Breaking bad… habits

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Health / Myths / Psychology

Got any bad habits? Smoking, biting your nails, compulsively checking your email or heading to the vending machine every day at 3pm? We’ve all got habits we’d like to break. Perhaps there are a few new habits you’d like to adopt too. What can science tell us about how to do it?

Breaking habits can be hard, so why not tackle them all at once? Image credit: Vaping#60.com via Flickr

Breaking habits can be hard, so why not tackle them all at once? Image credit: Vaping360 via Flickr

Your brain on autopilot

Ever arrived somewhere in your car and realised you have no memory of having driven there? Do you remember putting on your shoes this morning, or brushing your teeth? Probably not. There are plenty of times during the day that we act on autopilot. And this is precisely why habits are hard to break: we find ourselves doing the very thing we want to stop doing before we’ve even noticed we’re doing it. Habits are unbelievably powerful and account for about 40% of our behaviours on any given day.

Habits are deeply ingrained in our brains and changing them can prove extremely difficult. Rats that have been trained to seek out chocolate milk continue to do so even after a chemical is added to the milk that causes nausea. People who like to eat popcorn at the movies eat just as much even if it’s horribly stale. Breaking one habit means establishing a new one and despite many people claiming you can form a new habit in 21 days, a 2009 study found for some people it took more than 200 days.

Baby steps

The conventional wisdom on how to change habits is to take a gentle approach. If you want to lose your sweet tooth, cut back on sugar gradually rather than going cold turkey. Another popular recommendation is to tackle one habit at a time. The argument is that if you start small – exceedingly small – long-term change becomes far easier to achieve. Makes sense, right?

Except that maybe we are underestimating our capacity for change. Research published earlier this year suggests we may be up for a way bigger challenge. The researchers put a group of university students to the test. Before the experiment began, they gave the students a series of mental and physical tests, and scanned their brains. The students were split into two groups, one of which went about their daily lives.

The other group made major changes to many different parts of their lives. Every morning they spent an hour in a stretching, resistance training and balance class. Next they spent an hour learning meditation and other stress reduction techniques. In the afternoon they spent another hour and a half exercising and twice a week they did intense interval workouts. They also went to lectures about nutrition and sleep and kept daily records of their moods, diet and sleep patterns.

Does a major overhaul work?

After six weeks, the researchers asked the students to repeat the original tests. Unsurprisingly, there hadn’t been any change for the students who continued with their normal habits. But the group who overhauled their lives were happier, calmer, fitter, stronger, more flexible and improved their test results for thinking and memory. Their brain scans suggested these students were now much better able to focus on any particular task at hand. Six weeks later and the improvements were still there even though the students weren’t exercising or meditating as often.

This study has obvious flaws. For a start it only included a small number of people. And those of us with commitments like jobs and families are unlikely to be in a position to make such major changes to how we spend our time. They also didn’t have a group of people who changed just one daily habit to compare with. But the fact remains that with support and guidance, these students made concurrent and major changes to many of their daily habits.

The limits of the human capacity for change may be much greater than we, as scientists, have given people credit for.

Michael Mrazek, University of California

Despite its shortcomings, I think the study has something interesting to say. Under the right circumstances we may be far more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for. Rather than trying to make small and incremental changes, it may be that the best way to change bad habits is to unceremoniously dump them all at once.

Habits be gone

But if trying to change everything at once doesn’t appeal, there are a number of other strategies you can try. There are still plenty of people advocating for the “start so small you can’t fail” approach. Other people like the Pavlok (yes, it was named after Pavlov of drooling dog fame), a device you wear on your wrist to give yourself a painful electric shock every time you slip back into old habits.

There’s also evidence that simply walking a different route to work may be enough to break your habit of stopping by the bakery for a bagel every morning. You just have to interrupt your autopilot. And of course like everything else these days, there are apps to help you keep track of your habits.

Some of the most striking evidence for habit change comes from mindfulness research. When it comes to quitting smoking, mindfulness training was twice as good as other quit programs. Mindfulness can also help with emotional eating, checking your phone while driving and other addictive behaviours. The key is to notice your compulsion to do certain things and become curious about what’s going on in your body and mind at the time.

I’ll take being curious and aware over an electric shock any day.

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2 Comments

  1. Great article. Had one of those moments today where I wondered how far down the road I’d gone. Couldn’t remember the last 2kms even though it was a mere seconds before. Don’t even know what I was thinking instead of the road either…Bring on the weekend. Need more sleep

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