How to Finally Kick Unwanted Habits

By Corrie Pikul
Photo: ThinkstockTry the Lesser of Two Evils

What to do: Replace the bad habit with a good one-or at least one that's more benign.

Why it works: It's much easier to slightly change a mental pattern than to reconstruct it entirely, says Jeremy Dean, PhD, psychologist and the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits. Since you've already trained your brain to respond a certain way in a certain situation (wake up, drink coffee), you can "trick" it by directing it to respond to the same situation-with a slightly different activity (wake up, drink green tea).

What habit it helps break: Substitution can probably help you quit Candy Crush-for good, says Jamie Madigan, PhD, a psychologist who writes about the overlap between psychology and video games. There are many reasons why this game is uniquely addictive: mandatory time-outs that make you long to keep playing, one-handed controls that let you play anywhere, notifications that nudge you to sign in and the ability to compete against Facebook friends. But all of these tricks wouldn't matter as much if Candy Crush didn't have so many levels-upwards of 500, at last count. You start playing while waiting to check out at the supermarket and keep playing after you get home, on and off for the rest of the night. Instead, find something else to help you pass the time in line-ideally, a productive habit like logging your exercise on your phone. At the very least, Madigan suggests switching from Candy Crush to a more traditional game that is easier to beat (so, not Angry Birds) or a game that requires real-time interaction from a friend, who can alert you when it's time to stop playing and say, "Go to sleep!"

Related: 6 Things You'll Never Regret Doing

Make a New Mantra

What to do: Start by asking yourself, "Why do I do this, anyway?" Sure, because you're bored, but what else is happening? Where are you? Who are you with? What do you see, smell or hear? That's your trigger, and let's call it X. The next time X happens (because it will-you cannot rid the world of coworkers bearing baked goods, for example), you need to be ready. You need to have a plan to combat it. That's your Y. Repeatedly remind yourself: "If X happens, I will do Y."

Why it works: You're reminding yourself of your resolution-out loud, and often. Research on both humans and animals suggests that even after bad habits seem to have disappeared, they still lie dormant, waiting to be reactivated, says Dean. If you have a plan for how to deal with that situation, you won't be taken by surprise and default to your old frenemy, the bad habit. (Note: Recent analyses of this strikingly effective technique have shown that it backfires if you say, "If X, happens, I will not do Y." E.g., "If I get hungry while watching TV, I will not have ice cream...or chips...or peanut butter out of the jar.")

What habit it helps break: Snacking ("If I want something to eat while watching TV, I will have a cup of yogurt"), squeezing pimples ("If I notice a red spot, I will dab cover-up on it"), cursing ("If I spill this really full mug of coffee, I will say, 'Flippers!'").

Go for Gold

What to do: Use a calendar or chart to track how many days you can go habit-free. Reward yourself for weeklong winning streaks in a small but meaningful way.

Why it works: It's human nature to appreciate a gold foil star-or a "good job!" Psychologists know this, and so do kindergarten teachers and proactive moms who wallpaper the bathroom with behavior charts. It's also the idea behind Happify, a new emotional-wellness app that helps people build happiness habits via interactive games. Members earn medals by completing activities to help them develop skills like "cope better with stress." Happify's developers have found that users who receive a gold medal in their first set of activities (like a game that makes you quickly react to positive words while avoiding negative ones) go on to complete 48 percent more activities than those who receive a silver medal. That's why Happify, like many games, starts you out with shorter levels and easier goals that help you quickly rack up gold medals. And being constantly reminded of your medal-winning prowess motivates you to sign up to develop more skills (a win-win for both the user and the developers).

What habits it helps break: Habits that cost you money, like buying coffee at the café, because you can put the cash you've save each time you make the drink at home toward something else that you enjoy...like renting an old movie (Goldfinger, On Golden Pond or Fool's Gold come to mind).

Think Long Term

What to do: Accept failure (at first).

Why it works: There's a depressing irony to the way habits work: The more you try not to think about them, the more they dominate your thoughts. This has been proven time and again in different experiments where people were instructed not to think about white bears, or cigarettes, or disturbing emotional memories, or their favorite food. In all cases, the people in the studies began thinking about these things even more than before. The mind starts an unconscious monitoring process to check if you're still thinking about the verboten subject, writes Dean, and then anything that looks vaguely like it triggers the thought again ("That crumpled tissue reminds me of...a white bear"). This may be why people sometimes find that when they first try to change a habit, they actually start doing it more, Dean explains. The resulting disappointment often sends them deeper into the clutches of their vice. Dean suggests viewing this as a "just a phase" in the larger process of breaking a habit-but a phase with an end in sight.

What habits it helps break: Smoking. Surveys show that it takes the average smoker five to seven attempts to kick the habit for good, which is more than double what most smokers would anticipate.

Read More: What The Happiest People Do At Work

Fantasize Wildly

What to do: Keep telling yourself how your life will improve once you're no longer oversnacking or picking or procrastinating. At the same time, remind yourself how unhealthy, unnecessary, distracting or just plain annoying your habit is and how badly you want to change it.

Why it works: It raises the stakes. The more relevant and vivid you can make the negative thoughts of the bad habit, the more likely you are to exercise self-control, writes Dean. These mental caricatures serve as reminders to keep you on track. Multiple experiments have shown that those who attach strong feelings to a habit are more motivated to change than are those who treat the habit like it's no big deal.

What habits it helps break: Start with things that gross you out-when you're not the one doing them (like nail-biting, hair-chewing). They're easier to visualize and harder to justify to yourself, since you've already seen on others that those habits are unattractive.

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