Breaking Habits with Science

Breaking a habit can be as hard as staying awake in an 8:00 A.M. geology lecture. It is, nevertheless, possible. (Or so they say; I could never stay awake in that class.) Perhaps it would have been easier had I followed the doctor’s orders.

1. Recognize Your Triggers. Our habits are often prompted. Dr. Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, put it this way: “If you regularly eat chips while sitting on the couch, after a while, seeing the couch will automatically prompt you to reach for the Doritos.” The couch becomes a trigger.

With this knowledge in hand, the shame- filled snack lover has a new weapon of attack. Instead of relying on willpower to resist the chips, he or she can stop the urge before it strikes by sitting in a different spot–or selling the couch.

2. Snap Yourself. Whether it’s biting nails or drinking soda, we do bad things for a reason. Though it might be hidden, there’s a reward milling around there somewhere.

Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating, offers simple advice to take advantage of the fact. “Habits,” he says, “become that way because they provide value to a person.” To change the habit, take away the value.

Here’s his tip: Put a rubber band around your wrist. Every time you engage in your negative behavior, snap it–and snap it hard! (Well, not too hard.) Simple as it sounds, it works. According to Dr. Wansink, “It’s a quick way to pair non-reinforcing behavior with the behavior you want to stop.”

3. Hang in There. If you’re trying to start a new habit, for example jogging every morning, Monika Fleshner, PhD., has good news. If you can force it for two or three weeks, habit will soon take over the heavy lifting.

Here’s the science: When you do something such as exercising, something that makes you feel good when you’re through, neurotransmission of dopamine is increased.

(Dopamine, if you don’t already know, is associated with the pleasure system of the brain. It produces feelings of enjoyment, which motivates the action that triggered it and helps to form a habit.)

The more you exercise, the more you get chemically rewarded. After two to three weeks, your brain will actually crave the activity. You’ll be eager to exercise.

About Jason Gracia: For over 15 years I’ve written about to help people improve and enjoy their lives. If you enjoyed this post, sign up above to receive our free Motivation Starter Kit, which now includes 70 quick and easy tips to get motivated today.

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