How To Break Bad Habits, Based on Science

We’ve all got them. Our dirty little secrets.

Bad habits limit our potential and keep us from being the most effective and productive person possible. But they also make us human. 

Humans are creatures of habit to a large degree: Roughly 50% of our day is guided by habit. We're running on autopilot and we aren't even aware of it!

So how easy is it really to break habits? Or even build new ones?

Charles Duhigg, author of ‘The Power of Habit’, explains that in order to change our habits, first we must understand them. He explains that the ‘The Habit loop’ - a cycle that keeps us repeating our behaviours, good or bad.

Example habit loops:

  • Routine: Drink coffee > Reward: More energy > Cue: Fatigue
  • Routine: Biting nails > Reward: Physical Stimulation & Distraction > Cue: Seeing your nails
  • Routine: Scrolling Instagram > Reward: Physical Distraction > Cue: Phone buzzes

habit loop graphic sleep siren

    How to break bad habits

    Step 1. Identify the Routine

    Look at the habit that you wish to break or alter. Sick of biting your nails? Want to stop watching TV before bed? Sick of your afternoon caffeine habit? Here’s where you start!

    Step 2. Identify the Reward

    The reward is often the toughest to identify. For example, you might want a coffee every afternoon at work. To identify the true reward you have run your own science experiment and test different theories. One day you might substitute your afternoon coffee for an apple at your desk. The next day you might get up and go for a brisk walk. After some trial and error, you find that in reality, you’re actually seeking a break from your desk, a few minutes of quiet time and not a caffeine hit.

    Step 3. Identify the cue 

    Studies have shown that most cues will fall into the following categories: emotional state, location, other people, time, and immediate-action. For example, you might want a coffee every afternoon at 2:00pm

    Step 4. Change the loop

    Here’s where you can really make a difference. Identify the habit you want to change and change your habit loop. Using the example above, if you want to ditch your afternoon coffee habit create an if-then alternative. If you feel like going for a coffee, then get up and go for a brisk walk outside or around your office. Repeat this every time you feel that afternoon itch for coffee.

    Step 5. Lather, rinse, repeat

    The key to success here is repetition. You have to repeat until your brain replaces the old habit loop with your new, healthier loop. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a little time. Changing our habits - whether implementing a new sleep bedtime, or drinking too much coffee - requires understanding and a deep desire for change, but it’s worth the effort.

    Sleep Siren says... I recommend making a habit wishlist. A list of all the habits you would like to be doing on a daily basis. From exercising to getting 8 hours of sleep. Then one by one, you can use the habit loop technique to introduce these wishlist habits. Eventually the scales will tip and your day will be full of healthy habits!

    Still need a little more help? Check out this handy Habit busting flowchart from Charles Duhigg available here

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