Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions; walking by walking, running by running… therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it. If you don’t want to do something, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead.Epictetus
Habits have been the subject of discussion since the age of ancient Greek philosophers, as most of us have vices we would like to take control over. These can vary in severity from binge-eating, procrastinating, smoking, cancelling plans at the last minute or losing count of drinks consumed in social situations.
“It is pure folly to repeat the same behaviour and expect a different result”. This quote has been wrongly attributed to Albert Einstein, yet it takes no genius to know its truth. In fact, that is the very reason why we want to kick our habits. We are often aware of the negative consequences stemming from our repeated behaviours, yet at the very moment of truth, we trick ourselves into believing that that particular cigarette, doughnut or extra 20 minutes staring into the void won’t make much of a difference – thanks to our ingenious ability of self-deception. This is because habits are not simply bad behaviours we can steer away from at the first self-scolding. Rather, they are coping mechanisms which have been deeply wired into our brains through constant repetition. In cases where pleasure is part of the equation (such as food, drugs and porn), habits are even harder to break. (1)
Unfortunately, we’ve been raised in a spoon-feeding society which has shaped us into individuals who seek (and expect) easy and immediate solutions to our problems. Most of us would hope for Google to provide us with a “how to stop [insert your habit here] in 3 easy steps”. The bad news is that the idea that it takes 21 days to break a habit is actually a myth that evolved from misinterpreted data relating to plastic surgery and adjustment. According to research from the UCL, it takes 66 days on average for a new habit to form. Yet, individual times ranged from 18 to 254 days. (2) This is because timing is not the sole factor at play. Research has shown that the extent to which habits can be controlled is largely determined by personality traits (e.g. perseverance, accountability) (3), motivation and situational factors.
Motivation: The force driving one’s intention affects the likelihood of succeed. For instance, someone who wants to reduce his meat consumption for ethical reasons is more likely to succeed than someone who is forcing himself towards a vegetarian diet to please a new crush. Personal values are stronger motivators than external reasons (peer pressure or people pleasing). (4) Determining your motivating factor is very important, as this will keep you on track on days of self-doubt, when you perceive your struggles as futile or pointless.
A common demotivator is the perceived lack of results after weeks/months of hitting the gym, leading to the willingness to skip a class or the craving for pizza to become stronger. At this point, remember your motive. Most likely, you started working out to be fitter or lose weight, not to reach some Guinness World Record. Keep in mind that at present you are already an improved version of yourself. No effort or struggle can ever be deemed futile, so don’t be too hard on yourself. If you occasionally feel the need to skip a class or eat junk food, do so, but with a positive mind-set. Switch the self-punishing thought of: “All this is worthless. I’m tired, I will binge on pizza and be miserable all day” to a rewarding “I’ve been exercising for the past ___ weeks, compared to ___ months ago when I used to not exercise at all. Today I feel like a cheat-meal and I will allow myself to enjoy this.”
Situational factors: This includes dynamics such as the exposure to the habit as well as the psychological and physical ability to break it. Some habits may be easier to break than others because of their nature: nail biting does not have the chemical addictiveness carried by smoking. At the same time, the longer one has had the habit, the more it is entrenched on a neural level, meaning it has more power over our behaviour and is thus harder to change. (4)
“Does this mean my family and friends must accept that being late is just part of who I am?” NO. This means that getting a hold of our habits and changing our behaviour requires systematic planning. (2) Impulsive, dramatic measures such as throwing away your cigarettes, locking the carbs in an underground pantry or setting the modem on fire are not necessarily useful. Such reactions tend to be more symbolic than realistic, arising from the sudden guilt of not sticking to our pre-set intention.
Kicking a habit is all about breaking a pattern of behaviour, so being aware of its nature is already a good baseline. To start the process, it would be useful to identify one’s triggers. These can be emotional (craving a drink/nail-biting caused by stress in social situations), situational (having your phone at reach when working on an assignment) or both. If the trigger is not as explicit, next time your unwanted habit kicks in, pay attention to the situation and emotion that might be causing it. (1)
Next comes the plan of action. A more successful strategy than the dramatic ones aforementioned is to replace your habit rather than planning on eliminating it. Doing something new is easier than ceasing a habitual activity. This is why nicotine gums and inhalers are more successful in smoking cessation than using a nicotine patch. It is important, however, to plan a functional replacement behaviour. One common counteractive action is replacing smoking with snacking, and we can all see where that can lead. (4)
So, if you want to quit the late-night binge-eating, a good start would be to prepare a small portion of the foods you usually crave and limit yourself to those. This is a way to train yourself to satisfy your craving without giving in to a midnight binge. Over time the portion can be substituted with healthier, less addictive snacks such as peanut butter, fruit or chocolate rice cakes.
Self-prompting is another method which promotes behaviour change. (1) If the undesired habit is that of postponing dishwashing until a horrific, overwhelming pile accumulates, put an alert on your phone at the approximate time when you finish dinner or before going to bed to wash the day’s pile. Do not allow the self-sabotaging little voice to convince you to postpone. Instead, force yourself to complete the planned task. Delaying gratification tends to result in even greater rewards.
The path to behavioural change is not an easy one and is often endowed with days of self-discouragement. Remember your motivator, be patient and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back every so often. Treat yourself with the savings accumulated from what you would have otherwise spent on alcohol or cigarettes. Take a moment to appreciate your fresh and orderly kitchen and how the simple act of dish-washing has instilled in you a greater sense of time-management and cleanliness.
Reading through this may encourage you to work on the undesired habits you’ve long been reminiscing about but, as already mentioned, some patterns of behaviour are more difficult to break than others. Thus, if there’s a habit you are struggling to deal with or is interfering with your daily functioning, it is advisable to consider professional help. This can support you in working with the underlying anxiety, source and triggers of the habit whilst providing emotional and psychological support.
- Taibbi, R. (2017, December 15). How to Break Bad Habits.
- Lally, P., Jaarsveld, C. H. M. V., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998–1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674
- Dunn, W. W. (2000). Habit: Whats the Brain Got to Do with It? The Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 20(1_suppl). doi: 10.1177/15394492000200s102
- Nastasi, A. (2015, November 20). How long does it really take to break a habit?