Habits can be a good thing. People who set a regular routine for themselves don’t have to worry about planning the next move. It comes naturally.
“We want the brain to learn how to do these things without energy and effort,” says Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist and professor of psychology at Stanford University, according to TIME. “Habits are an adaptive feature of how the brain works.”
But sometimes habits can become unhealthy, such as taking a cigarette break every morning or drinking one too many cocktails in the evening. The good news is that the same repetitive patterns that create bad habits can be harnessed to eliminate them.
Here are some strategies to break unwanted habits:
• Reduce stress. Poldrack tells TIME that many of our negative behaviors are caused by stress. “You are more likely to do the thing you don’t want to do when you are stressed out,” he says. Try to get more sleep, exercise regularly, and check out stress reduction techniques like meditation, which can increase both willpower and overall brain health.
• Know your triggers. There are three parts to a habit: cues, routine, and reward. An example of a cue would be the work break, which prompts the desire to smoke that cigarette ― the routine, and then the reward of the feel-good signal to the brain after smoking. Knowing your triggers can help avoid them. If you want to cut back on drinking, do not walk into a restaurant with a bar during Happy Hour.
• Replace a bad habit with a good one. Elliott Berkman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, says instead of trying to stop doing something, try something else that will be more healthful.
“We are action-oriented creatures,” he told TIME. Studies have found that the more we think about the bad habit, the more likely we are to go back to it. For example, if you are a smoker and your inner dialogue tells you not to smoke, you are still thinking “smoke,” Bergman explains. But if you decide to chew gum instead of smoking, now your brain has a more positive action to do.
• Prepare for some discomfort. Scott Bea, a doctor of psychology at the Cleveland Clinic, says that whether your goal is weight loss, better nutrition, improved physical fitness or another lifestyle change, the transition may be uncomfortable. “As humans, we resist discomfort,” says Bea.
• Set realistic goals. You are not going to run a marathon the first day you start jogging, so create a game plan to achieve your goals incrementally and safely. You can enlist the help of a personal trainer or nutritionist to help chart your path.
• Reward yourself along the way. Throw dollar bills into a jar, treat yourself to a manicure or similar personal reward when you engage in a positive behavior, suggests Bea.
• Keep temptation at bay. If you want to eat nutritious foods, remove all processed items from your pantry and fridge. Throw away cigarettes and ashtrays if you want to quit smoking.
• Recognize that breaking bad habits is a journey and there will be bumps and detours along the road. “Our humanness can drag us right back,” says Bea. “We’re creatures of habit, and bad habits still have some power over us. If you fall back into bad habits, remember that sometimes it takes many trials to get to where you want to go.”
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