7 Steps to Breaking a Habit

Whether it’s biting your nails or overeating, you can change your behavior—and it's not a question of willpower.

By Beth Levine

Did you know that research says 40 percent of our actions are habits, not conscious decisions? Habits are defined as behaviors that are repeated frequently and automatically because they have become hardwired into our brains. Generally, they are good things (ie. automatically closing the refrigerator door or driving on the right side of the road). Habit also frees up your brain from the millions of decisions we make every day so we can focus on the important stuff.

But what about those bad habits—lighting up a cigarette when you’re feeling bored, heading for the fudge-covered graham crackers whenever you are stressed or going on a shopping spree when you get your paycheck? Can you really stop them? Yes, says recent research, but it takes a little work and patience. And even though we all think it's a question of willpower, it isn't. It's about changing your environment. “Habit is learned behavior, and we can't erase things we’ve learned. But we can replace them more desirable behaviors,” says James Claiborn, PhD, co-author of The Habit Change Workbook.

Changing Behavior

Habits have three components: cue – response – reinforcement. “We learn associations between environmental cues related to a good experience, and behaviors we need to do to get that experience,” explained Kyle Smith, PhD, of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lead author on a recent study on habits and the brain. For example, you see a red light, you brake, and you don’t get in an accident. Do it enough and it burns a pathway in your brain so that the cue is all that is needed to set off the whole chain without your really thinking about it. The trick to changing bad habits is to interrupt that cycle. “It is an active process in the brain that can be tapped into, even overridden, with behavior modifications, difficult as that can be,” said Dr. Smith.

Here’s how, according to Dr. Claiborn:

Step One: Define the habit. What is the behavior you want to stop?

Step Two: Identify your trigger. What is the cue that sets you off? It can be subtle. A time of day, a memory, an odor, an emotion, a set routine. Ask yourself: I do this habit whenever I [fill in the blank]?

Step Three: Identify the reinforcement. What are you really getting out of this action? This can be hard. Unhealthy skin if you smoke, extra pounds if you’re always snacking, and a big credit card bill if you are always shopping may not seem like much of a reinforcement, but obviously something about the action feels good to justify it. Does it relieve boredom or anxiety? Do you use it as comfort? 

Step Four: Replace the action with something that will give you the same reinforcement. What is better for you and will give you the same feeling?

Put it all together now: 

Scenario #1 Cue: Reading a book or working at my desk.

Routine: When I am in those situations, I compulsively pick at my hair.

Reinforcement: The action is self-soothing and helps me focus.

Replacement: What else can I do in that situation that will give the same reinforcement? Do something else with that hand—squeeze a ball, play with a rubber band, pet my dog, or hold the book tightly.


Scenario #2 Cue: Boredom.

Routine: I eat.

Reinforcement: I experience a good sensation.

Replacement: What else feels good and is fun to do? Call a friend, go for a bike ride or a walk, check Facebook, make a pot of tea, take a bath, or do your nails. 

Step Five: Keep records. Write down what you are doing or make conscious mental observations. Studies show if you keep a record and measure behavior, you tend to change that behavior because it forces you to be aware that what you were doing up to now has been automatic. When it gets your attention, you are more likely to think, “Do I really want to be doing this?”

Step Six: Ride it out. People think urges get stronger and stronger and then they give in. However, if you can ride it out with your replacement response, the urge will rise and fall on its own. The urge will come back but over time, it should become less frequent and weaker. There’s no real data that says how long the process should take—some research shows 21 days, others say a month or more. “I think, realistically, a simple habit can be changed very quickly if the person is substituting an incompatible behavior often, and that new behavior is getting reinforced regularly,” says Dr. Claiborn.

If you feel yourself starting to cave:

  • Remind yourself of the goal and reasons you are working on changing.
  • Plan other activities when you anticipate difficult times.
  • Enlist others as support and then ask them to talk you down during difficult periods.

Step Seven: If you slip up, don’t give up. You will occasionally slip back into the old habits. When that happens, people tend to think, “I blew it, forget it, I can’t do this.” Don’t blow one misstep out of proportion; you can get back on track. “Part of the problem is that we think in absolute terms: Either we are on a diet or we’re not, either we’re smoking or we’re not. The reality is you are trying to cut down on the behavior. Remind yourself of what you’ve done that has worked and return to that,” said Dr. Claiborn.


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