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How to Really, Truly, Break a Bad Habit For Good

Want to go to the gym more? Read this.

Bad habits beget bad habits. This thing is that even when we try to form new, healthier habits, we all have bad habits that block our path.  We try to quit smoking and a week later bum a Parliament from someone at work. We try to workout five days a week and after two weeks, we stop.

So why do we stumble? We don’t really understand what a habit truly is and what it takes to form a good one, says Wendy Wood, a psychologist and the Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California. Wood explores the nature of habit formation in her new book, Good Habits, Bad Habits. Per Wood, forming habits doesn’t have to be difficult. Neither does doing away with a bad habit. That’s not to say it’s as easy as doing nothing, but you certainly can’t create good habits by engaging in self-denial and limiting yourself. It’s all about changing perspective.

Fatherly spoke to to Wood about what people don’t know about habits, and why periods of major life changes, like becoming a new parent, are essential for habit formation.

How does someone form a habit? How do I go to the gym more or stop eating dessert every night? 

I can tell you that most people don’t know how to form a habit. When I surveyed people and asked them what it involves, over 80 percent said that to form a habit, you have to exert willpower and have a lot of self control. That’s just not true. 

In fact, we’re forming habits all the time, and we’re doing it without realizing what we’re doing. Habits are part of our brain that we are not consciously aware of. They are part of our mental apparatus. That’s working outside of our understanding of ourselves. 

But it’s not like I just unconsciously go to the gym every day and wake up at the end of the workout wondering what I just did.

When you think of behavior change, you really should think of it as having two stages. There’s the one that we all know a lot about, which is the first part. That’s what we do when we form New Year’s Resolutions. We make a decision, and at least for a little while, we do exert some willpower to try and make it happen. So, we decide to lose weight, decide to start an exercise program, we put ourselves on a budget. We do those things and we can do them for a short amount of time. But most of us don’t follow through.

The second part of behavior change is maintenance. How do you stick with it? And that’s where habit formation comes in. 

I’ve heard that it takes 30 days of doing something to make it a habit. Is that true?

It would be wonderful if that were true, because most of us can keep up with a new resolution for that long. Right now, the best guess from research that we have is that it takes two to three months for a simple habit to form. 

But there’s good news there.

Okay, I’ll bite: What’s the good news?

If you lapse and start spending money again or you don’t go to the gym, that’s okay. You haven’t ruined your habit. Once you start up again, your habit starts almost at the same point it was when you left off. So your habit is very forgiving. Habit memory builds up very slowly over time. The first few times you do [the new behavior] are the most important, because that’s when you learn the most, but they’re also the hardest. 

That’s when you’re changing what you’ve done in the past. Over time, as you keep doing the same thing, that memory trace becomes stronger, and you’ve actually acquired a habit. That allows you to do something without really thinking about it. 

And maybe that is something that we need to define here — what is a habit? 

So, what is a habit?

A habit can be essentially any behavior. We think of them as trivial things like brushing teeth or making coffee in the morning, but almost any behavior can become habitual. Even really complex things like driving a car [are habits.] Habits are just mental shortcuts that allow us to repeat the same behavior that we’ve done in the past.

Driving has all of the great examples and features of habit formation. It’s something you do often; you tend to do it pretty much the same way every time; and you get a reward at the end, which means, you get someplace you’re going. 

Those are the three components of habit formation. It doesn’t involve willpower or decision making. Instead, you learn habits from what you do. Getting up in the morning at a set time, doing it over and over again, until it becomes the thing that you do automatically, without having to make a decision — that’s the beauty of habits. Once you form good habits, then they just proceed automatically without you having to stress and struggle. 

But it does sound like, initially, you do need some willpower to change your behavior.

When you change your behavior, yes, there is some will and decision involved, but all of the habits that you have already, you just made them because they were the easy thing to do, or you just found yourself walking by the vending machine at work at lunch and you didn’t have much time so you decided you’d buy a pack of donuts and that worked and it’s rewarding. They taste good and you are no longer hungry.

So you did it again the next day, and the next day, and then finally it becomes your go-to response. There’s no willpower involved there; it’s just out of convenience, it was what was easiest at the time.

So if I wake up one day and I’m like, I need to change my life. I need to work out. How do I do that in a way where I don’t relapse or fail to make it to that two-to-three month threshold?

That’s a great question. We know a few things about habit formation that would help you. One is that you want to make it as easy as possible. Research has looked at how far people travel to their gym or to a paid fitness center. It finds that if you go five miles, you’re likely only going to the gym once a month. If your gym is three and a half miles away, you’re going five times a month. That one and a half miles shouldn’t be making much of a difference, rationally, but it really does because you’re less likely to repeat something if it’s difficult. 

If your gym is just on the way home from work, or if it’s close by your house, then it’s much easier to get to and you’re much more likely to repeat it into a habit. So that’s one thing.

That makes sense.  

Another thing we know is that you’re going to form a habit more successfully if you like the exercise you’re doing. And gyms help us out here, because gyms are turned into fancy places with coffee bars. Some even have wine bars! They are places that make you feel like you want to hang out there. So gyms are trying to help us here. 

But people who went to the gym and worked out regularly, but did it because they felt guilty if they didn’t go, they didn’t form habits as successfully as people who went to the gym and actually enjoyed what they were doing. 

The bottom line is: figure out an exercise that you like to do. You’re going to do it much more often than something you don’t like. If you can’t find an exercise you like to do, just walk your dog. Walking is a great exercise. Listen to books on tape while you workout. When I work out, I watch competitive cooking shows. That’s not something I let myself do any other time, because it’s a total waste. But, it’s entertaining! It’s high energy. It’s good to work out to and I like food, so it makes it fun for me.  

So guilt and self-loathing are not good motivators.

You want the experience — whatever the thing is you’re trying to turn into a habit — to feel good. And there’s a scientific reason behind this. When we experience rewards or get good feelings, our brain releases dopamine. That’s the feel-good chemical. It also brings together information in memory and sort stamps in [the behavior] as a habit. So you want that dopamine release to happen when you’re working out. That will help automate the behavior and form that mental shortcut that is a habit.

So, is it better to try to get into new habits when your life is stable? Or is it better when things are all in flux — like, say, after you’ve become a new parent?

What we found is that when people are in transition, as you are when you’re a new parent, and your life is disrupted, many of the cues that keep us repeating the same behaviors change. So, it’s just like moving house. In a way, it’s a window of opportunity to make some decisions. 

When you’re a new parent, you’re stressed, tired, anxious. I remember those days. I have two sons. In both pregnancies, I got huge, and I ended up with lots of extra weight afterwards. I was very uncomfortable. What I ended up doing is, I needed an exercise I could do that took as little time as possible and had the biggest bang for the shortest amount of time — because you have no time.

I just started running out my front door. I ran for 10 minutes to start, went about half a mile, but I stuck with it, because I couldn’t see any other way to change my behavior. I was able to stick with it, and in fact, I ended up running every day until quite recently, and my sons are now 30. 

I don’t think I would have been able to do that if I had not been in transition and if my life hadn’t been disrupted in other ways. I was able to put cues in place to make it easier for me to go running, because everything in my life was chaotic.

A lot of people go too hard too quickly and burn themselves out.

I think that’s what most people do. They get highly motivated, and they exert a lot of willpower to start off with, but they’re not focusing on: What can I repeat, that I enjoy, and that’s easy, and that I can maintain over time? With habit formation, the focus should always be on the behavior. What am I doing? Is it sustainable? How do I make it sustainable?

The focus should not be on the outcome: Did I lose five pounds this week? If you do that, then you get into the self-denial, willpower, self control thing in order to lose that huge amount of weight, and it’s just not sustainable.

It sounds a lot like a healthy habit is also just about balance.

Yeah, it’s about what you can do, and what you can do easily and enjoy doing. 

And not beating yourself up if you can’t. 

That’s right. If you rely too much on willpower, then once [the habit doesn’t form], you feel like a failure. You blame yourself. Instead of understanding that your focus is maybe not what it needs to be. It needs to be on the behavior. 

I wrote this book because I feel like people don’t understand this part of their behavior. They blame themselves. If you look around, 60 percent of us are overweight or obese. Almost nobody retires with enough money saved for a comfortable retirement. We’re all responding to the environment in the same way. It’s not our individual problem. Instead, it has to do with the environments we’ve created, and understanding how to tweak them so they can work better for you. 

So willpower isn’t the key. We can’t just grit our teeth and expect to get through it. 

It’s leftover from that protestant work ethic and the Puritans. They thought that self-denial is the way to get to heaven. And so we ended up thinking that there’s something special about it. Something that is good, lofty, instead of as painful as it really is. 

It’s more like: what should I expect products, or my city to provide me? We’re not looking outside ourselves for solutions. We’re assuming that we have to do it all on our own.