A habit is a behavior that is regularly performed in response to a given cue. Habits can be difficult to break because they are performed automatically, with little to no conscious control. Research has, however, discovered methods that have been shown to be effective in breaking bad habits.
How to Break a Habit:
- Intentions: The intention to change has been shown to be effective in overcoming weak habits, but ineffective when it comes to strong habits. For example, individuals in one study who intended to eat less fast food, were successful if their habit of eating fast food was weak, but not if it was strong (see chart) (Ji & Wood 2007). Having good intentions is a major part of effective habit change, but it is often not enough.
- Avoid the cue: Avoiding the cue that triggers a habit has also been shown to be effective. People who move to a new city often find it easy to change their habits, because many of the old cues are no longer around to trigger their old habits (Wood & Tam 2005). Unfortunately, it can be difficult to avoid the cues that trigger bad habits in many cases (Quinn & Pascoe 2010). Therefore, it is often necessary to target your response to a cue as well.
- Monitoring: One study found that monitoring your behavior is an effective way to break strong habits. To monitor yourself, you simply pay attention to your behavior and actively inhibit the habitual response when you notice it arise (Quinn & Pascoe 2010).
- If-then plans: The problem with relying solely upon monitoring is that research has shown that habits can’t be unlearned (Bouton 2002). Instead, you must replace a bad habit with a good habit. To do this, you plan in advance how you want to respond when you encounter a cue (if I walk into the cafeteria, then I will order a salad) (Adriaanse & Gollwitzer 2011). While, this won’t guarantee that you will perform the desired behavior, it will at least bring the decision into your conscious mind, ensuring that the old habit isn’t performed unconsciously.
- Replace the bad habit with a good habit: Finally, you have to choose the new habit over the bad habit when the choice arrives. This can be difficult at first, but the more you perform the new habit, the easier and more automatic the decision will become. Replacing old habits with new ones has been shown to be effective even in extreme cases like stuttering and tics (Bate & Malouff 2011).
Example of a good strategy: A good strategy to break the habit of eating doughnuts is to: (1) discover what is cueing your desire to eat a doughnut, (2) avoid exposure to these cues, (3) monitor yourself in situations where you are likely to have a desire to eat a doughnut and stop yourself from performing the behavior, and (4) replace the habit of eating a doughnut in response to the cue with eating something healthier.
Example of a bad strategy: A bad strategy is to repeatedly tell yourself how bad doughnuts are for you and then get mad at yourself every time you eat one.
Bate, Karina S.; Malouff, John M.; Thorsteinsson, Einar T.; Bhullar, Navjot. The Efficacy of Habit Reversal Therapy for Tics, Habit Disorders, and Stuttering: A Meta-Analytic Review. Clinical Psychology Review. Vol 31(50), Jul 2011, 865-871.
Bouton, Mark E. Context, Ambiguity, and Unlearning: Sources of Relapse After Behavioral Extinction. Biological Psychiatry. Vol 52(10), Nov 2002, 976-986.
Ji, Mindy F.; Wood, Wendy. Purchase and Consumption Habits: Not Necessarily What You Intend. Journal of Consumer Psychology. Vol 17(4), 2007, 261-276.
Quinn, Jeffrey M.; Pascoe, Anthony; Wood, Wendy; Neal, David T. Can’t Control Yourself? Monitor Those Bad Habits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Vol 36(4), Apr 2010, 499-511.
Wood, Wendy; Tam, Leona; Witt, Melissa G. Changing Circumstances, Disrupting Habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 88(6), 2005, 918-933.