How to break a habit

How do you break a habit? First, it’s important to know why we make them and continue them. Once we know that, we can find ways to interrupt and change them.

If they’re so bad for us, why do humans form habits? Well, most habits are not BAD habits. Studies have shown that when something becomes a habit and part of our structured day, we are more likely to continue doing it (Danner et al, November 2010). Think of how much of your day you spend doing the same thing in the same place, be this eating breakfast in your kitchen when you wake up hungry or using the toilet when your bladders full; habits help us. They mean we don’t have to think about every action we have to take during a day.

Habits are hard to change with information. What smoker doesn’t know they’re at an increased risk of lung cancer? Although due to the bias we all have towards optimism many heavy smokers down grade their personal risk of cancer (McKennell, Febuary 1970). An information campaign aimed at getting Americans to eat 5 fruits and vegetables a day was found to change peoples’ minds about what they should be doing without changing very many people’s behaviours (Casagrande et al, 2006). So, information about a bad habit is not enough to change our behaviour and we imagine the harm we learn about the bad habit isn’t going to affect us badly anyway.

Failing to get the expected reward is also unsuccessful at breaking habits. Many nail biters have tried painting foul tasting things on their nails. Whilst the nails are still painted it is not bitten, but my experience is that I still went to bite them with or without the foul tasting stuff on them, and therefore the nail-biting habit was not broken. Similarly, a study showed that popcorn eating movie goers were so entrenched in their habit, that having stale or bad tasting popcorn didn’t stop them eating as much popcorn as they would have eaten had it been fresh (Neal et al, August 2011). Poor rewards and good information aren’t helpful: but what might help you break the habit?

Have you ever taken a new car journey and it feels like it took a long time and you can remember every part of it… then if you take that journey every day for a week you remember it in chunks, so when you arrive it seems a lot quicker… eventually, if you take that journey daily for years, you can barely remember anything between deciding you want to go and arriving. It feels like you haven’t experienced it at all; like auto-pilot has been engaged… and it sort of has!

You see when we do something new the Basal Ganglia, the part of our brains that is associated with habit forming, are working overtime to encode every action that needs to happen to get the desired result. This means we are remembering in overdrive so that in the future it will become effortless. So, the journey seems longer and more detailed at first, but as the habit forms this is less and less necessary, autopilot kicks in so our brains can conserve energy or think about something else. This grouping of actions is called chunking. Chunking happens when we learn anything. Can you imagine how hard it would be to brush your teeth or use cutlery if we had to think of every action needed during the process?

Once chunked, a habit is a 3-step process. First there’s a cue, for brushing your teeth it could be the time of day, getting into/out of bed or your teeth feeling fuzzy. Then there’s the routine, which would be the (now) learnt automated process of brushing your teeth. Finally, there’s the reward, which might be the fresh feeling mouth or the satisfaction of knowing your probably won't make a halitosis related social gaff today! The cues and rewards might vary greatly between people with the same routines, which is why breaking bad habits can be so hard and what works for one person may not work for you. But can you tackle the habit at both ends of the three-step process?

It may be easier to take the reward end of the process because cues can develop and expand over time. Say you used to have a biscuit when you were hungry. Then, you occasionally had a cup of tea at the same time. After a few times, a cup of tea without a biscuit seems odd because tea has become a biscuit cue. Then your friend starts taking you out for a cup of tea at 3 pm each day and the time also becomes a cue. So cues can expand and develop, but it is usually possible to isolate what benefit you expect to get from the habitual behaviour.

Some lucky people find they will only eat biscuits between meals if they see them on their shelf at home. For them, not buying biscuits, so they aren’t cued by them on their kitchen shelf is a reasonable way to break the habit. Others might have a cue they can’t avoid, like time of day, and buying the biscuit as part of the routine. They would need to examine themselves to discover what it is they get as a reward. It might be the social interaction of buying the biscuits, in which case finding someone for a chat when they’re cued would break the habit. The reward might be the physical stimulation of chewing, in which case they could buy gum instead.

Of course, we all know habits are hard to kick, especially if they’re entrenched (Verhoeven et al, November 2012) or related to addiction, so knowing what your cue and reward are is only half the battle. The rest is finding less harmful alternatives and remembering to intervein before the routine kicks in, which takes time patience and dedication. I wish you luck with everything you’re trying to kick. I know I have a few to tackle too!

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