Finally, the plan your overstuffed stomach, chewed nails, stiff-as-a-board body, and/or sleep-deprived mind have been waiting for.
How many times have you tried to quit drinking soda, cut down on screen time, or stop falling asleep with the TV on? How badly did you beat yourself up each time you failed?
If you answered “lots” and “very,” it’s time for a whole new approach to how you battle bad habits.
“You can’t force yourself to change your bad behavior,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California, and a researcher who’s spent decades studying how we form and change habits. (She’s also written a book all about it, called “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick.”) Your self-control and willpower will inevitably fade. To break negative patterns, says Wood, you need to go after the source and change your brain.
Whether the habit is chain-smoking or going to the gym regularly, it’s the same to our brain, says Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, the director of research and innovation at the Brown University Mindfulness Center and author of “The Craving Mind.” “Something triggers your mind to cause you to behave a certain way, and that behavior cues a reward in your brain,” says Brewer. You settle in for an afternoon meeting or class (trigger), guzzle a soda (behavior), get a rush of sugar (reward). Often, this all happens without you actually thinking about it.
Whether the habit is chain-smoking or going to the gym regularly, it’s the same to our brain.
Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, Director of Research and Innovation at the Brown
University Mindfulness Center
In fact, some 43 percent of the actions you take every day are habitual and unconscious, says Wood. Operating on autopilot is fantastic for good habits but sucks for the things you wish you didn’t do. To act with more intention and attack the root of the problem instead of yourself, follow this five-step plan.
1. Map out your bad habits.
To stop endlessly scrolling on your phone or eating that second (OK, third) brownie, you need to understand why these patterns are happening, says Brewer. To do it, take out a pen and paper, and for each bad habit you have, write down its trigger, the behavior and the reward.
Let’s use scrolling as an example. Your trigger might be seeing a friend pull out their phone, and the behavior is that you pull out your phone too and start thumbing through social media. The reward could be seeing a couple of likes on the last picture you posted or laughing at a too-relatable meme. This trigger-behavior-reward loop is hardwired into your brain, says Brewer, and knowing it’s there is the first step to squashing it. “If you’re not aware it’s happening, game over,” he says. “You’ll never be able to stop.”
2. Change the context.
An easy way to break that bad habit loop: Avoid triggers. Locations, times of day, even the people around you can all be subconscious triggers, says Wood. Tweak those cues and you can change how you act.
If you notice that every time you sit on your couch and open your laptop, you reach for a snack, try opening your computer only at a desk or table, where you’re trained to be in work, not lounge, mode. If you reach for your phone or TV remote every night before you go to sleep, leave it in another room and put a book on your nightstand instead. Always have one too many with a friend who likes to drink? Shift your meet-up spot to a trailhead.
3. Add friction.
You can turn a negative behavior positive by making it a little tougher to carry out. To illustrate this, Wood points to a classic study published in the “Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.” Researchers wanted to know what it would take for people to pick the stairs over the elevator in a four-story building, so they slowed the time it took for the elevator door to close by 16 seconds. This little bit of inconvenience, what experts call friction, cut elevator trips by one third. “The amazing thing?” says Wood. “Four weeks later, when they sped it back up, people kept taking the stairs — they’d formed a new stair-taking habit.”
Get creative adding friction to patterns you want to change. Always biting your nails? Time for a manicure. Sit all day at your computer? Try a hard-backed desk chair that makes you want to frequently stand up. Creating even a tiny bit of resistance can block your automatic response.
4. Tune in…in real time.
The next time you’re procrastinating on a project or skimming the bottom of a jumbo bag of chips, pause and think about how you feel. “Ask yourself, ‘What am I getting from this?’” says Brewer. Simply being mindful of your actions can change the ingrained habit in your brain. Brewer’s team recently studied this with more than a thousand patients who overate. After the patients really paid attention to how it felt to binge and repeated this exercise 10 to 15 times, their urge to overindulge began to fade, and they reported a significant reduction in craving-related eating. “As they started to see that the old behavior wasn’t helpful, the reward value dropped,” he says. “They became disenchanted with it.”
The second mindful step to take, Brewer says, is thinking about how much better you feel when you don’t do your bad habit. “Our brain is always looking for a bigger, better offer, a BBO,” he explains. “So if you can focus on how unrewarding your old behavior is and how rewarding the new behavior is, your brain will naturally move in that direction.” Maybe your BBO is the great catch-up conversations you have with close friends during the time you would have been scrolling. Or the all-day high you feel when you actually go on your run in the morning versus skipping it and regretting it the rest of the day.
5. Have a backup plan.
For moments when you’re still tempted to fall into your old, bad habit, create an “if/then” plan. For example, if you find yourself craving that afternoon soda, then you’ll pour yourself a glass of seltzer. Having an exact strategy to steer yourself to a better option can help ensure it actually happens, especially when you’re first breaking a bad habit and it still has a bit of pull ovyou, says Wood.
Breaking the trigger-behavior-reward cycle gets easier and easier the more you practice, says Wood. Keep repeating the steps above and busting your bad habits will soon become, well, a habit.
Words: Marissa Stephenson
Illustration: Ryan Johnson