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How to Break a Habit—Or Start a New One

Habits are much more powerful than we realize. So often we act out of what we are used to, what we know, what we have done in the past instead of making a better choice. A choice in the moment that might be for our higher good. In researching for this issue, we saw that oftentimes, detrimental behaviors can be modified by focusing on changing patterns, and forming new neural pathways. Now, we aren’t saying that we’re giving up our shrinks. But how empowering to have the tools to make significant change by identifying the kind of choices you want to be making and habitualizing them? So we talked to Jeremy Dean, the author of the book Making Habits, Breaking Habits,. He gave us some strategies for creating new habits and getting rid of old ones.



Q

How are habits formed?

A

Through repetition, when we repeat the same action in the same situation. Each time we repeat the same action, we’re teaching ourselves a pattern and that pattern becomes unconscious over time. After a while we’ll perform that response automatically. If you want to create a new good habit, you need to repeat the same action in the same situation to create that unconscious link between situation and action.


Q

What’s the best way to get rid of a habit?

A

In some ways it’s not possible to get rid of a habit because any habit you create tends to stay in the mind forever. That doesn’t mean, however, that we’re destined to perform our bad habits for the rest of our lives. What we can do is replace a bad habit with a good one, or at least a neutral one. So for example, if you’re trying to give up smoking, quite often people choose to chew gum, because it’s generally incompatible with smoking.


Q

Sometimes replacement requires a lot of willpower. How do we get beyond this obstacle in order to make a change?

A

When you’re trying to change a habit, you’re going to have this fight, this kind of willpower battle, between the new habit and the old habit. After a period of repetition, though, the new response will take over and you won’t need the willpower anymore. What you’re looking for is for that new response to be automatic, so you don’t have to have that tussle with your willpower.


Q

What about creating a whole new habit?

A

The first thing is to have a really specific goal in mind, like flossing for example. And you have to have a really specific plan, so what you do is try to connect the situation with the action you’re going to take. For example, you decide that before you brush your teeth in the morning, you’re going to floss. In this way, you’re linking the new habit onto another routine action you have in your day. Now repeat this sequence every day.


Q

Can you tell us a little bit about if/then plans, which are supposed to be helpful in creating habits?

A

If you’re thinking about, for example, trying not to eat unhealthy snacks between meals, you can use an if/then plan. “If” is the situation and “then” is the action. So “if” you’re feeling hungry between meals, you can link that with “then” eating an apple. You can use this for almost any type of habit that you want to create. Studies show that if you make a conscious plan like this, it can really help to get started with a new habit.


Q

What are some other strategies that are helpful in forming good habits?

A

At the beginning, when you’re struggling between old habits and new habits, if your willpower levels are low, one thing that can help is self-affirmation. Think of someone or something that’s important to you. So when you’re feeling weak and tired at the end of the day, this can help boost your self-control. Leave little messages where you can easily find them like on the refrigerator, or near the door, or on your doorstep, to remind yourself of what you’d like to change.

Pre-commitment is quite handy. What you do is try and think ahead to times when you’re going to be tempted to follow your old habits, and think of how you can commit yourself in advance to your new habit. So if you’re trying to avoid using Playstation, you can give the controls to a friend so that you won’t be tempted. When you’re feeling strong, you make a decision so that when you’re feeling weaker and more susceptible later, the temptation will be gone.


Q

How long does it take to create a new habit?

A

There was a study done at University College London a few years ago that found that there is huge variation in the amount of time it takes to form a new habit. Anything from a couple of weeks up to months depending on the type of habit you’re trying to form and the techniques you use to do so.

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