How Your Brain Tricks You Into Sticking With Bad Habits

Your brain might be tricking you into holding onto bad habits, but two can play that game.

September 21, 2017
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Old habits die hard.

The very nature of habits is that they stick. In fact, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines habit as “a settled tendency or usual manner of behavior.” Meaning: Habits are kind of a part of who you are unless you know how to break them.

It makes sense then, that so many people are in the throes of kicking habits they’d rather have said goodbye to long ago. Despite ample evidence that a smoking habit can do damage to nearly every part of the body, 36.5 million people living in the United States were still smoking regularly as of 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

You develop those areas of the brain that support that habit.

Even though strict laws have been implemented to curtail texting and driving, thousands of people are killed each year because of distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

So, what gives? Do people simply not care that their bad habits are killing them and the people around them?

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It isn’t that simple. The truth is that breaking a habit that is etched into our routine is pretty complicated because the brain has a way of tricking us into maintaining the tendency, even when we don’t want to.

Understanding how your brain is working against you is the first step in finally saying sayonara to those irksome tendencies you’ve been plotting to kick to the curb.

It’s all in your head.

Perhaps the most frustrating reason habits are so hard to break is that they are literally all in your head. Habits are actually etched into your brain, according to Dr. Deborah Norris, neuroscientist and psychologist-in-residence at American University.

“When you use areas of the brain, that area of the brain grows. So when you have a habit, particularly a mental habit or way of thinking and behaving, you develop those areas of the brain that support that habit,” Norris explains to HealthyWay.

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As a result, the more we engage in a certain habit, the more the areas of the brain that encourage the habit—good or bad—become stronger while the areas not associated with the habit go less used or even stagnate.

It’s all about the reward.

Unfortunately for us, most of our bad habits were formed because we experienced a reward for a certain behavior. Positive reinforcement is in part to blame for especially sticky habits, even when the rewards seem overshadowed by negative effects. These rewards are often predicated on how a habit makes us feel in the moment, even if it has negative long-term consequences.

The first job I have at my clinical practice is getting them thinking about what they do want.

Habits are a part of a loop that has three parts, according to an NPR interview with business writer Charles Duhigg. The first part of this loop is a trigger—something that reminds our brain it’s time to switch to autopilot. After the trigger is the behavior itself, which happens in response to the trigger. Last is the reward—whatever happens that tells our brain the habit has a positive consequence.

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It’s amazing, really, our brain’s ability to complete complicated tasks without much thought, but it can also be frustrating when we want to eliminate repetitive, go-to thought processes or actions from our lives. According to Duhigg, to have more power over our habits, we must work to understand the different factors that are parts of the trigger–routine–reward cycle of whatever habit we’re trying to tackle.

It’s a part of who you are.

Norris shares that before we ever engage in a bad habit, there is a way we think about the tendency that sets us up for failure when it comes to quitting. We tend to see our bad habits as parts of of our identities, and in some cases, we don’t even have the appropriate language to disrupt the belief that this is “just who we are.”

For example, Norris referred specifically to the habit of smoking, pointing out that people who smoke see themselves as a person who smokes. There isn’t actually a positive label for someone who doesn’t, either, we have a smoker and a non-smoker, but our language stops there.

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This can mess with our beliefs about our identity, and Norris suggests the first step to fighting back against the idea that a bad habit is part of who we are is creating a label for the type of person you want to be without the habit in your life.

“When people come to me and want to quit smoking … the first thing we have to do is establish their identity as who they would be if they didn’t do this negative habit that they don’t want. The first job I have at my clinical practice is getting them thinking about what they do want. Because when we stay focused on what we don’t want, that’s what we generate.”

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Want to quit smoking? Try “free breather” on for size. Ready to ditch overeating for good? See what happens when you start calling yourself a “healthy eater” instead.

You don’t have the time.

Another challenge when it comes to breaking a bad habit is the amount of time it takes to solidify the change. Even though a commonly held belief is that habit change takes 21 days, that actually isn’t true. Instead, recent research has found that the time it takes to break or make a habit varies greatly from person to person, according to the European Journal of Social Psychology.

I have more energy. I have more stamina. I feel better getting dressed in the morning.

Just how much time does it take? The lucky ones can solidify a habit change in as little as 18 days, but others require as many as 254 days to make a new behavior automatic. When it comes down to it, the proven key to developing a habit is repeating it over and over and over again in response to a specific trigger or cue, according to the study’s authors.

You’re not connecting the dots.

If you’re having trouble ditching a bad habit or getting a new, beneficial one to stick, it might be because of a disconnect in the way you think. Amazingly, our brain has a strange way of thinking about who we are now and who we will be in the future that makes it hard to weigh the consequences of our actions accurately.

In fact, research published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science revealed that how we think about our future self greatly influences how we behave in the future. The less connected we feel to who will be in the future, or our needs in the future, the more likely we are to make choices that only benefit our present self.

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It’s as if we look at a massive doughnut and think to ourselves, “Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease for my future self? Who cares about that schmuck? My present self wants a treat!”

You’re not infinitely powerful.

As much as we’d like to pretend it isn’t true, we’re only human. We don’t have infinite willpower at our disposal, and that makes it hard to make big changes. Our limited power has a bigger effect on our choices than we might think, according to a study by Roy Baumeister in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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We actually run out of willpower easily. So if we make a great decision that requires a lot of strength, the very next good decision is going to be significantly harder to make. This was discovered by tempting participants with the smell of fresh baked cookies.

After smelling the cookies, half of the group was instructed to eat only radishes and the other half was asked to eat only cookies. (This sounds downright cruel, in my opinion!) Both groups were told they were participating in research on taste perception, not willpower.

Breathing, expelling carbon dioxide out of the body, literally, physically deactivates the hypothalamus.

Before participants left for the day, they were asked to refrain from eating chocolates or radishes for 24 hours, when they would report back for the second half on the study.

Upon their return, the participants were required to participate in a problem-solving activity that was actually impossible to solve. Those who had been allowed to eat chocolate were more likely to stick it out, whereas those who had been required to eat radishes wanted to quit early on.

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The researchers involved in the study believe that the reason behind these behaviors is a depletion of willpower. Sticking it out is hard, and when you’re presented with decisions that require self-control over and over again, your brain simply gets tired of the doing the “right” or “hard” thing.

How to Trick Your Brain Into Letting Go of Habits

There are a lot of strategies for breaking bad habits (or picking up some new ones), but Norris said there is one that stands out above the rest—mindfulness.

In a clinical setting, clients who are trying to make changes are asked to identify the positive dimensions of the change they want to make and are then instructed to imagine what it will feel like to live life without that habit. They’re asked to spend time imagining who they feel like they will be once they’ve made the change.

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“People will say, ‘Oh, I have more energy. I have more stamina. I feel better getting dressed in the morning.’ So we begin to explore mindfully what that feels like and that is a very powerful tool in action.”

The reason this works so well, according to Norris, is really similar to how repeated habits strengthen the parts of the brain they use. Mindfulness has a similar effect. When we use mindfulness to engage new parts of the brain, we strengthen those parts, gradually becoming equipped to let go of the bad habit entirely.

So, how does someone use this approach outside of a clinical setting?

“I suggest that people start with an open mind. They’re not trying to accomplish something, they’re exploring the opportunity. …We encounter our frustration [with the habit] and we allow it to be there.”

Moving forward with an open mind, Norris says the second step is proceeding with curiosity about the physical experience they have with or without the habit. This can be done with a body scan, which is a widely practiced mindfulness exercise that involves practicing self-awareness from head to toe. Those who are just beginning to practice meditation can find a guided body scan meditation on the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center website.

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Finally, use deep breathing as the final element of your new mindfulness practice. This isn’t some woo-woo practice; there are actual physiological benefits in the brain that result from deep breathing.

“It allows the brain to shift more rapidly. So, if we’re trying to let go of old pathways in the brain and build new pathways, that breathing, expelling carbon dioxide out of the body, literally, physically deactivates the hypothalamus, it deactivates the stress response and that allows more rapid transformation,” Norris explains.

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