When you get home, do you automatically plop on the couch, reach for the remote and switch on Netflix? Do you stop at Starbucks for a latte every single day? Do you go for the doughnut instead of the piece of fruit every day?
Habits, aka learned repeating behaviors, can be great when you get into the routine of exercising four times a week or putting on sunscreen each moring. But, unfortunately, bad habits like smoking, binge-watching, and biting your nails are just as easy to learn and may seem impossible to break. So should we just throw in the towel or is there a way to break them?
Why we form habits (and how we unlearn them)
Habits are fundamentally addicting because of the reward you receive (good or bad) from performing that action. But there is a right way and a wrong way to unlearn a habit.
First of all, a habit consists of three steps that are looped into a feedback cycle—there's a cue, a behavior you exhibit and some kind of reward that keeps you going back for more.
A few years ago, it was thought that if you stopped or started a behavior, such as smoking or working out every day, 21 days was a magic number to break or introduce a habit. Scientists have now found that this is only true in some cases, dependent on the power of the trigger and the resulting emotional or physical reward.
The Science of Breaking a Habit
It takes approximately two months to break a habit.
- 0-14 days: Main withdrawal period
- 14-28 days: Triggers and emotional rewards begin to lessen
- 45-56 days: Your cells don't need the same neuropeptide requirement from the behavior, and as a result, you feel less of a pull toward performing the behavior
We create habits because they are tied to some kind of positive emotional response as a result of brain neuropeptides. When trying to understand why some habits can be so difficult to break, Dr. Candice Pert, Ph.D. in pharmacology from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, found that the addictions to these emotional responses can be as strong as an addiction to a drug like heroin. Genuine withdrawal responses occur during the first 14 days after quitting a habit, which makes this the hardest hump to get over, but by the 45-to-56-day period, most people will be emotionally desensitized to the behavior.
You have to want to change.
Overall, researchers have found that without a genuine desire for change, a habit can be almost impossible to break—and that the best way to successfully break a habit is to introduce a new one in its place.
When breaking a habit like binge shopping online, don't plan to just avoid the computer. The second you become stressed, you'll be more likely to cave. Instead, become hyperaware of the habit. Write down the things that you know trigger you to binge shop, like stress or boredom.
Now, instead of focusing on breaking the habit, set your sights on finding something else to fill that void. If you know you tend to shop online after lunch, force yourself to go outside and take a walk right after you eat, or reserve that time for buying groceries and running errands. This year, when you finally break that bad habit, you might gain a few good ones as well.