Take a sec and think back to what you did this morning. Chances are, you woke up, got out of bed, brushed your teeth, and went through your usual morning routine.
How much did you think about what you were doing? Was it a result of active decision making, or habit?
Though we may not realize it, habits make up more than 40% our actions, according to bestselling author Charles Duhigg. Habits are our brain’s evolutionary shortcut — they allow our minds to go on autopilot, so our bodies can take over.
Here’s what happens: when we do the same thing over and over again — like a morning routine — our brain takes notice. It turns this sequence of actions into an automatic routine, which stores the habit for later use. This happens so we don’t have to make an infinite number of decisions all day long.
Habits are a huge time and energy saver, except when they negatively impact our happiness, wellbeing, or productivity. Whether it’s overspending, nail biting, constantly checking our phones, chronic lateness, or late night snacking, it’s all too easy to allow our brains to fall into a wasteful habit.
But here’s the good news — since our habits are crafted by our minds, the key to breaking the bad ones is simply knowing the right way to communicate with our brains. It’s that easy. Here are 6 science-backed tricks to hack your brain, and finally put an end to those bad habits.
1. Diagnose your habit
Pinpointing the cause of your habit can seem super intimidating, but the truth is there’s a pretty clear-cut formula behind almost any habit. As Charles Duhigg explains, each habit has three basic components:
- The cue — the feeling, time, or location that triggers your habit
- The routine — the habit itself
- The reward — the craving the habit satisfies
Figuring out these components is the first step to hijacking your habit. Here’s how: pay close attention the next few times your routine (read: habit) happens, and try to notice the cue and reward that prompted it. For best results, write down the cue, routine, and reward each time.
Let’s say you’re trying to break your habit of spending hours on Instagram, because this habit is getting in the way of a passion project. Ask yourself, ‘what triggers this routine?’ And, ‘what craving is my body trying to satisfy?’
The next time it happens, take notice: if you came home from a long day at work (cue), plopped down on the couch and scrolled through your feed (routine), and felt relaxed and socially connected after you did so (reward), write it all down. After a few instances, see if there’s a pattern in your behavior. If you always scroll through Instagram right when you get home from work, or notice that your Instagram activity is satisfying your craving for social interaction, you’re onto something.
Diagnosing your bad habits will not only help you find effective alternatives (more on that later), but it’ll also help you become more aware of your habit. This awareness will transform your habit from an automatic, subconscious routine to a deliberate, conscious behavior.
2. Create a new environment
Now that you’ve identified the ‘cue’ of your habit, you’ve unlocked the first step to breaking it. Since the cue tells your brain to go into automatic mode and initiate your habit, you’ll be much less likely to go through the routine when the cue isn’t present.
So the trick here is to eliminate the cue altogether. How? Take advantage of a totally new environment, according to our Chief Behavioral Officer Dan Ariely.
“If you move to a new place, you won’t have all of these environmental cues. If you take advantage of a time when you go on vacation, or when you do something else for a few weeks, those are really good times to break a habit,” explains Professor Ariely.
The proof is in the pudding: researchers found that students who transferred to a new university were more likely to change their habits than students in the control group, because they weren’t exposed to familiar cues.
Going back to our Instagram example, the best time to pursue this goal is during a vacation or work trip. Since your brain won’t be exposed to its typical triggers, you won’t have to fight your instincts while trying to break the habit. And once you return to your familiar environment, it’ll be much easier to continue your streak.
3. Focus on what you will do, not what you won’t
Let’s talk about another core component of habits: the routine. Since you’re a total habit expert by now, you know that the ‘routine’ is the habit itself — the thing you’re trying to break.
Often, when we set out to stop a routine, we tend to think about our goals in a negative frame — we tell ourselves we’re going to stop biting our nails, quit smoking, or put an end to our overspending.
However, our brains’ habit system doesn’t comprehend negative goals (I will stop gaining weight) — instead, they learn by working towards positive goals (I will start exercising). In fact, research shows we’re more likely to achieve a goal that involves reaching a desired outcome (exercising) than eliminating an undesired outcome (gaining weight).
Why? Psychologists say pursuing negative goals is associated with feelings of incompetence, decreased self-esteem, and less satisfaction with progress — and these emotions deter us from taking action. On the other hand, it’s much easier to become excited by the thought of reaching a positive goal, which will increase our chances of achieving it.
So instead of aiming to quit spending so much time on Instagram, make it your goal to spend more time on a passion project. Or rather than trying to stop overspending on restaurants, set out to eat more meals at home.
4. Create a substitution you’ll love
Here’s another reason our brains don’t grasp negative goals: it’s really hard for our minds and bodies to stop a habit altogether. Once a habit forms, it becomes instinctual for us to complete the routine once our brains recognize the cue and crave the reward. So telling yourself you’ll stop overspending at restaurants just won’t cut it.
Rather than trying to eliminate the habit — which almost never works — the trick is to give your brain a new routine that will replace the old one. How? Keep the old cue, and deliver the reward, but insert a new routine.
Let’s go back to our Instagram example — you’ve identified that once you get home from work (cue), you crave social interaction and relaxation (reward), but you don’t want your routine to take up too much of your time.
To replace this habit, think of another activity you can do when you get home that’ll satisfy your need for social interaction and relaxation. Try FaceTiming a friend for a few minutes, or even DMing a few friends. Experiment with a few routines to see what works best for you.
Once you find your new routine, make an effort to do it each time the cue and craving hit. Since this new habit will fulfill your brain’s craving, you won’t feel much physical or psychological pushback. And the more you do it, the easier it will be for your brain to engrain this new habit — pretty soon, it’ll become second nature.
5. Share your progress with friends
There’s something underratedly powerful about sharing your goals with others. According to a study by the ASTC, if you tell a friend you’re working towards a goal, you have a 65% chance of completing it. If you set up a meeting or a coffee date with a friend to discuss your goal, your odds of completing it will rise to 95%. Now that’s powerful.
Why is sharing with friends so effective? Once we make a public commitment to others, we tend to feel obligated to follow through with it, due to our fundamental drive to feel that we’re consistent in our behaviors and beliefs. This tendency is called cognitive dissonance, in psychology speak.
Sharing with friends also leads to positive reinforcement. Let’s say you tell a friend you’re committed to exercising more (rather than eating less). When you fill him in on your morning workout, he’ll probably respond with praise. When this happens, your brain will internalize the pleasure from hearing “great job” or “I’m proud of you,” which will motivate you even further to continue exercising.
So when you set out to break a bad habit, text a friend — ideally one who’s also trying to break a bad habit. If you commit to telling each other about your victories and setbacks, you’ll have a much higher chance of shaking your bad habit once and for all.
6. Go easy on yourself
When you set out to break a bad habit, chances are your efforts aren’t going to be perfect. After your long day at work, you might cave and spend an hour scrolling through your feed, despite your best efforts not to. Or you still might spend that extra $30 on a meal out, even though you’re trying to eat at home more.
When (not if) this happens, the best thing you can do is be kind to yourself. If you beat yourself up, you may begin to associate your goal with negative emotions, which may interfere with your progress and motivation.
Here’s the good news: if you mess up every now and then, it won’t materially affect the habit formation process in your brain, according to a study conducted by Dr. Phillippa Lally. (How Habits are Formed) If you cave, simply jump back on the wagon, and the habit-forming will continue as if it was never interrupted.
In fact, making a mistake is actually a productive step in your quest to breaking your habit — it’ll teach you a new lesson about your habit that can inform your strategy. If you’re trying to stick to a healthy diet but cave during your friend’s birthday dinner, you’ll learn to prepare yourself for next time. Chances are, this experience will lead to greater success in beating your negative habit once and for all.
Time to hack your brain!
We all have that habit we’re trying to shake, but trying to stop it completely just won’t work. Our brains are the most powerful organ in our body — and once a habit is engrained, the only way to break it is to communicate with our brains in a way they’ll understand. With these hacks and tools, you’ll stop replace your habit in no time, and who knows — maybe this replacement will improve your life in a way that surprises you.