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Got a bad habit? Here’s how to train your brain to beat it

Have you picked up a bad habit during the pandemic? These tricks can help you break it.

Got a bad habit? Here’s how to train your brain to beat it
[Photo: Unsplash]

Chances are, a few of your bad habits have become particularly evident during the pandemic. Or maybe you’ve picked up a new bad habit altogether. You may notice aspects of the way you keep your home that make it hard to work there effectively. Your personal habits may be grating on the people you live with. Or, maybe you’re just sick of all the time you’re spending scrolling on your phone, or hitting snooze on your alarm six times every morning.

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Regardless of where it came from, your bad habit is supported by a series of brain systems that links your current mental state (what you’re wanting, thinking, and feeling) and your current physical environment with an action you want to perform. Essentially, the habit is a memory of what you are supposed to do when you are thinking or feeling something in a particular place. Because pulling something from memory happens quickly and automatically, your habits enable you to act quickly and without having to think about it.

Habits are powerful when they enable you to carry out an action you want to perform quickly. When the action is one you no longer want to do, though, it can be hard to break the habit. In particular, you cannot stop yourself from pulling something from memory. So, your habit system will keep reminding you to perform the undesirable action.

As I wrote in my book Smart Change, you can’t break a habit by trying to stop yourself from performing the habit. The brain systems that stop a behavior require a lot of effort. In addition, you don’t learn anything when you don’t perform any actions, and so even when you successfully stop yourself from performing a behavior, your habit system will continue to suggest that action later.

Instead, there are several things you must do to change your behavior:

Replace it with something else

Focus on replacing the undesirable behavior with one that you would prefer to perform. Each time you perform a different action in the setting where you used to display your bad habit, you are creating a new memory that reassociates your thoughts, feelings, and the physical environment with a different behavior. Eventually, that new behavior will become the norm. For example, when I was a graduate student, I stopped biting my fingernails while sitting at my desk by playing with desk toys instead.

Try a change of scenery

You should also try changing your environment to make undesirable behaviors as difficult as possible to do. This has two benefits. First, changing your physical surroundings decreases the chance you will be reminded of the undesirable behavior. Second, even if the habit is engaged, if the environment makes it hard to perform the behavior, you have more opportunity to stop yourself. For example, if you have the habit of eating several cookies at night, don’t buy cookies in the first place. Then after dinner, when the habit to eat a cookie is usually engaged, you won’t be able to perform it right away. It is unlikely you will drive out at night to get cookies, though of course stranger things have happened.

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Recruit someone else

Third, use the people around you for help. Let people nag you to stop a behavior. Humans are social creatures, and the feedback we get from other people is a powerful way to help us stop our bad habits. In addition, let other people give you suggestions of things they did to overcome their bad habits. Sharing tips and tricks is a great way to improve your strategies for changing your behavior. You can also try journaling to help you get a handle on particularly persistent behavior.

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