How to Break a Bad Habit: Train Your Brain to Beat It

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

We all know the consequences of bad habits: they can prevent us from accomplishing our goals, and they can also make our everyday lives difficult. The good news is that habits can be changed in almost any life scenario, provided we know how they work.

The process of breaking a habit has no universal timeframe, and it depends on the habit itself as well as our mindset. However, there’s a framework for understanding how habits work and a guide to experimenting with how they might change.

Let's start the process of breaking a habit by getting familiar with the concept of the habit loop.

Step #1: Understand the habit loop

In the 1990s, researchers at MIT discovered a neurological loop at the core of every habit. This loop consists of three parts: A cue, a routine, and a reward.

  • A cue: the trigger that reminds you to perform a habit

  • A routine: the action you do

  • A reward: the payoff you get

Say that you want to break a habit of drinking coffee in the morning. Your cue might be a time of the day. Your go-to routine may be making yourself a cup of coffee. Lastly, your reward may be feeling alert. That’s how drinking coffee gets associated with a particular time.

It’s important to note that a link between a cue and routine is reinforced when you engage in a habit. By repetition, that link only gets stronger and more embedded in your brain.

Habit Formation and the Rat Race

In October 2012, researchers at the MIT set out to find if they could exercise complete control over habitual behaviors in rats. They formed habits through repetition and auditory cues in rats running through a simple maze for a few weeks.

Once they had shown that the habit was fully ingrained, the researchers broke it by interfering with the infralimbic (IL) cortex - a region at the front of our brain that is monitoring our behavior. This region is part of the neocortex, a brain structure involved in complex functions like sensory perception, emotion, and cognition.

Using optogenetics, a technique that allows researchers to inhibit specific cells with light, they blocked IL cortex activity for several seconds as the rats approached the point in the maze where they had to decide which way to turn.

The rat’s brains turned from a reflexive, habitual mode to a more cognitive and engaged mode, focused on a goal. Once the rats had broken their old habits, they formed new ones, which the researchers were then able to break again. But the rats immediately regained their original habit. This finding suggests that habits are never really forgotten, just overwritten or replaced with new ones.

Step #2: Isolate the cue

Imagine you’re a scientist, and habit-breaking is an experiment you’re conducting.

On the first day of the experiment, your goal is to isolate the cue - the trigger that reminds you to perform a habit.

Each time you feel the urge to your bad habit, take a piece of paper and write down the answers to these questions:

  • What's my emotional state?

  • Where am I?

  • What time is it?

  • Who else is around?

  • What action immediately preceded the urge?

Writing down the answers forces a momentary awareness of what you are thinking or feeling, but it also makes it much easier to remember your thoughts and emotions.

In his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg suggests that you do this for a minimum of five days and look for recurring patterns. For example, if you notice by the fifth day you’ve written down “bored” for an emotional state five times, then boredom is likely your cue.

Step #3: Change the routine

Your next step is to determine what your substitute behavior will be.

You can do that by isolating the reward you’re actually craving rather than what you think you’re craving. Most cravings are obvious in retrospect but hard to see when we are under their sway.

Let’s say you want to stop drinking coffee in the morning.

  • Adjust your routine, so it delivers a different reward. For instance, instead of drinking coffee, enjoy a cup of green tea. The next day, read a book. The day after, try doing a short yoga workout.

  • Each time you test a different routine, write down the first three sensations, emotions, or thoughts that come to mind.

  • Set the alarm on your phone for fifteen minutes. This is to identify the reward you’re craving. When the alarm goes off, ask yourself: “Do I still feel the urge to do my habit?

If after drinking green tea, you still have an urge to have a cup of coffee, then your craving isn’t motivated by feeling alert. It’s inspired by a different reward. After you isolate the reward, you should pick the routine that satisfies your craving.

This experimentation might take a while because it’s a trial and error process. During that

period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure.

Step #4: Have a plan

Now we can change to a better routine by planning for the cue and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward we are craving. We can use the implementation intention, which is a self-regulatory strategy in the form of an “if-then plan”: