Late night channel surfing, procrastination, and a mid-afternoon candy bar. While alone these things are just bad choices, they could quickly become bad habits under the right conditions, says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California (USC).
“About 40% of our behaviors are repeated almost daily, and usually in the same context,” she says. “We tend to eat at the same times and places, exercise and go to work at the same times and places. This is a huge amount of repetition.”
Good or bad, habits bring consistency to our lives. A type of associative learning, they’re formed when we repeat activities under the same contexts; essentially, we react to recurring cues.
“Once habits have formed, just perceiving the cues will automatically bring the response to mind,” says Wood. “For example, when you walk into your kitchen first thing in the morning, you are likely to think about making coffee. The cues of kitchen and early morning bring making coffee-making to mind, and people often carry out the thought in mind.”
While we rarely recognize our good habits because they’re consistent with our goals, our bad habits are easy to identify because they cause us to struggle even after we’ve made decisions not to do them.
“So if you decide that your habit of eating doughnuts at the vending machine is bad for your health, you are essentially of two minds: your habit mind thinks of buying doughnuts every time you walk by the machine at work, while your intentional mind is resolved to not eat doughnuts any more,” says Wood.
Unfortunately you can’t change a bad habit overnight, but there are three simple steps you can take to pave the way, says Wood:
People sometimes find it easier to stop smoking while on vacation or to start a new exercise routine when they move to a new home, says Wood: “This is because the old cues that kept them repeating unwanted behaviors are no longer present,” she says.
If you’re unable to change your scenery, change your routine. Avoid the workplace vending machine that poses a problem, for example, or leave your money behind so you can’t succumb to temptation.
Derailing bad habits makes room for incorporating new, good intentions, says Wood. Instead of buying junk food from the vending machine, for example, you might decide to incorporate healthy snacks and keep items such as apples and nuts in your desk.
“The latest research on self-control shows that people who are really good at meeting their goals don’t engage in white-knuckle struggles with themselves,” she says. “They don’t stress over being healthy and productive. Instead, they have structured their lives so that desired behaviors are automatic and habitual.”
Keep the new behavior going by repeating it in stable contexts so that when you’re in those situations, the habit automatically comes to mind, says Wood.
If the 3 p.m. slump triggers your craving for sweets, save your good snack and have it at that time. Reversing the order of the new behavior and what triggers your bad habit will decrease the likelihood of forming the new good habit because context cues have a strong impact on our behavior, says Wood.
In a study at USC, Wood and her team fed people at a cinema stale and fresh popcorn: “Everyone hated the stale popcorn, and were able to tell us how much they hated it, but people who had habits to eat popcorn at the movies ate it anyway,” she says. “This is an indication of how much habits influence our lives—we can say we hate a food but still eat it habitually.”
Keep It Going.
The key to successfully eliminating bad habits is repeating the three steps. In his 1960 classic self-help book Psycho Cybernetics, A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life, Dr. Maxwell Maltz suggested that it takes 21 days to form a habit, but Wood says it’s not that cut and dry. She sites a recent study by University College London research psychologist Pippa Lally, who found that some behaviors take 18 days to become habits while others take more than 200; the average was 66 days.
That means you should continue your replacement activity for the long haul, making a commitment and plans to stick to it. “It would be great if there was a simple formula to establish a habit,” says Wood. “How long it takes depends on many things, including as how complicated the behavior is.”