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How to Break Bad Habits

By Cameron Gibson


Research shows it takes on average sixty-six days for a person to form a habit.

European Journal of Social Psychology Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010) Published online 16 July 2009 in Wiley Online Library ( 


Habits are a part of all our lives. Our brains intentionally form habits to make our lives easier. When we first try a new task, our brains have to work hard. They process loads of new information as we start to learn the process. But, as soon as we understand how a task works, the behaviour starts becoming automatic and the mental activity required to do the task decreases dramatically.

Think about how much conscious concentration you had to use the first time you parallel parked or even the first time you tied your shoelaces. Then compare that to the amount of mental effort you exert doing those activities now. With the parking example, probably still quite a lot!

Or even take your morning routine as an example. From the moment you wake up until the moment you arrive at work/ school in the morning, most of what you do is a habit. You likely get up at the same time, get showered, dressed and eat breakfast in the same order and leave the house at the same time every day. That’s why we call it a ‘routine’. After sixty-six days, it becomes subconscious and our brains effectively put us on autopilot.


“We want the brain to learn how to do those things without energy and effort,” says Dr Russell Poldrack, professor of psychology at Stanford University. “Habits are an adaptive feature of how the brain works.”

Unfortunately for us, this feature of our brains that helps us so much in our day-to-day lives can often backfire and result in us learning habits that hinder rather than help us. Bad habits are just as easy to form as good ones and as a result, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that we all have at least a handful of bad habits that we’d rather not be carrying around.

But, you’ll be pleased to know that all is not lost as there is plenty we can do to help try and kick those pesky bad habits and it’s maybe not even as difficult as it might seem at first…


Breaking Those Habits!


The first step to kick your bad habits is being able to identify them and being open to break them rather than just do what most people do: deny them at all costs!

Be open-minded about the possibility that actually, that habit may have a negative effect on you rather than just dismissing it.

For me, I bite my nails. I have done since I was a kid and my whole life I’ve told myself “it’s not really a bad habit, it doesn’t actually affect my life or even anyone else around me, it’s more just a thing that I do”. The truth of the matter is that it does affect my life, and in more ways than one.

Only in the past year or so have I actually realised this and taken active steps to break the habit.

Related Content: Recognising Bad Habits by Speaker, Tony McNicoll

Although one or two small bad habits may not seem bad at first, as they all start to pile up, it can put a big dent in your productivity and lifestyle.

Since habits take practice and repetition to form, the same is true when it comes to breaking them”, says Elliot Berkman, director of the University of Oregon’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab. “In order to eliminate those pesky habits—whatever they may be—start with these five strategies.


Calm Down! (De-Stress)


There is a plethora of neuroscience to back up the idea that we do our best thinking and therefore can put conscious effort into breaking habits a lot more effectively when we’re happy, relaxed and confident.

In Neuroscientist Paul MacLean’s “Triune” model of the human brain, he explains that when we are stressed, a paralytic chemical called cortisol floods into the Neo Cortex (the part of the brain responsible for our higher order thinking) and moves our thinking down to our limbic or even reptilian systems (the parts of the brain that work mainly off subconscious and where all our habits “live”).

In simple terms, this explains why we all revert back to bad habits when we’re stressed. When stressed, you might bite your nails, eat ice cream until you’re sick or do something else you know you really shouldn’t; because the conscious part of our brain that usually tells us that these are in fact bad habits and that we shouldn’t be doing them physically shuts down.

So in order to break a habit, you need to remain as happy, relaxed and confident as possible. Obviously, there’s not one secret or solution to this as we all face different stresses in our vastly diverse lives.

However, one tip that everyone here at TOK HQ would agree with is to try some basic mindfulness. There are loads of resources on mindfulness and how it can help you de-stress that are easily accessible.

Related Content: Why & How to Get Started with Mindfulness

What Keeps You Hooked? (Knowing Your Habit Loops)


Charles Duhigg, the Pulitzer-prize winning author, shared the “Habit Loop” concept in his best-selling book, “Power of Habits”.

He explained that all habits consist of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.

He describes the cue as “a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use”.

Then there is a routine, which “can be physical or mental or emotional”.

Finally, a reward, which “helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future.”

He goes on to say, “Over time, this loop… becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges”.

So, if your brain deems the reward worthwhile; it begins to associate the cue (or trigger) with that reward and wants more. It then realises that to achieve that reward, you need to carry out the routine (which, in our case, is our habit).

He suggests that if you want to break a bad habit, you have to recognise these loops in order to be able to put in place a healthier routine to yield the same reward.

Once you identify each part, you can tailor ways to combat or replace those habits.

Here’s a little homework for you: take 5 minutes out at lunch/ at the end of the day and write down some of your bad habits. Then, try and identify the whole loop from the things that cue the habit, to the routine and finally, the reward. Trust me, it’s a worthwhile exercise!


Replace Bad Habits With Good Ones


If we learn about Duhigg’s idea of “Cue, Routine, Reward” and we learn to recognise our loops effectively then we can ‘pluck’ the unhealthy routine from the middle of the process and replace it with one that is much more helpful.

Let’s say someone often decided to go out with their co-workers at the end of the week and have a couple of drinks. If we try and identify the reward here, you’ll find there are actually two: firstly, the socialisation aspect of going out with co-workers, and secondly the relaxing effects on their nervous system.

Both of those rewards are valid and necessary. If they remove this from their life, but replace it with nothing else, they’ll likely decrease their reward. The trick is to keep the cue (in this case, being tired after a long week) and the rewards (in this case, social time, relaxation) constant while changing the routine that yields them.

So, to suggest an alternative routine for this example, they could convince a co-worker or friend to start exercising with them after work—running, yoga, rock climbing, or whatever works. Then they have a healthy routine (exercise) that replaces the negative routine whist giving the exact same rewards (social time, relaxation).


Have A Good Motivation For Breaking the Habit


This one is slightly simpler. Make sure your motivation for breaking the habit is suitable and genuine. Make sure it’s something you genuinely care about and that you’re not just trying to break the habit for the sake of it. And if you don’t genuinely care, make yourself. Give yourself a good reason to.

Dr. Poldrack said that pleasure-based habits are harder to break. This is because the brain releases a chemical called dopamine when it experiences an enjoyable behaviour. He said: “If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you’re not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again.”

This can make many bad habits considerably more difficult to break. For example, if you were to replace eating junk food by eating veg then ultimately, your brain knows that veg is not that fatty/ sugary/ salty snack you usually have and therefore won’t produce dopamine and, by extension, the same feeling that actually eating junk food would. This is where the importance of having a real and genuine motivation comes into play.

Berkman says “Intellectually, we know that quitting smoking is good for our health and limiting how many burgers we eat might help us lose weight. But rooting habit changes in specific and personal reasons—giving up smoking for good may mean spending more years with your family or eating healthier may give you more energy for those outdoor adventures you used to enjoy—provides a stronger dose of motivation”.


Set Better Goals


Vague, non-specific goals tend not to work as well as specific, targeted goals.

Instead of focusing on a more general goal (for example, quitting smoking), try imagining more specifically how you’ll implement this goal into your daily life (for example, not buying packs of cigarettes with your shopping).

Plus, thinking about how exactly you’re going to do something helps you develop the mindset that you can do something. And that’s half the battle.” says Poldrack.

It’s easy to consider something as impossible before you actually give it a go.


For me, over the years I’ve tried to stop biting my nails numerous times to no avail. But more recently, I’ve decided to take smaller steps for example, I started off by telling myself that I couldn’t bite my nails before 1 o’clock. Then once this became a habit, I upped it to not biting my nails before I got home from work (around 5pm). Once that becomes a habit, I’ll go for the home run!

Now that you have a whole bunch of real-world ways to kick that bad habit you’ve been meaning to get rid of. And being the start of a New Year, there’s no better time to give it a try!


Related Content: 

What to Do When You Feel Out Of Your League… by Guest Blogger, Mrs Orr

10 Super Productive Things To Do On a Sunday by Speaker Cameron Gibson

Sailing the Sea of Positivity by Speaker Jack Kilpatrick 

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