Everybody develops habits, and automatic actions we take in reaction to cues or triggers. Patterns can be benign, harmful, or both. The finest ones, like spending time with a loved one regularly, yield positive consequences without needing too much mental effort. However, some behaviors, such as emotional eating or buying things to make one feel better, can have harmful long-term implications and frequently need to be discontinued.
But how can a habit be broken? Benjamin Gardner, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom who specializes in habits, says there are three methods. Given that it depends on the behavior you want to eradicate, there is no single “optimal technique.”
To cease the activity, to stop exposing yourself to the trigger, or to replace the trigger with a different, equally fulfilling action are the three possibilities.
For instance, Gardner suggested that you might crave popcorn as soon as you enter a theatre. The purchase and consumption of popcorn are the behaviors, and the movie theatre is the trigger. You have the following choices to kick this habit: One is to tell yourself “no popcorn” every time you go to the movies; two is to never go to the movies, or three is to swap out the popcorn for a different movie snack that better suits your spending limit or dietary objectives.
Another illustration is nail-biting, which is unconscious and repeatedly done throughout the day, so you might not even be aware of the trigger, according to Gardner. Finding the root of the problem is important, but it may be challenging to recognize when you are biting your nails out of boredom or stress, let alone to stop yourself. It is probably preferable to switch out a nail-biting for another physical stress reliever, such as a stress ball. As an alternative, Gardner suggested using a deterrent, such as bad-tasting nail polish, to make you more conscious of your nail-biting at or just before the crucial moment so you can decide to stop.
The key to the replacement strategy is to make sure that the new habit is similarly appealing. Replacing a daily cookie with kale or daily Netflix time with a daily run just won’t work in the long term, he said. A low-fat cookie or an after-work walk is more plausible changes.
Not every habit-breaking strategy works for every habit. For instance, if you want to eat a daily pastry in the break room when you arrive at your job, it won’t work to remove the trigger, because you can’t stop going to work. Another approach would be to stop the behavior and intentionally say “no pastries” to yourself every day as you walk through the entrance. Or, you might try to create a new habit of eating healthier breakfast food at the same time.
Whichever strategy you choose, the key is to do it over and over, Gardner said. The only way habit-breaking works is to use the strategy repeatedly. And there’s no evidence that it will take the oft-touted 21 days, Gardner said. A 2009 study of 96 people in the European Journal of Social Psychology (opens in new tab) showed that individuals took between 18 and 254 days to form a habit, a useful tidbit to know if you’re using the replacement strategy to get rid of a habit. Other research (opens in new tab) suggests it’s simpler to change a physical habit than a thought habit.
It takes time to dump habits because they are mapped into the brain. Behaviors that elicit rewards, like pleasure or comfort, are stored as habits (opens in new tab) in the region of the brain called the basal ganglia. Researchers have traced neural loops (opens in new tab) in this region that connect behaviors or habits to sensory signals, which can act as triggers. The more times you repeat a habit, the more routine and harder to quit they become, Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (opens in new tab)” (Random House, 2012) told the Harvard Business Review (opens in new tab).
Of note, while habit and addiction do overlap, there are significant differences, according to Alvernia University (opens in new tab) in Pennsylvania. So breaking a habit and breaking an addiction are not equal endeavors. The primary difference is habits are more choice-based while addictive behaviors can be more “neurologically and biologically bound,” according to the university.
Finally, Gardner said, success isn’t perfect with habit-breaking. “Habit should be thought of as on a continuum,” he said. “Things become more or less habitual.” Instead of erasing a habit, you degrade it. And you’ll know you’re making progress not when the habit is gone but when you feel less influenced by it. On the day you start to feel like you have more choices like the habit behavior isn’t automatic, that’s when you know your habit breaking is making progress, he said.