Even the most virtuous person has a bad habit (or two) they’d like to break. Whether it’s picking at your skin, grabbing something sweet after every meal, or spending way too much time on Instagram, pick a habit, any habit, and let’s get down to the science of breaking it.
What’s a Habit, Exactly?
A habit is something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way, according to Merriam-Webster, though what constitutes a “bad” versus “good” one is subjective. It’s important to recognize that habits are really a learning mechanism for your mind, says Wendy Wood, Ph.D, a professor of psychology and business at the University of South California who studies habits and behavior. When an action makes us feel good, our brain forms a shorthand connection so when we’re in a similar context or situation in the future, the response that’s been rewarded automatically comes to mind.
Because habits are all about context, the environment leading up to the behavior turns into what psychologists call “cues” or “triggers.” These cues send a signal that says, “Hey, this is the same situation—let’s do the same thing and feel good again.” You have a zit, you pick at it. You finish lunch, you want something sweet. You’re bored in line? You check Instagram.
The problem? Willpower (to not do the bad thing) pales in comparison to the sway these cues hold, Wood says. Ideally, you’d remove yourself from the triggers that set it off. But old habits die hard, …