Subscribe via RSS or e-mail      

How to Break a Bad Habit


Bunnies that are bad to the bone

In a recent article, I wrote about whether good habits make bad habits go away. The verdict was that they can sometimes, but only if they directly conflict with a bad habit. If the bad habit can coexist with the good habit, the good habit alone won’t be enough to get rid of the bad one. For example, if a newer Taekwondo student learns to bring the knee far up before kicking (a good habit), that won’t prevent bending the head forward (a bad habit) with every kick.

How bad habits are defeated
Fortunately, knowing how good habits and bad habits interact tells us what we need to do to get rid of bad habits. Unfortunately, it takes some work. But this isn’t any worse than what we already knew: if changing habits were easy, you and I wouldn’t have any trouble with it, and this kind of article wouldn’t be necessary.

The essential problem with getting rid of a bad habit is that our brains don’t seem to have any mechanism for not doing things except to do something else. That kind of makes sense when we look at it carefully, for instance by comparison with the way our bodies work. We don’t have muscles in our body for “not lying down”–but we do have muscles that can pull us into a standing or sitting position. The only way we have to not lie down is to do something other than lying down.

To put it another way, focusing on “not” doing something won’t get us anywhere: we have to instead focus our efforts on doing something else that prevents the behavior we don’t want. If a person has a problem with shouting when they’re upset, the job isn’t to “not shout” but rather to find something else that will interfere with the shouting, like speaking very softly or counting to ten. As simple as these kinds of strategies are, they prevent us from doing the thing we don’t want to do, and as specific behaviors they can eventually turn into good or neutral habits that can quash the habits we want to get rid of.

Consistently doing something else
The problem, then, is in getting us to consistently do the good habits. Just doing them every once in a while isn’t going to change anything: as I talk about in How Long Does It Take to Form a Habit?, research suggests that we have to do something very consistently over many days in order to turn it into a habit. In order for replacement behaviors to work, they have to be available to us all the time, and we have to focus on them carefully. And habits being habits, our bad habits are often going to be easier to follow than the replacement behaviors we want to use: sometimes a person will find it hard to count to ten instead of shouting if he’s used to shouting.

There are two ways to help skew things in favor of the replacement behaviors. In an article about how habits and goals relate to each other, Wendy Wood and David T. Neal of Duke University talk about the ways automatic behaviors kick in. One is direct, when a person responds to the sight of a Dunkin Donuts store by going in and buying a cruller because they’re used to buying a cruller when they pass Dunkin Donuts. The other is based on expected rewards, when a person imagines how pleasant it would be to eat a cruller and goes to Dunkin Donuts to get one out of desire for that sensation.

Focusing on the near-term payoff
So we can use expected rewards to help fight bad habits. If someone gets a little thrill of accomplishment by purposely walking by a Dunkin Donuts instead of going in, then that focusing attention on that thrill can activate the “expected rewards” system and reinforce the new behavior we want. Finding the right reward is the hardest thing about this technique. The reward has to be real (a gold star in a notebook isn’t going to be motivating unless you really love gold stars), something that you can consistently get, and to not start other bad habits. For instance, a student who rewards herself with a chocolate bar every time she sits down to study may acquire a good study habit at the same time as a bad chocolate-snarfing habit.

This is why, as discussed in this post, women who concentrated on the immediate feelings of well-being they got from a workout were better at keeping at an exercise habit than women who concentrated on their long-term goals. Long-term goals are important in their place, but in themselves they provide very little motivation: they need to be aided by tools like visualization.

Skipping bad behavior through visualization
The second way to shore up anti-bad behavior is though picturing a different behavior, because it appears that we are much more likely to perform behaviors that we picture mentally; William James called this “ideomotor” behavior. For example, a short time ago I was unexpectedly hungry, and it wasn’t time to eat yet. Not wanting to lend any strength to a past habit of eating between meals, I instead pictured myself sitting down and writing this post, which I started doing, and which has kept my attention long enough to get past the problem.

Photo by turbojoe (away)



  1. Eric S  •  May 25, 2010 @8:02 am

    good post, Luc. and it may seem obvious, but another potential problem with a reward such as a chocolate bar is the ease of cheating, and eating the chocolate without doing the target behavior (or bypassing the unwanted behavior).

    and the bad bunnies rock. LOL!

  2. Luc  •  May 25, 2010 @9:19 am

    You know, the problem with claiming the reward without doing the behavior hadn’t occurred to me. Thanks for mentioning that: it seems like an important thing to watch out for!

    The photographer has a whole series of compromised marshmallow creature photos on Flickr. I almost shouldn’t have used the bad bunnies one, though–I mean, who knew bad habits could make you look so cool?

Leave a Reply

Allowed tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

%d bloggers like this: