5 Ways to Break Your Bad Habit Now
Powerful new strategies from brain research.
Posted Oct 27, 2020
If you’ve tried breaking a bad habit in the past, then you realize how difficult this can be. Now brain research tells us why. When we perform an action repeatedly over time, it becomes a habit we perform without consciously thinking about it. And our habits are processed in different parts of our brains than conscious thought.
Brain research tells us that when we repeat a behavior enough times, we begin to do it unconsciously and automatically. This is how a conscious “declarative” memory becomes an unconscious “procedural” memory. These two types of memories involve different parts of our brains. The conscious declarative memory involves neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus while the unconscious procedural memory involves the striatum and cerebellum (Numan, 2015, 2020). This is why we can perform a habitual action without being conscious of what we’re doing.
Many of us have found ourselves reaching for a bag of junk food, lighting up a cigarette, spending hours on social media, or plopping down on the couch to watch TV after work without consciously choosing to do so. But now, drawing upon neuroscience research, we can harness the power of our brains to break our bad habits and establish better ones. Here are five ways to begin doing this:
1. Build Awareness and Take Control. Habits are unconscious. The first step in breaking a bad habit is bringing it into conscious awareness. We can do this by consciously keeping score. My friend Bob had smoked cigarettes for 20 years. When he wanted to break this habit, he took out an index card, wrote down the date, and made a checkmark for each cigarette he smoked that day. Just by becoming aware, he decreased the number of cigarettes he smoked per day. In one month, he went down from two packs a day to one. Then he took charge, cutting down from smoking 20 cigarettes a day one week, to 19 a day the next, progressively smoking less and less until he finally quit completely. What habit do you want to break? Can you start keeping score to build your own awareness and take control of this unwanted habit?
2. Replace the Bad Habit With a Better One. Breaking an unwanted habit becomes easier when we replace it with a positive alternative. As James Clear explains in his book, Atomic Habits (2018), our habits reinforce our identities. When Bob was quitting smoking, he began jogging around the neighborhood after work. Jogging sent a new message to his brain that he was a healthy person—and a healthy person doesn’t smoke.
Changing our habits actually changes the architecture of our brains. Replacing an unwanted habit with a more positive one can help reduce obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Research at UCLA has shown that in only 10 weeks, people who chose an alternative behavior to shift into when they felt drawn into OCD, experienced an 80 percent reduction in symptoms and a physical change in their brains (Schwartz, 1998; Schwartz & Begley, 2002). To begin this positive change process for yourself, can you think of a better habit to replace the one you want to break?
3. Use Habit Stacking. To build a better habit into your life, you can use a strategy called “habit stacking,” connecting your new behavior to something you already do (Clear, 2018). Doris wanted to begin her days without getting sucked into negative news and social media in the morning; she decided to meditate instead. She always began her day with a cup of coffee, so to “stack” the new meditation habit into her life, she took her morning cup of coffee into a quiet room for a few minutes of mindfulness meditation. This new habit helped her begin her days feeling more centered and serene. Can you connect a healthy new habit with something you already do each day?
4. Use Visual Signals. We’re unconsciously signaled by our environments to reinforce our behavior. If you want to change a behavior, begin changing the signal. To break an unwanted habit, remove the temptations. If you want to stop mindlessly eating junk food, take the candy, chips, and cookies off the kitchen counter and put a bowl of fruit there instead. You can also use a positive affirmation, such as a note: “I am____.” Fill in the blank with your chosen goal. Post it where you can see it often—on your desk, computer, or bathroom mirror: Whether it’s removing temptations or posting affirmations, how can you use the power of visual signals to work for you?
5. Build Accountability. Recruit support from others for your healthier new life. For example, if you want to exercise, find a workout buddy. Years ago I used to sleep in on Saturday mornings. Then my friend Janette and I signed up for a Saturday morning yoga class, making a commitment not only to ourselves but to each other. I’d get out of bed and go to yoga class because I didn’t want to let Janette down. Accountability is a powerful reinforcement. People in 12-step programs have overcome serious addictions with the ongoing support of their group and sponsors. How can you recruit your own support system for accountability? Can you share your new goal with a friend, mentor, or coach to help you follow through with your commitment?
Finally, as you take these steps, be patient with yourself. Research has shown that “small actions over time can produce monumental results” (Dreher, 2008, p. 98; see Schwartz, 1998). My friend Bob not only stopped smoking. He also progressed from jogging to running marathons, making positive changes in his life one step at a time.
As the Tao Te Ching reminds us, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Dreher, 2000, p.3). By taking the first step today to break an unwanted habit, you can begin this journey to a more fulfilling life.
This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. New York, NY: Avery.
Dreher, D. E. (2000). The Tao of inner peace. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam.
Dreher, D. E. (2008). Your personal renaissance. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.
Numan, R. (2015). A prefrontal-hippocampal comparator for goal-directed behavior: The intentional self and episodic memory. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience 9 (323). doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00323
Numan, R. (2020). The prefrontal-hippocampal comparator: Volition and episodic memory. Researchgate Preprint. doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.11056.71681
Schwartz, J.M. (1998). Neuroanatomical aspects of cognitive-behavioural therapy response in obsessive-compulsive disorder: An evolving perspective on brain and behavior. British Journal of Psychiatry, 173, Suppl 35, 38-44.
Schwartz, J.M., & Begley, S. (2002). The mind and the brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force. New York, NY: HarperCollins.