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How to Make or Break a Habit

According to experts who study habit formation and decision making, habits are made up of three components: a trigger (the thing that drives you to repeat a behavior, for example, feeling tired or stressed), the behavior itself (such as eating something unhealthy), and the reward you get from the behavior (which is often the feeling of pleasure).

This concept is known as "reward-based learning" — and it's the reason we wind up repeating certain behaviors, whether good or bad, over and over again. Another way that reward-based learning is described is "cue, routine, reward."

While some habits can help you to be productive and establish a routine that benefits your life in a variety of ways — such as by getting you to work on time or allowing you to complete chores at home with less thought — others can have a negative impact on both your mental and physical health, as well as your productivity at work and your relationships.

According to James Clear, the #1 New York Times bestseller of Atomic Habits, stress, boredom, and limiting beliefs are common reasons that people struggle to break bad habits.

Below we'll look at science-backed advice on improving your behaviors and daily routine, and offer tips for replacing destructive habits with more beneficial ones.

5 Ways To Break A Bad Habit

As one article published by Harvard Business Review puts it, "Breaking habits is hard...largely because we are constantly barraged by stimuli engineered to make us crave and consume, stimuli that hijack the reward-based learning system in our brains designed initially for survival."

Lucky for you and me, experts have been studying habit formation in great detail for the past several decades, and they've come up with several effective ways to kill bad habits and adopt better ones. Here are five ways to get started:

1. Identity and avoid triggers

Habits can be difficult to change because we're constantly faced with triggers that require self-control and willpower.

The area in your brain that is most associated with self-control is called the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for complex behaviors including planning, emotional regulation, and predicting consequences.

Studies show that when you're stressed, sleep-deprived, scared, angry, or overwhelmed (all common triggers or cues), the prefrontal cortex has a hard time doing its job, leaving you susceptible to situations or feelings that can wind up reinforcing unwanted habits and addictions.

Therefore, one key to changing your habits is figuring out what's triggering you in the first place and then doing everything you can to avoid the trigger — whether it's getting more sleep, scheduling your day better to avoid feeling rushed, eating regularly, and more.

If you're having a hard time identifying your main triggers, consider keeping a habit journal to track the events and emotions that contribute to your habit.

Writing things down has a way of clarifying them. Maybe you'll notice that you argue with your partner when you're tired, you eat unhealthy foods when work is draining your energy, or you skip workouts when you go to sleep too late. Context is also important, so question whether certain situations or locations tempt you.

2. Pay close attention to the consequences of unwanted habits

The type of habit journal described above is one way to practice mindfulness, which helps you become more aware of your own feelings and the rewards versus consequences you get when you reinforce certain behaviors.

Once you have a clear understanding of the different components of your habit, you'll be able to see that your behavior may not actually be as rewarding as you once thought.

Dr. Jud Brewer, the creator of several apps designed to help people break bad habits such as smoking, overeating, and anxiety, found that mindfulness practices helped participants quit smoking five times more than standard treatments and reduced anxiety-related habits by more than 60%.

In his opinion, purposefully focusing on the downsides of poor habits (for example, weight gain, loss of money, or smelling bad after smoking) helps people to realize the habits are simply not worth it.

3. Start slow and be realistic

Habits take practice and repetition to become engrained, and this process doesn't happen overnight. Replacing a habit with a more desirable one is likely to be a bit of a bumpy road, so don't expect yourself to be perfect along the way.

Practicing self-compassion and forgiving yourself for slip-ups can actually help keep you motivated and on track. On the other hand, beating yourself up for mistakes only adds stress to your life, which depletes your willpower and makes you more likely to give in to temptations.

How long does it take to form a new habit? It depends on the person and the situation. A 2010 study found that it took an average of 66 days for a behavior to change, or just over two months (the time varied from 18 to 254 days). Findings from a separate study suggest that it can take about 90 months/3 months to develop a new healthy habit.

4. Create a physical reminder

Let's say you want to quit an unhealthy habit such as smoking cigarettes or scrolling endlessly on social media. One way to remind yourself of your goal (which is quitting these behaviors) is to physically do something every time you give in to your craving.

Some people swear by wearing a band around their wrist that they have to move to the opposite wrist every time they engage in an unhealthy habit. Others find that forcing themselves to do push-ups or adding money to a piggy bank can be effective physical reminders that help curb mindless, unwanted actions.

5. Reward yourself for progress

As the name implies, reward-based learning is based on receiving rewards, so to adopt a new healthy habit, you need to give yourself a reason to keep the new habit alive.

When you remove the reward you get from a negative habit, such as the pleasure of scrolling through your phone for too long or spending too much money on unnecessary purchases, you need to find a new reward to take its place.

Think of positive ways you can motivate yourself to stick with healthier habits, such as by buying yourself inexpensive gifts to acknowledge your progress — perhaps a weekly magazine, bouquet of flowers, or a massage.

Intrinsic motivation (coming from your own feelings rather than outside sources) can be very powerful, so focus on how good it feels to be bettering yourself.

Want even more helpful tips?

  • Find an accountability partner who you report to about your progress.

  • Purposefully surround yourself with people who live the way you desire to (or follow people you admire on social media).

  • Practice visualization, in which you picture the version of yourself reaching your goals.

  • Use journaling or therapy to overcome negative talk, which can sabotage your success.


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