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Changing bad habits the smart way

Breaking a bad habit and replacing it with a new, healthier one isn't easy. Ask any habitual dieter, smoker, or prospective exerciser.

Breaking a bad habit and replacing it with a new, healthier one isn't easy.
Breaking a bad habit and replacing it with a new, healthier one isn't easy.Read moreiStock

Breaking a bad habit and replacing it with a new, healthier one isn't easy. Ask any habitual dieter, smoker, or prospective exerciser.

One reason habits are so hard to change is "they are behaviors that get triggered by a particular situation that doesn't require you to think about them," says Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at Stanford University who has studied habits and decision-making. "They can also be things that you keep on doing - even if you no longer get the results you used to."

Because of their automatic nature, habits are generally difficult for people to change through willpower alone. Nearly 65 percent of dieters return to their pre-dieting weight within three years, according to the Weight and Eating Disorders Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

But new research can help. "One of the most fundamental insights of this work is that the things that you learn first are the strongest, and anything you learn after that is going to be more fragile," says Poldrack. "If you've learned to be a couch potato, anything you do after that is more challenging."

"The answer isn't to 'just say no,' " says Brian Galla, a third-year post-doc at Penn who researches self-control issues. "By trying to suppress a temptation, you can actually make it more prominent in your mind. For example, when faced by a cheesecake, if you repeat, 'I'm not going to eat the cheesecake, I'm not going to eat the cheesecake,' you actually may be flooding your mind with cheesecake, making it impossible to resist."

So how do you build a new and better habit? One possible strategy is temptation bundling, a tactic put forth in the journal Management Science by Katherine Milkman, an assistant professor in operations and management at the Wharton School.

Based on her experience of wanting to exercise more and manage her guilt over spending too much time with trashy novels, Milkman tried to limit her trashy-novel consumption to the 30 minutes she spent exercising on a machine at the gym.

Lured by the "stickiness" of the novel, her exercise/novel routine gradually developed into a five-day-a-week habit.

To test her personal results, she recently enlisted about 200 Penn students and staff who wanted to exercise more and divided them into three groups for a 10-week study: a control group given $25 Barnes & Noble gift certificates for agreeing to exercise for 30 minutes on an aerobic machine at the gym; an intermediate group who could listen to one of four "sticky" novels (including The Hunger Games) while they exercised and at home, if they desired; and a third group who were permitted to listen to their selected book only at the gym while exercising (between visits, their iPods were kept in locked and monitored gym lockers).

After seven weeks, findings showed the restricted iPod group exercised 51 percent more often than the control group, while the intermediate group worked out 29 percent more.

After the Thanksgiving break, the results dropped off a bit - more proof that new habits are hard to sustain - but when asked, 61 percent of the group were willing to pay a fee to keep their iPods at the gym, effectively limiting their listening time to time spent exercising.

"You aren't extinguishing your bad habit," Milkman says of her findings. "You're harnessing it. You're using its motivational power for good. It's not that you can't binge-watch Scandal anymore, but you reorient when you do it. It makes something you should do more attractive."

Changing a habit may not be entirely about self-control, but rather about restructuring your life so you're pursuing goals without so much effort.

"If you set up your life so you don't have to constantly resist temptation, you might be able to resist it better when a temptation arises," says Galla. "If you were to rise every day at a different time, eat a different breakfast, and perform a different grooming ritual every day, you might have less energy to resist temptation. To the degree you can regulate and streamline these tasks, you can make your life easier."

To establish new habits, Galla recommends sitting down and designating a very workable time and place for you to carry out a new behavior.

"Imagine I want to eat more fruit," he says. "So I might make a plan that when I'm riding the bus, then I will eat an apple."

By planning and designating a context and environment for this behavioral change, the situation itself can begin to automatically trigger the thought to eat an apple while on the bus.

"Just thinking about the new behavior can be a powerful impetus for doing things that you've never done before," says Galla.

In addition, if you do eat an apple while you're on the bus, "the next time you're on the bus, you're going to be nudged in the direction of thinking about an apple."

"It isn't easy," Galla warns, "but by building an association with the context or environment and a behavior that is helpful for pursuing your goal, you may form a new habit."

Milkman's research on habit building also shows that designating a "fresh start" date can help habits take root. Popular dates include New Year's Eve, the start of a new job, a new month, Mondays, a birthday, or just after national holidays.

"On those days, we see people starting to pursue healthy roles. They're more likely to search the word diet on Google, or start saving, or to begin a new career goal," she says. "A fresh start can be one of the most effective things we can do. Making a decision to change can be very important."

Galla recommends limiting the number of behaviors you plan to change.

"Don't take on too many, especially if you're making big changes. If you want to change your exercise routine, it might be helpful to focus on that, rather than increasing your exercise, quitting smoking and eating better. If you fail at all of them, you may keep on failing.

"What makes bad habits bad are the same things that makes good habits good," says Galla. "If you smoke a cigarette after every meal, even if you've quit for a year, you may still feel like smoking a cigarette. Habits are blind to whether they're healthy for you or not."

Sticking with it

Connect contexts and environments to cement new habits. Adding more fruit to your diet can be as simple as eating a piece of fruit during every coffee break. Over time, walking to the break room can trigger the thought of eating an apple, and you've made a new habit.

Strengthen your self-control and reduce the chance of failure by limiting the number of behaviors you want to change at one time.

Pinpoint a specific date to institute a new habit. If you don't succeed the first time, simply pick a new date to "start fresh."

Try "temptation bundling," where you combine a good habit (getting to the elliptical machine at the gym) with a tempting bad habit (binge watching "Scandal"). Anticipating the pleasure of the bad habit can help create a new and healthy one.