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  • Jeannine Jannot, Ph.D.

3 Tips for Breaking and Making Habits

It’s the time of year to make New Year’s resolutions, but it seems more and more people aren’t bothering with this tradition any longer. Maybe it’s because, for the majority of us, we make resolutions with the best of intentions on December 31, only to feel bad about ourselves, our resolve and self-discipline by the end of January. Who likes to start a new year feeling bad and disappointed in themselves? There are many reasons why we fail to follow through on our resolutions, but most are not widely recognized.

Here are three important things to know about how to change old habits and create new, desirable ones.

1. Identify the habit loop

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that as behaviors become automated they operate on loop. This loop requires a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue is the stimulus which triggers the routine behavior, or habit, to occur. The reward is something pleasurable gained from engaging in that behavior.

Let’s say you bite your nails and would like to stop. You are going to need to breakdown and identify the parts of your habit loop through careful observation. Maybe you notice that you routinely bite your nails when driving and watching television. These are two cues that trigger your nail biting. Next, you need to figure out what is rewarding about the act of biting your nails. Is it relieving stress? Is it giving you something to do with your hands when you’re bored?

After you think you understand the sustaining habit loop it’s time to start substituting different routines when the cues occur. Find an alternate behavior to practice in place of biting your nails that will eventually feel rewarding so the loop is complete. Maybe you could fidget with a string of beads or some clay. You can also try to address the trigger of the behavior your want to eliminate. If dry skin or hang nails cue you to bite your nails, keep lotions handy and use them often so you aren’t as likely to start gnawing away.

2. Make a commitment

In her book, Habits of a Happy Brain, Loretta Graziano Breuning says it takes 45 consecutive days of doing something differently before it becomes rewarding and self-sustaining. All of our thoughts and behaviors can be reduced to the elaborate connections made between thousands of neurons in our brain. And just as a path through a forest becomes worn and easy to travel after extensive use, the same is true for our neural pathways that result in our behavior. The more a thought or behavior is used the stronger, faster and easier that path of responding becomes.

When we try to change an old, familiar habit into a new response the brain has to develop new pathways. Instead of an effortless, automatic response we are required to navigate with painstaking intention through the forest until, through repetition, we lay down a new, alternate pathway. Research suggests that for most behaviors this takes a minimum of 45 days of repeated effort.

Remembering to practice the new response can be the most challenging part. So find a ways to remind yourself to be mindful of the new habit. For example, you could use dry erase markers to keep a tab of your daily efforts. Write on a mirror or window in your bathroom or bedroom. Or string together 45 paperclips and remove one each day you practice your new habit. Be creative and remember to keep the reminder visible so your intention stays strong in the face of the old easy, default behavior.

3. Meet your future self

Doing things in the present moment that are difficult or unpleasant is hard for everyone. This is why procrastination presents such a huge challenge for most of us. One way to increase the likelihood that you will do something in the present that will be beneficial to you in the future is to make a connection with your future self.

Studies have shown that different parts of the brain are involved in thinking about oneself and thinking about others. Yet, when we think about ourselves in the future, the brain reacts as if we are thinking about another person. That’s why it feels so good to put something off. To our brain it’s as if someone else is going to do it! To prevent this, we need to find ways to connect with our future selves. If you have a long-term goal (like saving for retirement) you may want to take an “aging” photo with a photo editing app and use it as a visible reminder of why saving your money for the future is important to you. You may want to write your future self a letter to be read weeks, months or years later explaining what you hope for yourself at that point in time. Engage as many of your senses as you can to help make that connection and enhance your motivation in the present.

I’d like to say it will be easy, but it won’t. Paying attention and being intentional is difficult work. But if you can visualize the positive impact the change you are making will have on you, then it will feel worthwhile. The more you put your goal in the forefront of your life for the next several weeks, the more likely you are to succeed.

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This article was originally published by The Balanced Student, LLC and reprinted here with permission. © 2016


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