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Make New Habits or Break the Old: The Psychology of Habits

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks," as the saying goes. But just a few years ago on the popular science show Mythbusters, the literal meaning of the saying was proven wrong. Does that mean it doesn’t apply to humans, either? How did we learn our old tricks, anyway? How do we break them, or better yet, learn new ones all together?


The Habit Loop

According to business writer Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit, establishing a habit in the first place relies on a neurological process called a “habit loop." This process has three parts: the cue, the routine, and the reward, which Duhigg explained in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air.

The cue is something that tells you the habit is about to begin - something in your environment that indicates it’s time to start the loop. The routine is what we think of when we think of habits - the thing we’re actually doing, such as brushing our teeth before bed, or making coffee in the morning. Finally, the reward is “something that your brain likes that helps it remember the ‘habit loop’ in the future” (NPR).

The article goes on to explain that habits are formed in a different part of the brain (the basal ganglia) than decisions are made (the prefrontal cortex). As a result, once behaviors become habits, we can do them without thinking. Duhigg explains further: "You can do these complex behaviors without being mentally aware of it at all...and that's because of the capacity of our basal ganglia: to take a behavior and turn it into an automatic routine."


Changing Habits: Good and Bad

Once we’ve formed a habit, however, it’s very difficult to change it - for better or worse. In his article “The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals” for Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Ryback explains why it is so hard to change our habits, and especially why it’s hard to make those changes stick. “The human brain is wired to favor routine over novelty, even if that routine is unhealthy. For instance, people who were given either stale or fresh popcorn ate the same amount while watching a movie - even though participants admitted that the stale popcorn didn’t taste as good. The participants were so used to the routine of eating popcorn in the theater that the quality of the snack didn't matter” (Ryback).

Because habits and goals/decisions are stored in different places in our brain, changing a behavior into a habit requires that we stick with it consistently. But simply “doing something consistently” can be difficult on its own  - otherwise we wouldn’t have trouble with things such as achieving our new year’s resolutions.


Changes Big and Small

Dr. Ryback and many others recommend changes both big and small to help make habits stick. Big changes like a new job, moving or switching schools can help shake up your routine and give you new cues for your habit loop to follow. For instance, if you are trying to quit smoking, then quitting while on vacation is more likely to end in success than trying while surrounded by all your same cues or triggers (NPR).

On the other end of the “change” spectrum, small shifts can also be very helpful. Breaking a goal down into small pieces and getting specific with what you want to achieve both increase the likelihood that you’ll change your behavior into a habit.

Breaking the goal into smaller pieces means you’ll benefit from the “reward” section of the habit loop more frequently. These successes give your brain a boost of dopamine, also known as the happiness chemical (Ryback). If you want to declutter your home, breaking the task into smaller projects such as “declutter all drawers in kitchen” or “empty out linen closet” is a much more achievable chunk of the project than waiting for the reward at the end of cleaning out your whole house. Working on small pieces at a time also assures that you will obtain that consistency that helps your brain consider your actions a habit rather than a behavior. Working towards the goal in small pieces each day makes it more likely that you will continue with the habit even after your initial goal is reached.



Similarly, setting specific goals rather than vague, overwhelming ones lead to success more often. In his article “Specific Commitments Can Change Behavior," Art Markman references several studies that show the results of this idea.

“Research by Peter Gollwitzer and his colleagues demonstrates that it is valuable for people to commit to specific behaviors rather than general ones.  In addition, research on the escalation of commitment suggests that getting people to take a small step toward a goal can get them to take larger steps later” (Markman).

By this logic, if you want to knock more items off your “to be read” list, you should set a small, manageable goal instead of “reading more”. For instance, starting off with a book a month would be a great way to begin. If you find that you are reading faster than that, perhaps bump yourself up to two books a month. When I started working on a similar goal, I found that I began making more time for reading in my daily routine. I also made reading more convenient for myself - storing a book in my bedside table, and downloading audiobooks for my commute, which made reading much easier.

As it turns out, you can teach an old dog new tricks. You can also train bad habits out of them, with a lot of commitment and consistency. Using some knowledge of how our brains form habits in the first place, you can even change habits of your own.


Duhigg, Charles. The Power Of Habit. N.p.: Random House USA, 2014. Print.

Gross, Terry. "Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them." NPR. Fresh Air, 05 Mar. 2012. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Hyneman, Jamie, Adam Savage, and Chris Williams. "Mythbusters/Dog Myths." Mythbusters. Discovery. San Francisco, California, 14 Mar. 2007. Television.

M.D., Ralph Ryback. "The Science of Accomplishing Your Goals." Psychology Today. N.p., 6 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Ph.D., Art Markman. "Specific Commitments Can Change Behavior." Psychology Today. N.p., 26 July 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

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