Smoking, overeating, nail biting, or wasting away the hours on YouTube; whatever your bad habits may be, there’s a good chance you’ve tried to give them up at one point or another, and perhaps you actually managed to ditch the offending behavior after a few months of exercising some extreme willpower.
But if you tend to find yourself raiding the pantry for chocolate chip cookies just two hours after you solemnly pledged to eat more healthily, you’re not alone.
According to research from the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 54% of people who resolve to change their ways fail to make the transformation last beyond six months, and the average person makes the same resolution 10 times over without success.
So why is it so hard for us to make lasting changes to our behavior or attitudes?
Psychological scientists believe that the key to kicking bad habits lies in understanding our mental patterns and working with the brain rather than fighting against its natural processing system.
So next time you’re trying to turn over a new leaf, give some of these psychology-based tricks a go.
1. Figure out why and when you’re doing it.
There's usually an underlying reason for your bad habits, such as boredom or stress, and if you pay attention, you'll notice that all of your vices are tied to certain situations or routines.
These bad habits generally also reward you with something: smoking rewards you with stress relief, and wasting time on the Internet temporarily rewards you by diverting your attention.
Identifying how your vices are rewarding you, as well as when they occur is the first step to eliminating them from your life entirely.
For instance, you may notice that you drink more alcohol when you’re around certain people, or maybe you tend to overeat when you’re home alone. Knowing what triggers certain behavior can help you to come up with the right strategies for changing these unhealthy patterns.
2. Find a replacement habit.
Research shows that it’s far more effective to replace a bad habit with a better one than to simply cut out the old habit.
Why? Replacing a habit takes less mental effort than completely eliminating it, and believe it or not, willpower is actually a limited resource.
Once you've figured out how your vices are rewarding you, you can establish new habits that will reward you in similar ways, but without the same negative side effects, or at least fewer side effects.
For example, if you need to improve your diet, making an effort to snack on fruit instead of junk food would be a lot easier than not eating anything at all, and replacing your smoking break with another less damaging activity, like eating a small snack, would be more effective than doing nothing at all.
3. Don’t try to suppress your thoughts.
When trying to kick a bad habit, people often attempt to think about everything but that one activity, which of course, causes them to think about nothing but that one activity.
Why? Studies show that when we try to suppress thoughts, they actually come back stronger, because our subconscious doesn’t differentiate between “do” and “don’t” and will inevitably fixate on the one thing we’re trying so hard to ignore.
Psychologists have dubbed this phenomenon “ironic process theory.”
So, for instance, if someone tells you not to think about pink dinosaurs, you will immediately begin to think about pink dinosaurs. If you tell yourself not to think about having a smoke, all you’re going to be able to think about is going for a smoke, and you’ll start seeing the temptation everywhere.
4. Make changes to your routine or environment.
New situations make you more conscious of your behavior and choices, so changing something in your routine or environment, even if it isn’t directly connected to the habit you are trying to break, can make it easier to welcome new habits.
This is why big changes like moving to a new city or ending a relationship are often accompanied by smaller changes, like exercising more frequently or following a new diet.
One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that a new environment can remove the automatic guides for performing certain habits and help people to make new or different decisions about their daily routines.
Even small changes can make a big difference. For example, if you tend to overeat while watching TV, make an effort to sit at the table and turn off the television during meals so that you can be more conscious of your eating habits.