When Bad Feels Good: Breaking Bad Habits

Dark haired woman blowing smoke from cigarette

Breaking bad habits seems like it’s just a matter of willpower—you’ve just got to force yourself to do it, day after day. But that’s not actually the case.

Your success—or failure—in regards to establishing new behaviors (or changing unwanted ones) has to do with how habits are formed.

If you’ve ever tried to quit drinking soda or stop browsing social media, you’ve probably found that it’s difficult to keep this up for long periods of time. And the reason why may have more to do with the chemicals in your brain than willpower alone.

So why are bad habits so hard to break? And what can you do to get back on track?

Why Bad Habits Are So Hard to Break

It might surprise you to learn that the biggest obstacle to overcoming bad habits is the release of a chemical in the brain called dopamine.

Boy looking with amazement at huge chocolate barHabits are usually formed because we associate certain behaviors with past rewards. When you see or experience something that brought pleasure in the past—even if you aren’t consciously aware of it—dopamine is released into the brain. This release of dopamine increases feelings of happiness and creates an association between the habit and the reward. This reaction lasts a long time, even after you stop being rewarded for the action.

A study by Johns Hopkins University tested this relationship.

On the first day, participants were asked to locate red and green items on a screen, and they were paid for each one they found. On the second day, participants were asked to look for certain shapes. Red objects were scattered throughout the screen.

The researchers monitored the brain waves of participants during the second trial. The results showed that dopamine was released when participants saw the red objects, even though there was no longer a reward for locating them.

A similar study done by MIT suggests that certain neurons in the brain might also be responsible for helping habits form. Researchers tested the role of neurons in habit-forming by having rats run a maze. Initially, neurons in the rats’ brains would fire during the entire course. However, once the maze was learned, those same neurons would only fire twice: at the beginning, and at the end (when they received their reward).

What does this all mean?

When you form a habit—good or bad—it’s because, at one point, you received a reward for it. And even when that reward is no longer present, your brain still reacts as though it were.

How Long Does It Take to Break a Habit?

Young woman sipping from two glasses of rose wineSince bad habits are so closely related to pleasure, it can be a difficult task breaking them. Making things more difficult, it can be demoralizing when you slip and fall short.

According to popular media, you can form new habits within 21 days. And many self-help books will tell you they can help you live better or knock bad habits in just a few short days or weeks.

Science says differently. Habits take an average of 66 days to form, according to a 2009 study out of University College London, and can take even longer depending on the individual. And that’s just to create new habits! Breaking old ones is actually much harder, since you’re trying to destroy an already-established connection.

Is it any wonder so many New Year’s resolutions fall through in the first two months?


Replace the Bad with the Good

Thankfully, understanding how long it takes to form a new habit also provides us with an answer for how to break bad habits. Since it’s so much easier to form a habit than to break one, the key is to find a healthier habit to replace the old one.

Older man and younger boy running on mountain trail

The process should look something like this:

1. Identify what causes the habit. Say you want to stop biting your nails. What triggers that behavior? In this case, perhaps it’s whenever you enter a stressful situation.

2. Identify the reward you get for performing that habit. In the nail-biting example, the reward may be that it helps relieve anxiety.

3. Figure out a substitute. The substitute should be used whenever you enter a situation where the habit’s triggered, and should give the same sort of reward. To replace your nail-biting habit, you could carry around a small sketchpad. When you start to feel anxious, doodle to help relieve your stress.

4. Rinse and repeat. Your first attempt to change a habit might not go according to plan. That’s okay. Experiment with other options to see what ends up working best for you.

When replacing one habit with another, make sure your new habit is healthy. A lot of smokers will try to replace smoking with eating, for example, which can still cause health problems, albeit different ones.

Remember that patterns of behavior aren’t going to change overnight. It can take several months to form new habits, and it may take a while to really replace a bad habit.

That’s okay!

Celebrate the little victories! And if something isn’t working, it may be that it doesn’t suit your personality or lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different things, and give yourself time to see if they work.

Fit man doing pushups on ball court

Putting Bad Habits to Rest

Bad habits are associated with a reward, and can be extremely hard to break. When you fail to break a habit, you may beat yourself up, cursing our lack of willpower.

As we noted, however, willpower is rarely the deciding factor.

All you really need to do to change a habit is trick your brain a little. By switching in a healthier habit with the same reward, you can have a much easier time getting rid of bad habits for good.