How Do You Break A Habit? It's Actually Not As Complicated As You Think

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Perhaps you've gotten up in the morning and vowed to stop smoking, spending too much time on social media, or a myriad other bad habits. But, by the afternoon your lighting up or going down a Twitter rabbit hole. What's the elusive secret to successfully breaking a bad habit? It's both simple and complicated at the same time. While in theory it seems like it should be easy to stop doing something you don't want to do anymore, your brain has other ideas. According to a new study Rehab Pathways shared with Bustle, it takes most people an average of 25 weeks and six attempts to quit the majority of bad habits.

"When it comes to bad habits, it's not your fault if breaking them turns out to be more difficult than you may have anticipated," the study explained. "In fact, if you've been trying to quit anything from smoking to shopping, and it's proving harder than expected, you might want to thank your orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) for the hassle. The OFC controls our goal-directed actions, except when those neurons aren't firing and pesky habits step in instead."

Among the bad habits people in the study sought to break, smoking, nail biting, and excessive drinking led the pack. Once you understand how your brain is trying to undermine your success, it's easier to take steps to stay in control of the outcome.

Successful Motivations For Breaking A Bad Habit

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If this is what your commute to work normally looks like, it makes sense that getting rid of this kind of stress by simplifying your morning routine could be a big motivator to ditch your habit of hitting snooze eleventy million times. In the study, people who cited saving time as their biggest motivation for ditching a bad habit revealed that quitting their bad habits took the shortest amount of time on average — 15 weeks.

"In contrast, people who were quitting to save money or because of the effect those habits were having on friends and family told us it took twice as long (or more) to be rid of their damaging behaviors," Rehab Pathways explained. What's more is that trying to break your bad habit without any support can also set you up to fail.

"Our survey also revealed that it took half as long for people who used online support to break their habits compared to those who told us they used methods like journaling. People who've used online support like social media to help quit habits have expressed a sense of community and support that provided increased motivation."

There are plenty of apps to assist you in breaking your bad habits. If you don't have an in-person support system, apps can provide you with a virtual support community and also help hold you accountable to your goals.

Using A Replacement Method Increases Success

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Another problem with some bad habits is there is an empty space where that pesky bad habit used to be. In order to be successful, 86 percent of people said that replacing their old bad habit with a new habit increased their chances of success. This makes complete sense to me because many of my bad habits are based in the feeling the ritual of the habit gives me, and having a new blank space makes me feel anxious.

"When it comes to the science of bad habits, experts say that substituting or replacing those habits with new hobbies or behaviors can help keep your mind busy when those OFC neurons slow down," Rehab Pathways explained. "Essentially, when you feel compelled to bite your nails or crack your knuckles, consider eating vegetables or going for a jog instead. Replacing your habits can also help reduce the stress and anxiety that sometimes trigger the original urges."

For instance, in an article about breaking the cycle of bad habits in the Guardian, one person identified as Harry said that replacing his habitual nail biting with nail filing help him succeed. "It has been well over three months now since I stopped biting my fingernails, and my life has changed in ways big and small. I can now peel off a label, and have a crack at tough knots without my teeth getting involved," he told the Guardian. "My confidence has also increased and I feel better about my ability to kick other annoying habits."

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Quitting something that you enjoy, but that you know is bad for you, can be even more difficult. Of the people surveyed who wanted to quit smoking, 80 percent said they enjoyed smoking cigarettes. Smokers who used a replacement method to kick their habit had more success when they replaced smoking with snacking as opposed to replacing it with electronic cigarettes or vaping, the study revealed.

"People who enjoyed munching instead of vaping were able to cut the time it took them to quit by roughly 25 percent — nine weeks compared to 12. People we polled who told us they used snacking also told us it took fewer attempts to quit (three attempts versus six attempts) than those who replaced the habit with vaping and electronic cigarettes."

It's Going To Take Longer Than You Think

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If you've been beating yourself up for trying to break a bad habit, don't. Live Science reported on a study that revealed why change is so hard.

"[The] brain's circuits for habitual and goal-directed action compete for control — in the orbitofrontal cortex, a decision-making area of the brain —and that neurochemicals called endocannabinoids allow for habit to take over, by acting as a sort of brake on the goal-directed circuit," Live Science explained.

The first step to outsmarting your brain is being aware that it's trying to trick you. Then, you have to give it what it wants — a new hobby or habit to replace the old one. Remember that it's going to take you longer than you think it should to break a bad habit. Don't give up. Instead, turn to a support network. Eventually your old habit will be as relevant as yesterday's Instagram feed.