Breaking a bad habit is a little like breaking up with a spouse with whom you have serious differences but also have a child: The old habit will always be part of your life. So you need to find ways to cope.
* Eliminate whatever reward or payoff the habit gives. This is easier to do with rats than with people: If you have a habit of buying your lunch at the vending machine at work, for example, there’s really no way to arrange for the machine to be empty every time you automatically head over there at noon. But in other cases, you have more control. If you have a habit of eating ice cream every night before you go to bed, you can get rid of all the ice cream in your freezer.
Of course, you might still head for the kitchen for a few nights, only to find the freezer bare. But after a while, the cold hard truth of your deprivation will sink in, and you’ll stop making the trip.
* Don’t leave a hole where a bad habit used to be. Sometimes substituting new, improved behaviors for old bad ones will help. You could try bringing your lunch instead of buying it at the vending machine, or eating a piece of fruit before bed instead of a bowl of ice cream.
And if you want to stop spending too much money at the mall every Saturday, come up with something else to do at that time. Take a class. Take your pugs to the dog park. If you have nothing on your plate, it’s too likely you’ll decide to have one last shopping spree.
Substitution isn’t foolproof, says Mark Bouton, a psychology professor at the University of Vermont. The old habit is still lurking in your brain waiting to make a comeback. So:
* Choose wisely. If you try to replace a bad, old habit with a good, new one, make sure the new one isn’t too unpleasant. If you try to replace ice cream before bed with cod liver oil, you’re probably doomed to fail.
* Be risk averse. Suppose you’re a shoe addict -- you can’t go into a shoe store without buying three pairs. So stay out of shoe stores. Habits are driven by situations. Figure out which situations are most tempting, and avoid them.
* Get down to specifics. Sometimes you can identify triggers that are most likely to bring out your bad habit. These can involve people, locations or preceding actions. So maybe it’s actually safe for you to go into shoe stores to look around -- just don’t do it with the friend who’s dying to buy a pair, but only if you do too.
* Practice. Practice. Practice. Here, there and everywhere. Suppose you gossip a lot, and you want to stop. So you practice not gossiping at work with friend X, and you get very good at it. Then one day you go shopping with X. Watch out! Studies suggest that you’re at risk for a relapse.
Not only that, but if you break your gossip habit at work with X, you may still keep gossiping there with W, Y and Z.
In general, a habit can be associated with many different places, people, activities, etc. -- and will stay broken only in the particular situations where you break it. So if you’re trying to break a habit, practice in as many situations as you can.
* Use cues and rewards to your advantage. Maybe you want to save money for a trip to Hawaii, but you have an unfortunate habit of maxing out your credit cards. Try taping a picture of Waikiki Beach to your billfold to remind yourself not to splurge on non-necessities. Or maybe you’re trying to break your choco-lot habit. Promise yourself a piece of your favorite candy once a week, but only if the rest of the time you don’t indulge.
* Follow through on your good intentions. Studies have shown that a simple “if-then” plan can make a big difference. In one study published last year, having such a plan helped one group achieve its goal of eating less of a particular snack food and helped another group achieve its goal of performing well in a tennis match.
Participants in the eating-less group were given this line: “If I think about my chosen food, then I will ignore that thought!” and were told to say it to themselves three times and to commit themselves to acting on it.
The tennis group was told to compose four “if-then” statements of their own and write them down. The statements were to be of the form: “If I feel angry, then I will calm myself and tell myself, ‘I will win!’ ”
Peter Gollwitzer, professor of psychology at New York University in New York City and at the University of Konstanz in Germany, says, “There’s hardly any health behavior it doesn’t work for.”
* Show how highly evolved you are. Suppose you procrastinate whenever you ought to be doing something you don’t want to do. (Even if you want to break your procrastination habit, you may just keep putting it off.) The trouble is, procrastination provides instant gratification, and even though you usually have to pay, that doesn’t come till later on.
Fortunately, as we have seen, people have a unique ability to project themselves into the future. So remind yourself of that when you’re tempted to work on your tan and put off working on your taxes.
* Tap into your willpower. It’s easy to succumb to old, familiar habits. But a 2007 paper published in the journal Emotion found that we can resist temptation more successfully if we consider it a test of will.
In one study, undergraduate students were asked to squeeze a dynamometer, or handgrip, as hard and for as long as they could. Those who considered the task a test of willpower squeezed the device longer than those who didn’t.
In a second study, students were asked to perform the same gripping task twice. Those who didn’t consider the task a test of willpower the first time, but did the second time, improved their performance.
In a third test, students took two timed math tests on one computer while funny comedy clips were playing on a neighboring one. The students were told they could earn money by doing well on the tests. But in order to do well, it was obvious that they couldn’t watch the clips -- i.e., they had to resist temptation. Between the two math tests, half of the students received a suggestion that they should consider the situation a test of willpower. They were better able than the other students to resist watching the videos.
* Don’t believe everything you read. You may have found precise numbers stated about just how often you need to do something to make a new, good habit -- and just how often you need to not do something to break an old bad habit. Some say three weeks! Some say 30 days!
Don’t count on it. “There is no data on this,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. She predicts that the time will vary for people to establish a new habit, because some fall easily into routines and others don’t. Likewise, your circumstances and stage of life will probably influence your ability to break a routine.
* What doesn’t make you give up makes you stronger. If you fall off the wagon, don’t quit trying. Studies (in rats, admittedly) suggest that occasional lapses don’t make you more likely to fail in the long run.
So if you’re trying to stop chewing your nails, just one little nibble won’t condemn you to eternal onychophagia. (And if you’re trying to forgo your erstwhile habit of using show-offy long words -- that would be hippopotomonstrosesquipedalianism -- one use of a word like “onychophagia” isn’t the end of the world, either.)
There’s a tendency on such occasions to decide you’ve blown it and give up. But it’s important to regroup.
Habits are strong. But you can be stronger.