Like most of us, I spend way too much time online. Part of this is for work, but if I’m honest, a sizable chunk consists of mindless scrolling. I typically succumb during periods of boredom, though the stress of a deadline can lead me down a rabbit hole.
Let’s say I’m, oh, I don’t know, researching a story on changing bad habits. Soon enough, I’m pinning an air-fryer recipe on Pinterest and buying a sherpa-fleece-lined scarf. And I’ve tried willing myself to make today the day I don’t check social media 34 times before noon. Yet somehow, as I take my first sip of coffee, my cursor makes its way to that tab all on its own. I learn every day what researchers are also finding out: Relying upon willpower—the notion that you can overcome temptation and stick to a goal if you simply try hard enough—isn’t the most efficient, effective way to change habits.
In fact, “there’s no clear evidence that willpower even exists,” says Judson Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the Brown University School of Public Health and the author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love, despite the fact that more than 60% of Americans see it as critical in forming a new habit. And if it does exist, it tends to flake out at just the moments we need it most. Dr. Brewer cites research suggesting that during times of stress, such as when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, the area of the brain thought to be responsible for controlling behavior, called the prefrontal cortex, goes “offline,” making us more likely to give in to unsavory habits. If you’ve ever bitten your nails to the quick after a breakup or emptied your coworker’s candy bowl when tensions were running high at work, you’ve experienced this firsthand.
The new science of habit formation offers several smart strategies for breaking bad habits, none of which rely on white-knuckling it. “There are other parts of our minds that are much better suited to helping us stop certain patterns of behavior and create newer, better ones,” says Wendy Wood, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “There are ways to do this in spite of the challenges of everyday life that tend to throw us off course.”
How do bad habits take root?
Bad habits are born from wanting to feel good. Like the latest smartphone, our brains have older, basic components packed in alongside newer ones that developed as the human brain evolved. The newer regions, like the prefrontal cortex, govern rational thinking and decision-making—“I should order the grain bowl, not the cheeseburger”; “I shouldn’t watch baby-panda videos with a deadline looming”—while a key feature of our older brain involves the “reward-based learning” system, centered in the basal ganglia. “This area simply makes us want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad,” Dr. Brewer explains.
In caveman days, this helped us survive: Because life was precarious and food was scarce, when we spotted fruit, seeds, or grass, our brains shouted, “Eat that!” We ate the berries, they tasted good, and that in turn prompted our brains to release a chemical called dopamine, which cemented this smart strategy in place. In behavioral neuroscience terms, this is called a habit loop, a three-part system composed of a trigger (in this case, a food sighting), a behavior (eating the food), and a reward (contentment and survival).
A few million years later, the possibility of famine is less of a daily issue for most of us, “but plenty of other things came into existence with the ability to make us feel bad,” says Dr. Brewer—work drama, breakups, the perfect Facebook lives of others. “These are new problems, but our primitive brain wants to use the same old programming, so it sends the message, ‘You’re not feeling great. Try doing something that will trigger dopamine and maybe you’ll feel better.’”
Sugary foods are one of the fastest ways to satisfy a dopamine craving.
And many of these things are not great for us. Sugary foods are one of the fastest ways to satisfy that dopamine craving; alcohol and cigarettes can do the same. Plenty of behavioral habits can give us the same buzz: Dating apps, “likes” on social media, and online shopping all provide an instant dopamine rush, reinforcing those habit loops.
But once a new pleasure becomes ingrained, it can start to feel very different. “The first time you realized you could check your phone while waiting in line, it felt interesting and fun,” explains Uma Karmarkar, Ph.D., a consumer neuroscientist and an assistant professor at University of California, San Diego. “You thought, Oh, I was bored, but now I’m interested.” Soon enough, though, Scrolling While Bored becomes your new normal. “Now, it’s no longer a pleasant surprise; in fact, not being able to check your phone while bored actually makes you feel uncomfortable.”
In other words, it became a habit. Karmarkar pointed out a similar pattern of behavior among longtime smokers. “They don’t talk as much about the pleasure they get from having a cigarette during a smoke break, but they do talk about how much they miss that smoke break if they can’t have it.”
Since willpower isn’t enough to overcome millennia of hardwiring to break a pattern that makes you feel really good—or keeps you from feeling really bad—it’s time to dive into the research and figure out how to replace the old habits with newer, more desirable ones. Try these strategies that experts say give you the best chance of success:
1. Make it easy for yourself to succeed.
In 2017, an analytics company examined data collected from 7.5 million mobile devices to see how far people tended to travel to work out. It found that the shorter the distance people had to go to do so, the more likely they were to follow through. That in itself might not be surprising, but what was interesting, says Wood (who wasn’t involved with the research), was that those with an average round trip of 3.7 miles hit the gym five or more times a month, while those who had to travel about 5.1 miles went only once. “Less than a mile and a half made all the difference between someone with a regular exercise habit and someone without,” she says.
That extra mile and a half (which is really just a few extra minutes in the car), Wood says, is what habit formation experts call friction—environmental factors that render us less likely to engage in a particular behavior. Friction is everywhere: the impossible-to-resist cookies stashed in your pantry that make you less likely to stick to nutrition goals; the social media apps on your phone that distract you from work; the Netflix autoplay feature that cues up the next episode of your favorite show when you really should get to sleep. The trick, says Wood, “is to increase friction on behaviors we don’t want and decrease friction on those we do want.”
Try this: If you’re trying to kick a procrastination habit, delete time-sucking apps from your phone and computer and set up a dedicated workspace, like in a home office or at a local café. Looking to eat less meat? Sign up for a vegetarian-based meal-delivery service for a few days a week. Much like a direct deposit program that automatically sends part of your pay to your savings account, “just the act of making [your desired habit] easier makes you more likely to stick to your goal,” Wood says.
2. Repeat a new habit until it’s on autopilot.
Using the turn signal in your car to change lanes or kissing your partner goodbye in the morning may seem like a conscious decision, but Wood argues that these are prime examples of habits “that have become so trained into our minds, schedules, and interactions that no thinking or decision-making is involved.” It’s what allows us to get to work each morning without mentally exhausting ourselves by planning every movement. The area of the brain that governs these automatic habits is called the sensory motor system, and it develops habit memory when we repeat a sequence of events over and over. If you find yourself automatically pulling a bottle of wine out of the fridge when you prepare dinner or reaching into the chips bowl while you watch TV, it’s because you’ve trained your sensory motor system to do so.
The trick to building a healthier habit, Wood says, is to harness your mental system to work for you, not against you. Do this by building habits you can repeat without even having to think about them: Stash your phone in your glove box—or even your trunk—when you get in the car; ask your server to box up half your meal before serving it; grab an apple every night before settling in on the sofa to watch TV. The first time will be the hardest, she says, but it grows incrementally easier as you build this habit version of muscle memory. Research suggests that different behaviors tend to require different amounts of repetition before becoming automatic: Adding a piece of fruit to your diet takes about 65 days; drinking something healthy, 59 days; exercising, 91 days.
Try this: As a shortcut, BJ Fogg, Ph.D., founder and director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, recommends tacking new habits onto benign ones that already exist: After your a.m. coffee, you’ll meditate for one minute. Before you get into bed, you’ll stretch for a few minutes. After you wash your face in the morning, you’ll apply sunscreen. “Ask yourself where your new habit or resolution naturally fits into your day,” Fogg says, “and use your existing routine to prompt you to do it.”
3. Make it a game.
For years I’d tried to drink more water. Then I joined a shared workspace. The watercooler was next to my desk, and I saw how diligent other members were about refilling their bottles. Inspired, I created a little game for myself: Any time someone refilled their bottle, I’d take a sip from my own. It worked! I now take multiple sips per hour.
Karmarkar says I’ve tapped into the benefits of gamification, or turning a task into something fun in order to encourage yourself—think of sticker charts parents use to get their kids to brush their teeth. For an adult, rewards like avatars, badges, and points “serve as concrete markers to help move yourself forward, because accomplishing a goal feels good,” she says. “You’re rewarding yourself for making the effort as opposed to punishing yourself for having failed.” Indeed, millions of FitBit users have switched from “I should have exercised more” to “I hit 5,000 steps!”
Try this: Lots of apps use gamification to help people break bad habits and create healthy ones: Habitica (free for iOS) turns annoying habits into monsters for you to slay; Zombies, Run (free for iOS) tricks you into interval training by challenging you to outrun zombies. With SuperBetter (free for Android), you unlock “superpowers,” or personal strengths, as you level up.
4. Look your habit squarely in the eye.
Dr. Brewer calls this strategy “a simple but profound way to beat your next urge to snack, text while driving, shop online, or smoke.” Rooted in the field of mindfulness, it involves stopping the moment the urge hits and asking yourself why you’re doing it.
Let’s say you’re anxiously ransacking your desk for candy. “Step back for a moment and observe what’s happening,” Dr. Brewer suggests. “Get curious about your craving. Maybe you’ll think, Wow, I’m like a zombie on autopilot.” Or perhaps you’ll realize you don’t even feel like eating candy right now—it’s just what you have conditioned yourself to do when work stress hits. Being present interrupts the habit loop and lets you take back some of its power by slowing you down and “helping you start to see how unrewarding the original behavior was,” Dr. Brewer says.
Try this: An app created by Dr. Brewer called Eat Right Now ($24.99 a month on iOS and Android) employs mindfulness to help users break the cycle of craving-induced eating. Another option: Ate (free on iOS and Android).
I was dubious that curiosity could feel rewarding enough to satisfy my urge to scroll mindlessly. But after trying it a few times, I found that by reflecting on the why, I was, in fact, able to close the tab before I got sucked into reading. Only time will tell if it sticks. But now I know that even if there’s no will(power), there’s a way.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Prevention.
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