How to break bad habits in 3 steps, according to science

Instead of changing your thinking, change your environment.

Originally Published: 
Richard Schneider

As human beings, steeped in philosophies of free will, we like to think we have total control over our actions. If someone is always late to meetings, we ascribe their tardiness to laziness or poor time management. If someone struggles to lose weight, we often think: "Why can't they just skip dessert and work out?"

Wendy Wood is a social psychologist at the University of Southern California who has studied human behavior, habits, and decision-making for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book Good Habits, Bad Habits: “The science of making positive changes that stick.”

“We tend to think it's all us,” Wood tells Inverse. “It's all our own agency and self-control that will push us in the right direction or make us fail. And that's just not true.”

We actually have far less control over our behavior than we like to think

We actually have far less control over our behavior than we like to think, Wood tells me. That’s because, about 43 percent of our daily actions are habitual — conducted on “autopilot” without much conscious thought or effort.

“We have a sense that we are in charge of everything and we take responsibility for everything we do. And that's fine,” Wood says. But performance reflects habits, not desires and goals. The implication shouldn’t be changing behavior is as easy as making a decision to do something different, she says.

“That decision should involve changing our environment, making the behavior rewarding, [and] figuring out how to repeat it on a regular basis so that it becomes automatic,” Wood says.

In order to make or break habits that stick, hijacking the environment is much more effective than attempting to will change into being.

Rethinking behavior change from this perspective can be liberating. “If you're not able to do something, it doesn't mean you're a bad person," Wood says. Sometimes we end up feeling like failures when we've tried yet again to go on a diet and we're not successful. "But it's not so much about you. It's about the environment that you're in and how you control it.”

This week, Inverse explores how to use context, repetition, and reward to form new habits. Ultimately, consistently employing these tactics can change your life in ways that last years after reading this article.

I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.

Habits allow us to multitask. They are good. Until they are not.

Eugenio Marongiu/Cultura/Getty Images

Habit memory — Habits are a learning system that we don't have conscious awareness or access to. They're relatively slow to form or break, and habit memory tends to last for years.

"We develop habits as we repeatedly do the same thing in a given context and get some reward for it," Wood explains. "Because of the reward, we do it again. And we do it again. And we do it again."

Think about standing at the bathroom sink and brushing your teeth or brewing coffee in the morning without a second thought.

"This allows us to multitask, and that efficiency is what also makes habits so hard to break," Wood says. "They are the first thing that comes to mind, even when you don't want them to."

But unfortunately, habits that may have benefitted you in the past don't necessarily benefit you today.

"Habits are a sort of a shortcut based on past learning about what to do, but they're not necessarily the right thing to do today," Wood says. "They were the right thing in the past. And that is the challenge with habits."

Make it or break it — Typically, if we want to build a new habit, such as drinking a glass of water when we wake up or hitting the gym after work, we engage in goal-setting. We simply plan to execute the action, and then we try to follow through.

Will power is actually not a very reliable system, because as soon as things start to get difficult, we talk ourselves out of the commitment we made. That's because the very act of inhibiting a desire makes the desire "loom really large" in our minds and sometimes consumes us.

"We think if we're motivated enough and have enough self-control, we'll follow through without realizing that the circumstances around us, the contexts that we're living in, have a huge impact on how easy something is and how often we can repeat it."

Instead of changing your thinking, change your environment.

Instead of changing your thinking, Wood says, change your environment.

"The best way to break an unwanted habit is to change the context so that you're not in a situation that activates thoughts of the response that you've given in the past."

This also means that periods of flux -- a move, a new job, or even the pandemic -- are vital opportunities to build new habits and try something new.

Wood’s three steps to form new habits:

  1. Ease up — If something's too difficult, you simply won't do it, Wood says. Depending on your goal, fill your pantry with healthy snacks, turn off your social media notification, or sign up for a gym near your office. Make the choice to "do better" easier.
  2. Make it enjoyable — You're not going to repeat a behavior that you don't enjoy, Wood says. And you're not going to form a habit for something that you just hate. So even if you've chosen an unappealing habit, find a way to make it fun. Maybe that means stopping by a favorite smoothie bar after a morning run or watching trash TV while you complete a dreaded task.
  3. Repeat on a regular basis On average, based on the research, it takes about 66 days to make a simple health change. The more complex behavior, the longer it might take. Generally, two months is a good "ballpark estimate" for the average person to form or break a habit, Wood says. And if you miss a day, no need to panic. Habit memory takes a long time to form, but luckily, a single skip doesn't wipe away what's been built up in the past.

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