Bad habits can seriously affect our career and relationships and keep us from living a healthy, happy life. However, understanding the psychology behind habit formation can help you get rid of bad habits and build better ones.
What is a bad habit?
A bad habit is a negative behavior pattern that not only adversely affects our health, but also damages our career, wealth and even relationships. It is a patterned behaviour which is caused by a lack of self-control and is detrimental to our well being. Bad habits like smoking, drinking, procrastination, binge eating and others can shatter our mental peace and happiness and drown our lives with excessive stress and anxiety.
“A bad habit can impede your happiness, health, and social relationships,” explains Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., author and Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The psychology of bad habits
Most of us have at least one bad habit. But when it starts to affect your quality of life, then it’s time you do something about it. Melody Wilding, a performance coach and Human Behavior professor at Hunter College, writes “Whether it’s mid-day snacking, procrastinating, or skipping workouts, feeling powerless in the face of bad habits can really take a toll on your motivation, even your self-esteem.” And despite our best efforts, we might not be able to break out of the toxic grasp of certain bad habits. This is why it is crucial that we understand the psychology behind habits to learn how exactly we can break them permanently.
According to MIT researchers, every habit revolves around a neurological loop that includes 3 distinct parts. These include:
1. Cue/Trigger – External & internal factors which triggers the habit
2. Routine – Engaging in the habit routinely
3. Reward – The satisfaction of the craving provided by the habit
The cue usually triggers a routine which leads to a temporary reward. It has been observed that the habit loop is wired into our psychology and is extremely powerful. Understanding the aspects of the habit loop can help us realize why it is so difficult to break bad habits. In fact, we can never actually break unhealthy and toxic habits, we can only replace them with newer, healthier and more positive habits. “To understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops. Once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old vices with new routines,” says Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit.
Apart from these, different forms of conditioning of behavior can also result in the formation of good and bad habits. Classical conditioning, Operant conditioning and Observational learning can strongly influence how we behave, act and live. These can also encourage us to build new habits or get rid of bad habits.
Stress and boredom
Bad habits are often formed by a deadly combination of stress and boredom. It acts as a defense mechanism that allows us to cope with excessive stress or when we are too bored for a prolonged period. Every bad habit we tend to have, from wasting time on social media to drinking every day is our response to boredom and stress.
Working on the issues that cause stress and boredom can often enable us to become aware of our toxic habits, find better ways to deal with them and find healthier substitutes to break our bad habits. James Clear, author of the New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits, explains “Sometimes the stress or boredom that is on the surface is actually caused by deeper issues. These issues can be tough to think about, but if you’re serious about making changes then you have to be honest with yourself.”
How to get rid of bad habits
If you are keen on breaking your bad habits and replace them with new, healthier habits to live a better life, then here are a few psychology-based ways to help you get rid of bad habits.
1. Identify the habit loop
Analyzing the habit loop and the cause of your bad habit is the crucial first step to breaking out of it. Be aware the next time you engage in your routine of the habit, focus on the cue that triggered it and the reward it provides. Melody Wilding writes “Look at the circumstances surrounding the behavior including the time of day, who you’re with, and what emotions you’re feeling.” Make sure to write down your cue, routine, and reward every time to be able to diagnose it better.