Ever wonder why bad habits seem so hard to stop?

Researchers think it’s because our brains are eager to find energy-saving short-cuts. By turning simple routines into habits, the human brain can ramp down a bit. But because the behavior is then essentially hard-wired, it’s and more likely to be repeated without much thought. Bingo; it has become a habit.

“When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making,” writes Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. “It stops working so hard, or diverts focus to other tasks. So unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new routines – the pattern will unfold automatically.”

A habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about, but continue doing, often every day, Duhigg says. And not all habits are bad. Researchers say a large percentage of our daily positive activities are also routines we hardly think about.

Most of us don’t realize we’re actually starting a potential habit the first time we do something. It’s 3 p.m. and you’re a little bored, so you grab a cookie. The next day or so, you do that again.

Before you know it, you’ve created a habit. Something inherent in the process is meeting your needs, or rewarding you. That feeling of satisfaction makes you want to keep doing it. And then one day you get on the scale, and you’re 10 pounds heavier. Suddenly you realize you have a habit you want to eliminate.

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that the best way to attack a bad habit is to define the routine or habit, figure out how it rewards or pleases you, and then determine what actually triggers the behavior. That process gives you the power you need to change the habit, he explains.

Yet Duhigg, who has studied the science of habits, warns that there is no secret formula for stopping a bad habit. While some habits yield easily to analysis, others are more stubborn and complex, explains Duhigg. But there are tactics that researchers have discovered to better understand and change a habit you want to eliminate.  Duhigg uses the afternoon cookie habit as an example:

  1. Identify the routine.  In this case, every afternoon you go to the cafeteria and get a chocolate chip cookie, and eat it while chatting with friends.
  2. Experiment with rewards. Something about the cookie routine is meeting your needs, but what is that? It may not be obvious. Think of yourself as a scientist experimenting with yourself by collecting data. Try substituting a walk around the block for the cookie. Try getting a candy bar or a special coffee another day. Get an apple and eat it with your friends. Another time, just spend a few minutes chatting with a friend and then go back to work.
    See what craving is driving your routine. Is it the cookie? Taking a break? You need the sugar? Write down the first three things that come to mind when you get back. You might write “Relaxed,” or “Not hungry,” or “Saw an old friend.” And then set an alarm for 15 minutes to see if you’re still hungry for the cookie.
  3. Isolate the cue.  Experiments have shown that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, or immediately preceding action. So, for the cookie habit, write down these five things for three straight days: Where are you? What time is it? What’s your emotional state? Who else is around? What action preceded the urge? For Duhigg, it became clear that although he felt an urge to have a snack at a certain time of day, it wasn’t hunger making him want the cookie, and the reward he was seeking wasn’t food, but rather, distraction.
  4. Create a plan.  In the cookie example, Duhigg says his plan would be: “at 3:30 every day, I will walk to a friend’s desk and talk for 10 minutes.”

Understand that this habit change strategy might not work right away. Gradually, as you abide by your plan, you may find you forget about the routine you needed to stop. Remember some habits are far more difficult to stop than others. “But once you understand how a habit operates – once you diagnose the cue, the routine and the reward – you gain power over it,” says Duhigg.

Learn more: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. Random House, 2012.

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