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How to get rid of bad habits: three tips from a psychology professor

Yulia PoteriankoLife
Different habits need to be broken in different ways

All of us develop at least a few habits in our lives that we try hard and often unsuccessfully to break. From nail biting to binge eating, from impulsive shopping to constantly looking at your phone. We blame ourselves for this, try to improve, but then we still slip into standard behavioral patterns.

However, Benjamin Gardner, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Surrey in the UK, says there is a way out of this situation. And not even one. This was reported by Live Science. According to the scientist, there are three effective strategies, and you should choose one based on what behavior you want to change. These strategies are:

  • stop the behavior;
  • stop exposing yourself to the trigger;
  • associate the trigger with a new behavior that brings the same pleasure.

For example, every time you go to the movie theater, you feel the urge to eat popcorn. According to Gardner, in this case, the movie theater is a trigger, and the behavior it triggers is buying and eating popcorn. To get rid of this habit, you can

  • tell yourself "no popcorn" before every movie going;
  • stop going to movie theaters altogether;
  • replace popcorn with another snack that better suits your budget or nutritional goals.

The professor also gave the example of nail biting. This happens throughout the day and is unconscious, so you may not even know what the trigger is. But even if you know the underlying cause, which is helpful, it can be difficult to catch yourself, let alone stop yourself from biting your nails at every moment of stress or boredom. In this case, it is better to change the habit and, for example, switch from your own nails to a stress ball. You can also use a deterrent, such as a nail polish with an unpleasant taste. It will help you start to recognize the moments when you are switching to your bad habit and stop in time.

The key to a replacement strategy is to make sure that the new habit is just as appealing. Gardner says that in the long run, replacing cookies with kale, or binge-watching TV shows with jogging won't work. But diet cookies and a walk after work are more workable substitutes.

So, not every strategy works for every habit. For example, if you want to eat a brownie in the break room every day after you get to work, removing the trigger won't work because you can't stop going to work. Another approach is to stop this behavior and intentionally tell yourself "no pastries" every day as you walk through the entrance. Or you could try creating a new habit of eating healthier foods for breakfast at the same time.

Professor Gardner emphasizes that regardless of the strategy you choose, the key to success is to repeat the chosen actions over and over again. At the same time, the scientist refuted the popular statement that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. He cited the results of a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology. Back then, 96 people tried to change their habits and spent from 18 to 254 days doing so. And another study showed that it is easier to change physical habits than mental ones.

This process is so difficult and time-consuming because the brain needs to clearly fix new behavioral patterns. Thus, behavior followed by a reward (pleasure or comfort) is stored in a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. Researchers have traced neural loops in this area that link behaviors or habits to sensory cues that can act as triggers. It turned out that the more times you repeat certain actions, the deeper they become part of your routine, the harder it is to stop them.

But it's important to understand that although habit and addiction overlap, they are still significantly different things. And therefore, the efforts to overcome them will be different. The main difference is that habits are more based on choice, while addictive behaviors can be more neurologically and biologically based.

Professor Gardner also called for thinking about habit not as a fact, but as a continuity. Things become more or less habitual over time, and therefore, success can be considered not the disappearance of a habit, but the emergence of a feeling that it has less impact on you. So, if you start to feel that you have more choice, that habitual behavior is no longer automatic, you can be sure that you are on the right track.

Earlier, OBOZREVATEL talked about four techniques to help reduce anxiety.

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