✓ Fact checked by: Dr. Glen M Doniger, PhD
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”:
“If I feel the urge to do (X), then I’ll do (Y).”
Let’s go back to the routine of drinking coffee in the morning.
You learned that your cue is the time of day: 7 AM. Through experimentation, you learned that it wasn’t the cup of coffee you craved, it was a quiet moment for yourself and a chance to relax in the morning. Your new routine could be grabbing your favorite book and reading one chapter.
So, you write a plan:
At 7 AM, every day, I will grab a book and read one chapter.
To make sure I don’t slip, I will always have a book on my bedside table.
The next step is repetition. By repeating your new habit loop over and over again, you’ll be closer to your goal of breaking a bad habit.
Pro tip: Use Inverted Thinking
The way of thinking in which you consider the opposite of what you want is known as inversion. Inversion is a powerful thinking tool because it spotlights errors and obstacles that are not obvious at first glance. So, instead of asking how to do something, ask how not to do it.
In the case of breaking a habit of drinking coffee in the morning, you would fast forward two weeks from now and assume you failed. Tell the story of how it happened. How did you end up drinking coffee again? What mistakes did you make?
Inversion allows you to step outside your usual thought patterns and look at things from a different perspective.
Step #5: Have a back-up plan
What we do after the slip-up makes the most significant difference between people who return to their old habits and the ones who successfully break them. Slips-ups happen. No big deal. Keep in mind that a slip-up doesn't eliminate your previous achievements, and you can always make a different choice tomorrow.
If it gets hard, think about who you wish to become. Our identity emerges through our habits.
Put it like this: the goal is not to run 10 minutes each morning. The goal is to become a runner. If you try to quit smoking and someone offers you a cigarette, instead of saying "No thanks, I’m trying to quit.” try saying, "No thanks, I’m not a smoker."
You don’t have to do this alone
Maybe you’ll feel more confident if there’s someone who can guide you? The guide might be a professional, but it can also be a friend or a partner. A therapist can figure out which techniques are best for you, and a friend can encourage you in times of doubt. They can both remind you of your goal if they notice you are slipping back into old habits.
If you’re doing it alone, make sure to keep track of your progress. You can set goals, but without actionable ways to move forward and a clear way to measure progress, there’s a chance you’ll fall back into your old bad habits. The simplest approach is to get a calendar and cross off each day you stick to your routine. You can share this calendar with your accountability partner to keep you motivated.
Step #6: Reward yourself! Any progress is a success
Breaking a habit can be incredibly difficult. At some point, you might ask yourself: Why am I bothering to struggle with this? Make sure to acknowledge how far you’ve come. Even small things, like patting yourself on the back, can boost your confidence and motivate you to keep trying.
Our mind constantly analyzes our internal and external environment for rewards. And we chase rewards because they satisfy us. These feelings of satisfaction are part of the feedback mechanism that helps our brain distinguish good actions from bad ones. Rewards close the feedback loop and complete the habit cycle.
Breaking a habit sometimes requires repeated experiments and failures. Don’t get discouraged.
Make sure you:
Understand the habit loop
Isolate the cue
Change the routine
Have a plan
Have a back-up plan
Finally, if you track your progress, you’ll always have an encouraging reminder of how far you’ve come.
Dr. Doniger is a cognitive neuroscientist with two decades of experience in the neurotech industry. He holds a PhD from New York University and has been involved in studies of visual perception, cognitive training, neurofeedback, and neurostimulation using behavioral and neuroimaging techniques in a variety of research and clinical settings.