6 steps that train your brain to break bad habits

Want to trade a harmful habit for a healthy one? Take advantage of your brain’s natural ability to rewire itself to change your behavior.

Jogging while listening to music

Habits are often a good thing. When was the last time you forgot to brush your teeth? Or didn’t put on your seatbelt before pulling out of the driveway? Chances are you do these tasks without even thinking about them. And you can thank your central nervous system for that.

“Habits make life more efficient,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Annville, Pennsylvania. “We can devote less mental effort and resources to behaviors that are habitual.”

A habit is just a pattern of brain wiring. When we do something over and over again, our brain rewires itself to make that activity easy and automatic.

This is great news when it comes to good habits. But it’s also what makes bad habits so hard to break. That’s because when a behavior becomes more automatic, we have less control over it. And if the habit is something you’d rather not be doing (say, smoking cigarettes or snacking when you’re bored), changing the pattern can be challenging.

“We tend to develop habits quickly when we understand their function and when they are followed by a reward, so it’s important to structure new habit development to maximize early success,” Smedley says.

Breaking a bad habit doesn’t mean you have to stop it cold turkey. Rather, you need to do a deeper dive into why you’re doing it in the first place. And understanding the role of brain wiring can help. Here’s a step-by-step plan to help you get started.

Step 1: Be specific about what you want to change

Instead of saying “I want to stop eating junk food” or “I want to spend less time on the couch,” tie a specific goal to the habit. Brains rewire in a gradual, step-by-step way. For example: “I want to cut my takeout to one meal per week” or “I will only watch 30 minutes of TV a night.”

Even better? Give your goals greater value. If you want to reduce your screen time, reframe it as a goal of being more present with your grandchildren, perhaps, or spending more time on a creative hobby you love. That extra reward can help your brain rewire itself in the direction you want.

Another important step: finding a starting point. You might smoke daily — but do you know how many cigarettes you’re actually having? Keep a written record of your baseline. Then you can see your progress more clearly as you kick the habit.

Step 2: Choose a replacement behavior

It’s easier to drop a behavior if there is some type of substitute in place that serves a similar function, Smedley explains. “Maybe that glass of wine with dinner can be replaced with herbal tea, if you need something to drink as a nightcap.” That way, you’re not trying to rewire every step of the habit at the same time – just one step in the chain of actions.

Or maybe you tend to mindlessly scroll through your phone in bed — and stay up too late doing it. Instead, keep a few books on your nightstand and wind down by reading before you turn out the lights. Bonus: You may snooze more soundly, since screen time before bed can mess with your sleep.

Step 3: Start low and go slow

New habits take some time to stick. One study by University of London researchers found that it took an average of 66 days for a behavior to change. And the range was anywhere from 18 to 254 days. That’s because changing an old habit — and building a new one — requires “brain plasticity” or rewiring the brain. And that rewiring is a gradual process. It takes time and effort to do it.

Try focusing on smaller, more easily achievable goals to guide you along the way to your larger one. Say you want to give up your couch-potato habit and start running several days a week. Instead of signing up for a 5K race right off the bat, work up to it slowly.

You could start by alternating walking and jogging. As your training progresses, you might be able to run the whole time and then add a few extra minutes to each day. Soon enough you’ll be ready to slay that 5K.

As you do this, you’re changing your body by becoming more fit. But just as importantly, you’re changing your brain. And that’s what changes your habit from sitting on the couch to going for a run.

And if you can enlist a friend to train with you, that’s even better. Older adults with strong social ties are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, according to the National Institute on Aging.

A senior man enjoying using his smart tablet
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Step 4: Pat yourself on the back

Don’t hesitate to treat yourself if you’ve hit a major milestone on your journey — if you’ve cut out soda and lost a couple pounds, for example, or you’ve gone a week without biting your nails.

Keep a tracking system or “success chart,” recommends Smedley. You reward yourself with a small amount of money for reaching a goal — and then you save the funds for something special. That might be a fun day trip with your family, a cooking class, or tickets to a concert.

The added incentive can help change your brain. Each time you reward yourself, your brain pumps dopamine. This brain chemical (also called a neuromodulator) helps rewire your brain to do the action that caused the reward. In other words, if a new habit leads to a reward, your brain will start to prefer that new habit over the old habit you’re trying to break.

(FYI: Doing brain exercises every day is another healthy habit. Did you know that BrainHQ may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan? Check your eligibility today.)

Step 5: Tie a healthy new habit to an established one

Another one of Smedley’s favorite tricks for developing a new habit? Merging it with a (good) habit you already have.

Let’s say you have a bad habit of forgetting to take a certain medication each morning. Tie it to something else you do every morning, such as making coffee or walking the dog. Leave your pill bottle next to the coffee maker or your dog’s leash so you don’t forget.

This is called “associative learning.” Your brain builds new connections between things that are paired with each other in the world — in this case, “taking medication” and “walking the dog.”

The result: Over time, the part of your brain that’s activated when you put on your dog’s leash will fire up the part of your brain that’s activated when you take a pill. Eventually, prepping your dog for a walk will help you remember to take your pills.

Step 6: Don’t stress if you slip up

Try not to obsess over a bad habit you’re trying to change. And don’t give yourself a hard time if you slip up.

“If you’re trying to stop smoking and end up giving in, imagine how you’d talk to someone you love if that happened to them,” Smedley says. “Be compassionate and examine the slipup with curiosity.”

Change doesn’t happen all at once, and you may slide back into old habits sometimes. But that’s okay.

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Additional sources:
Habit change research: European Journal of Social Psychology
Social ties: National Institute on Aging