Whether it’s smoking, overeating, or worrying, we all have bad habits we would love to get rid of. Behavioral psychology can help. It is one of the most-studied fields in psychology, and it offers great insight into how to break bad habits and build up healthy habits in their place.
Realize the Reward of Your Bad Habit
If you have a bad habit, it is because you are being rewarded for it in some way. Behavioral psychology claims that all of our behavior is either rewarded or punished, which increases or decreases the chance of us repeating that behavior.
If you smoke, you are rewarded with stress relief. If you overeat, you are rewarded with the taste of food. If you procrastinate, you are temporarily rewarded with more free time. Find out how your bad habits are rewarding you, and then you can figure out how to replace them.
Impose a Punishment or Remove a Reward for Your Bad Habit
It’s time to cut the cycle of getting rewarded for bad habits. You need strong willpower for this step. You have to commit to either imposing a punishment or taking away a desired reward when you relapse. For example, if you overeat, you have to give up dessert the rest of the day or add 10 minutes to your next workout. The reward or punishment you choose should be relevant to the habit.
Have a Replacement Ready
Remember figuring out how your bad habit rewards you? It comes into play now. You need to figure out a replacement habit that offers the same reward without the downside of your bad habit. If you procrastinate, you enjoy a short-term increase in free time (since you are avoiding work). Instead of procrastinating, set up a more realistic schedule that allows for regular breaks, during which you can do something you enjoy.
Use a Mix of Small and Large Rewards
Rewards obviously have a huge impact on the human brain, which is one of the biggest findings of behavioral psychology. Reward yourself early and often for staying away from a bad habit. Don’t restrict yourself to large, infrequent rewards.
For example, if you want to break a laziness habit, you may reward yourself with new gym clothes after 30 workouts. This is a fine reward, but it is so far away that you may not have the incentive to carry through. Include that reward in your plan, but also give yourself regular treats and incentives for every few workouts you complete.
Tell Others about Your Goals
When we tell others about a goal and we do not follow through on it, we are “punished” with shame and a feeling that we let other people down. While shame isn’t necessarily the perfect motivator, it can be very effective.
If you tell others about your goals — preferably people who will support you — you are more likely to stick to them, since you do not want to have to tell your friends that you failed. Be sure to only tell friends that won’t lure you back into your bad habit or mock you for relapsing. You want support, not ridicule!