conscious decisions while the latter operates almost completely outside of awareness.

Why is our poor little habitual mind so clueless? This is because habits are generated by cues. They work so well that once the cue is engaged the habit takes over. Wood explains that as our habits take over, neural activity shifts from working memory to cue-response association---basically shifting from the intentional mind to the habitual mind.

In addition to our habitual mind being clueless about why it is doing what it is doing, it is also very stubborn to change. If you think of the habitual mind as your lovable, curmudgeonly grandpa, you basically get the idea.

Because we have two different minds at play we cannot assume that engaging the intentional will have any control over the habitual. This is a typical problem when trying to change any habit or form a new one. We educate ourselves on what we need to do and we tell our intentional mind to start making it happen. We have the motivation but fail to deliver. Why?

If the habitual mind is guided by cues (not by conscious decisions as is the intentional mind) it must be fixed by cues. This is sounding a bit like out of The Lord of the Rings: the habit must be destroyed in the same fires as which it was forged.

So what does it mean exactly to destroy the habit in the same way as it was created?

Wood provides us with three simple but powerful principles for how to tackle the habits by engaging how the habitual mind operates.

3 Principles of Habit Change and Formation

1. Derail existing habits by disrupting habit cues.

Wood describes this step as creating the window of opportunity to act on new intentions. This is done by disrupting the way you normally do things. For example, if your goal is to control distracted over-eating, try eating with your non-dominant hand or rearrange your fridge and pantry to make the unhealthy options harder to reach. Wood also recommends taking advantage of lifestyle changes such as a new job or moving to a new city. These are perfect opportunities to dissolve all of those old cues connected to old habits.

2. Repetition is key. Did I mention that repetition is key?

Remember that the habitual brain is very slow to change. It is slow to change because it has been taking a lot of time forming that associative memory and making those cues and responses automatic. So in the same way that it took time to learn those habits, you need to take the same time to form new habits. That is done through repetition. How much repetition? Wood states that the research suggests that a new habit takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to make an action effortless and automatic. So be patient with your habitual mind.

3. Create new context cues to trigger new habits.

Wood explains that in order to build new habits, you need strong stable cues. Remember habits don't exist independently, they are connected to previous actions. So if you want to floss more, connect it to a strong cue like brushing your teeth. Plan to floss either just before or directly after brushing your teeth. Brushing your teeth becomes the trigger that engages the behavior of flossing. Over time this pattern of brushing and flossing will become automated.

To summarize, remember that a habit consists of cues and responses repeated over and over. To attack the habit you have to disrupt the old cues, form new ones, and then it becomes a matter of "Wash. Rinse. Repeat." In this way, you build that association and make the pattern automatic and soon unconscious.

Source: Wood, Wendy. "‪Habits in Everyday Life: How to Form Good Habits and Change Bad Ones" Thursday, August 7, 11-11:50 am ET. American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention. Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Pl., NW, Washington, D.C.

Adoree Durayappah, M.Div., M.A.P.P., M.B.A., is a Texas born writer now based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Learn more at

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