How to Break Free of Frustrating Habits
Published on April 13, 2022 by Leon F. Seltzer Ph.D.
The literature on breaking habits (whether disturbing to you or others) is bountiful, and there’s a consensus among authors, who advise you to:
Concretely define the dysfunctional behavior and discover the ways that, however subconsciously, it’s felt rewarding to you.
Get clear on the costs directly or indirectly associated with this behavior—i.e., become more mindful about how it’s ultimately self-defeating, its benefits substantially outweighed by its hindrances or risks.
Identify the specific triggers that routinely get you to enact this largely involuntary and unwilled habit.
Find an alternative behavior that, at least over time—21 days? 45? 66?—will feel as rewarding as the one you’re trying to get rid of. (The reason theorists can’t agree on a generalized time frame is that it’s determined by so many variables.)
If the habit has become obsessive, become aware of when you’re beginning to experience a craving to engage in it (whether binge eating, alcohol abuse, pathological gambling, or indiscriminate texting or sexting). Then, deliberately distract yourself by attending to something else until the craving diminishes, since cravings are typically time-limited.
Stay centered on the goals that relinquishing the habit will help you achieve—i.e., it’s more reinforcing to focus on the positives than, reflexively, blur your intentions by thinking negatively.
Don’t shy away from getting as much outside support as you need, but do so selectively—with people who understand your issues and will, noncritically, offer compassion for your distress.
Accept that altering a bad habit is difficult and takes time. So be patient with yourself: It’s not really your fault that you’ve so long struggled with this problematic behavior. Your neurochemistry is deeply wired to oppose your changing anything that (wrong-headedly) it views as safeguarding your welfare. So even though eventually your correlated stress reaction (fight/flight/freeze) will be reduced by breaking the habit, initially your efforts at eradication are likely to magnify it.
If all else fails, don’t hesitate to get professional help. When you’re stuck, collaborating with a therapist or coach can make all the difference.
Lessons from Wendy Wood's "Habit Lab"
The lifetime academic scholarship of Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California has been dedicated to this perennially important topic—as well as training others to research and write about it.
One of the things that separates Wood from other academics in this area is her efforts to disseminate her findings to the broadest audience possible. She’s worked extensively with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and even industrial firms to promote the cause of public health and to help companies improve their marketing strategies.
While Wood’s position isn’t at odds with other researchers’ conclusions, its detailed elucidations of problematic habits warrant close scrutiny. I'll add that my own succinct outline of her work is adapted largely from APA’s excellent summary article (Palmer, 2020) in its journal, Monitor on Psychology.
Wood’s extensive experiments regularly demonstrate that context is pivotal for grasping the dynamics of unwanted habits and why they can be so resistant to change. Consider that one of her most noteworthy findings is that 43% of our actions are performed while we’re thinking about, doing, or feeling, something else. That’s precisely why developing greater consciousness—or mindfulness—about what, moment-to-moment, is going on with us is vital.
And just as realtors emphasize the value of “location, location, location,” the more a habit is triggered by your (inner-or-outer) "locale," the more likely you are to repeat the habit. That explains why these triggers exert far more influence on your behavior, however dysfunctional, than simply changing your attitude toward it.
As illogical as it may seem, rectifying irrational cognitions aren’t in themselves enough to prompt you to disconnect from habits that are clearly disadvantageous to you. Put somewhat differently, it’s actually much simpler to change your beliefs about a behavior than to change the behavior itself (which obliquely echoes the expression, "easier said than done”). Moreover, the particular contexts that induce your maladaptive habits can override social influences that run counter to them.
Replacing Old Habits With New Ones
Wood’s decades-long experimentation has amply demonstrated how to develop healthy habits that can successfully counteract detrimental ones. The latter variety, generally much older and firmly lodged within you, may once have been adaptive, for at the time your psychological resources were limited in coping with emotional disturbances. But as you matured these now-outdated behaviors—or more accurately, defense mechanisms—became increasingly unconscious, automatic, and questionable.
Inasmuch as bad habits involve conditioned associations between specific contexts and their immediately stress-reducing properties, controlling the cues that foster these unhealthy behaviors is necessary for eradicating them.
Receiving, for instance, dietary guidelines about healthy food intake based on the USDA’s revised food pyramid usually won’t be sufficient to change your customary eating habits. They may help change your mind about your eating predilections, but that’s unlikely to change the behaviors themselves.
However, changing the circumstances that influence your personally disapproved-of behaviors can make all the difference—such as taking a different route to work so you won’t pass by a Starbucks and thus, by habit, be driven to indulge yourself yet again with, say, your favorite super-rich, calorie-laden Caramel Ribbon Crunch Frappuccino—and, as an unfortunate result, subvert your commitment to drop some weight, virtually guaranteeing that afterward you’ll be afflicted with nagging feelings of guilt.
Plus, when you’re feeling distracted or fatigued, you’re also at risk of mindlessly reactivating a bad habit. For when you no longer possess the ability to implement a more appropriate coping response, you regress to what has become second nature. After all, automatic responses are automatic because they’re habitual, requiring no reasoning capacity whatsoever.
To conclude, if you’re to rid yourself of a defeatist habit, you first have to make it conscious. Only then, when you create a more suitable substitute behavior, consistently practicing it so that over time and through sheer repetition it becomes unconscious, can you be “endowed” with a more felicitous habit. And at that point, you’ll be rewarded with a behavior you can much more comfortably live with.
Breuning, L. G. (2013). Break any habit in 3 simple steps. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-neurochemical-self/201312/…
Brewer, J. (2019). The science behind bad habits and how to break them. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-craving-mind/201908/the-sci…
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Wu, M., & Kurlander, D. (2011). The pull of the past: When do habits persist despite conflict with motives? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(11), 1428-1437.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., & Drolet, A. (2013). How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(6), 959.
Neal, D. T., Wood, W., Labrecque, J. S., & Lally, P. (2012). How do habits guide behavior? Perceived and actual triggers of habits in daily life. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(2), 492-498
Ouellette, J. A. & Wood, W. (1998). Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 54-74.
Palmer, C. (Nov-Dec 2020). Harnessing the power of habits. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/2020-11-monitor.pdf
Strubler, D. C. (2020). Breaking and making habits. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/doesnt-get-any-better/202001/br…
Taibbi, R. (2017). How to break bad habits. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/fixing-families/201712/how-brea…
Wood, W., Quinn, J. M., & Kashy, D. A. (2002). Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1281-1297.
Wood, W., Tam, L., & Witt, M. G. (2005). Changing circumstances, disrupting habits. Journal of personality and social psychology, 88(6), 918.
Wood, W. Good habits, bad habits: The science of making positive changes that stick (2019). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Verplanken, B. & Wood, W. (2006). Interventions to break and create consumer habits. Journal of public policy & marketing, 25(1), 90-103.