Life's Little Mysteries

How do you break a habit?

It can be hard to break the habit of constantly checking your phone. (Image credit: Maskot via Getty Images)

We all form habits, behaviors we perform automatically in response to a cue or trigger. Habits can be good, bad or benign. The best ones produce beneficial results without requiring too much brain power, such as regular time with a loved one. But some — like emotional eating or spending money to alleviate stress — can have negative effects in the long term and often need to be broken. 

But how do you break a habit? There are three strategies, according to Benjamin Gardner, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Surrey in the U.K. who studies habits. There's no one "best approach," as it depends on the behavior you want to nix. 

The three options are to stop the behavior, stop subjecting yourself to the trigger, or associate the trigger with a new, similarly satisfying behavior. 

Related: Is it possible to avoid unwanted thoughts?

For example, maybe you experience a desire for popcorn as soon as you walk into a movie theater, Gardner said. The movie theater is the trigger, and popcorn buying and eating are the behaviors. To break this habit, you have these options: One, tell yourself "no popcorn" each time you go to the movies; two, avoid going to the movies at all; or three, replace popcorn with a new movie snack that better fits your budget or nutritional goals.

Another example, like nail biting, is subconscious and done frequently throughout the day, so you might not even know what's triggering it, Gardner said. While it's good to figure out the underlying cause, it might be difficult to catch yourself — much less stop yourself — from biting your nails at every moment of stress or boredom. It's likely better to replace nail biting with another physical stress response, like a stress ball. Alternatively, you could use a deterrent, like gross-tasting nail polish, to increase your awareness of the nail-biting at or just before the critical moment so you can choose to stop, Gardner said. 

The key to the replacement strategy is to make sure that the new habit is similarly appealing. Replacing a daily cookie with kale or daily Netflix time with a daily run just won't work in the long term, he said. A low-fat cookie or an after-work walk are more plausible changes. 

Not every habit-breaking strategy works for every habit. For instance, if you want to eat a daily pastry in the break room when you arrive at your job, it won't work to remove the trigger, because you can't stop going to work. Another approach would be to stop the behavior and intentionally say "no pastries" to yourself every day as you walk through the entrance. Or, you might try to create a new habit of eating healthier breakfast food at the same time, instead.

Whichever strategy you choose, the key is to do it over and over, Gardner said. The only way habit-breaking works is to use the strategy repeatedly. And there's no evidence that it will take the oft-touted 21 days, Gardner said. A 2009 study of 96 people in the European Journal of Social Psychology showed that individuals took between 18 and 254 days to form a habit, a useful tidbit to know if you're using the replacement strategy to get rid of a habit. Other research suggests it's simpler to change a physical habit than a thought habit. 

It takes time to dump habits because they are mapped into the brain. Behaviors that elicit rewards, like pleasure or comfort, are stored as habits in the region of the brain called the basal ganglia. Researchers have traced neural loops in this region that connect behaviors or habits to sensory signals, which can act as triggers. The more times you repeat a habit, the more routine and harder to quit they become, Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" (Random House, 2012) told the Harvard Business Review

Of note, while habit and addiction do overlap, there are significant differences, according to Alvernia University in Pennsylvania. So breaking a habit and breaking an addiction are not equal endeavors. The primary difference is habits are more choice-based while addictive behaviors can be more "neurologically and biologically bound," according to the university.

Finally, Gardner said, success isn't perfection with habit breaking. "Habit should be thought of as on a continuum," he said. "Things become more or less habitual." Instead of erasing a habit, you degrade it. And you'll know you're making progress not when the habit is gone but when you feel less influenced by it. On the day you start to feel like you have more choice, like the habit behavior isn't automatic, that's when you know your habit breaking is making progress, he said.

Donavyn Coffey
Live Science Contributor

Donavyn Coffey is a Kentucky-based health and environment journalist reporting on healthcare, food systems and anything you can CRISPR. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired UK, Popular Science and Youth Today, among others. Donavyn was a Fulbright Fellow to Denmark where she studied  molecular nutrition and food policy.  She holds a bachelor's degree in biotechnology from the University of Kentucky and master's degrees in food technology from Aarhus University and journalism from New York University.