Brain and Body

5 Neuroscience Tips to Break a Bad Habit

October 16, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Woman biting her nails. Nail biting.
Photo credit: Freddie Neña/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

All of us have that one impossibly stubborn habit that we just can’t seem to kick — nail biting, stress-eating, smoking, the list goes on. The cycle is relentless; we make a vow to ourselves that we’re going to stop — for real this time — then we put forth valiant effort for a couple weeks before giving in to the bad habit’s relentless grip.

In fact, research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology reveals that approximately 54 percent of people who pledge to break a bad habit fail to stick with the transformation beyond six months, and the average person make the same resolution 10 times with no success.

It’s no secret that breaking a bad habit is tough. In reality, it requires eliminating automatic thoughts that our brain has been wired to carry out. But despite the persistence of these habits, it’s possible to get rid of them once and for all  — and these neuroscience tips lay out just how to tackle them.

SEE ALSO: Neuroscience Tips to Remain Calm Under Pressure

1.  Become hyper-aware of your habit.

It may sound tedious, but keep track of how much you’re actually biting your nails, smoking, or whatever your habit may be. Either in a little notebook or in the notes of your phone, write down every time you indulge in the habit. You may be shocked to find that your habit is even worse than you previously thought. But it’s a necessary first step to fully understand the behavior. Plus, it may even help you cut down on the habit by wanting to avoid racking up your daily quota.

2.  Don’t focus on what you won’t do.

Instead, set small goals for yourself and focus on what you will do. Focusing on avoiding a bad habit will simply keep the thought of it in your head.

3.  Set reasonable goals.

If you’ve been a smoker or a nail biter for years, don’t expect to kick the habit in a month. Long-term goals take time, and you have to start off slow with reasonable goals. If you try to wipe the problem out in the blink of an eye, you’ll simply tire yourself out with unrealistic expectations and lose the willpower to keep up with your new goal. Baby steps.

4.  Replace your behavior with something else.

Carry a pack of gum with you so that every time you think about biting your nails, you can pop a piece in your mouth. If you regularly over-eat, stock up on smaller plates. If you’re a chronic knuckle-cracker, twiddle your thumbs, or clasp your hands until the urge goes away. Finding a replacement habit is far more effective than simply trying to nix a bad habit altogether. Plus, you may even replace a bad habit with a healthy one.

5.  Establish a healthy environment.

Putting yourself in an environment that distances you from your bad habit is critical. If you’re a stress-eater, keep junk food out of your cabinets. If you’re trying to quit smoking cigarettes, walk away when a friend lights one up. It’s straightforward — our environments affect our cravings, but we have control of the environments we establish for ourselves or those we choose to put ourselves in. Art Markman, author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others, told the Huffington Post, "It seems simple, but it's incredibly important. The more you manage your environment, the more likely you are to succeed. It's not cheating."

Breaking a bad habit isn’t child’s play by any means. It takes time, dedication, and willpower. But if you’re willing to put in the work, perhaps you can defy those bad habit failure statistics. When the future bad-habit-free you looks back on the progress you’ve made, it will all be worth it.

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