2 Fundamental Ways to Break Bad Habits

As supposedly rational human beings, we like to think that we undertake all of our actions because we have weighed all possible choices and outcomes and selected the most beneficial one. This assumption is so ingrained in our presuppositions about human behavior that it provides the bedrock for many economic modeling approaches, known as “rational actor” economic theory. In rational actor economic models, economic agents are assumed to be evaluating all available options and rationally choosing one that will produce the most desirable outcome.

There’s just one problem with these sorts of models: human beings act irrationally all of the time. One of the best examples of irrational behavior is the fact that bad habits can be so difficult to break. Even after we’ve recognized the problem and formed intentions to fix it, we continue to make the same mistake over and over. How could a thinking, rational creature behave in this way?

The answer to this question contains the key to breaking bad habits. For a great portion of our lives, we aren’t thinking rational creatures—we are animals running on autopilot. This is not a very glamorous view of human beings, but think about many of the activities that take up your day—washing dishes, driving to work, taking a shower, and so on. In these activities, we are functioning on “autopilot”. To think through every single action that we take would be exhausting and an inefficient use of cognitive resources. Habitual activities become neurally ingrained as the repeated action causes a hard-wiring change to happen in the brain. In many addictive actions, this hardwiring happens in the basal ganglia, a deep brain structure often referred to as the “lizard brain” that is responsible for automatic motor movements. In other words, habits happen when the brain delegates behaviors to automatic processing rather than cognitive processing. Bad habits happen when our autopilot function starts to conflict with our higher-order “rational” cognitive functions.

If you’re trying to break a bad habit, here are two common mistakes along with remedies to fix them.

1. Your habit seems inevitable.

Habits are difficult to break because the actions seem to do themselves without any reference to what we want—somehow that whole carton of ice cream gets eaten in one night or the laundry is always in a state of grand disarray despite our intentions.

The reason: Because habits have become automatic, we no longer recognize the decision points that are being occluded by the automaticity.

The fix: Start inserting decision points by using a pause between urge and action. In other words, start recognizing when you’re about to engage in a habit and realize that it isn’t inevitable and that you do have a choice. Insert a pause between the urge to do the action and performing it. Even if you end up doing the habit this time, inserting the pause forces you to confront the fact that you are choosing to do act a particular way.

2. The habit seems too strong for you to break.

The reason: When we are running on autopilot, we are letting the world outside determine our actions. In the same way that a plant photosynthesizes without “thinking” about it, thereby letting the world outside determine what it does, when we engage in bad habits we are letting the outside world control us rather than exerting our will on the world.

The fix: Start to be savvy about your triggers. It’s true that much of our lives can’t be controlled by our will and desires, but we can recognize what triggers break down our barriers between the outside world and our “inside” selves. We can then take actions to circumvent our bad habit autopilot mode. Start noticing what is happening just before you begin relapsing into the bad habit. Once you’ve identified your triggers, you can begin formulating strategies to avoid those triggers.