Bad habits – making and breaking them

Bad habits – making and breaking them

Breaking bad habits is easier to do if we understand how they’re made, and how much our brains run on autopilot.  But after that how do we actually change or eliminate them?

The bedrock of all habits, whether good or bad, is the “habit loop”, whic cis made up of three different elements

  • the cue – this is the trigger that puts your brain in the right gear to start the particular habit.  Part of the skill in taking the power out of habits comes from identifying whether these are external triggers, like an argument or a loss, or whether they are internal triggers, like emotional reactions or memories.
  • the routine – this is the actual habit itself, and it might be physical, mental, or emotional.  It might have some practical value, or it may be an old habit entirely unrelated to the trigger.  It will always though have an emotional benefit.
  • the reward – this is the emotional benefit from the habit, and it’s this that determines whether the habit continues or not.  It might be short-term, and it might even be ultimately self-defeating, but if it’s sufficiently strong the habit will continue.


As habits develop the cue and the reward become closely associated in the brain, leading to self-sustaining behaviour and then to cravings.  Cravings are essential to the development and survival of habits.

These habit loops are largely carried out on ‘autopilot’ as they become automatic or default responses to triggers.  At first they occupy two parts of our brains – the prefrontal cortex and the striatum.  The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in planning, and the striatum is the part that sends the necessary signals to the muscles and other parts of the body.  As habits develop the role of the pre-frontal cortex declines, until the majority of the work is carried out automatically in the striatum.

Breaking bad habits then needs us to become more aware of some of the things that we do on autopilot.  The most effective way of doing this is to practice mindfulness.  Next to that would be setting a random alarm or prompt throughout the day to remind you to stop and notice what your thoughts are, especially those that were automatic or out of your conscious experience.

If you find that you can’t break into your thoughts very easily there is still hope.  To break a bad habit the most effective way is to replace it with one where the emotional reward is at least as great, if not greater.  As the reward and the cue are so intertwined you will need to be aware of the triggers as well.  However the approach is very practical and involves you coming up with a number of “IF/WHEN THEN” statements.

With “IF/WHEN THEN” statements you identify the trigger (the “IF/WHEN”).  You then specify an action that you will take ( the “THEN”) every time.  As you will see from the “habit loops” this needs to bring an emotional reward – even if that is achievement at having identified and changed your old behaviour.  As time goes on this new routine will become more ad more established in the striatum as an automatic response.

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