Debunking Habit Myths: The Science of Lasting Change - Deepstash
Debunking Habit Myths: The Science of Lasting Change

Debunking Habit Myths: The Science of Lasting Change

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Habits: Key Facts

  1. Habits are mental links between cues and responses.
  2. Competing impulses can override habitual behavior.
  3. Backup plans are crucial for maintaining new behaviors and breaking bad habits.


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Habit Does Not Equal Lasting Change

Pop psychology tends to portray all stable behaviours as habitual, as well as implying that forming new habits will always lead to positive long-term change. 

New analysis by Surrey researchers argues that a habit is simply a mental link between a situation (cue) and an action (response). When someone with a habit is in the situation, an unconscious urge prompts the action. However, whether this urge leads to habitual behaviour depends on other competing impulses that influence our actions. 


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Impulses Are Like Babies

Forming a habit means connecting a situation we often encounter with the action we usually take. These connections help by creating impulses that push us to do the usual action without thinking. But the pushes from habits are just one of many feelings we might have at any time. 

Impulses are like babies, each crying for our attention. We can only tend to one at a time. These impulses come from various sources – intentions, plans, emotions, and habits. We act according to whichever impulse demands our attention by crying the loudest at any given moment. 


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Habit Impulses Usually Cry The Loudest

Habit impulses usually cry the loudest, guiding us to do what we normally do, even when other impulses are vying for our attention.

However, there are times when other impulses cry louder.


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Just A Single Disruption

Think of someone who has developed a habit of eating a healthy breakfast every morning. One day, they wake up late, leave the house without having time for breakfast, and then grab a sugary snack on their commute. 

This single disruption can make them feel like they’ve failed, potentially leading them to abandon the healthy eating habit altogether.


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Just A Backup Plan

When trying to make a new behaviour stick, it’s a good idea to form a habit and have a backup plan for dealing with setbacks, such as keeping healthy snacks on hand that you can quickly grab on busy mornings.


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Breaking Bad Habits

As for breaking bad habits, the Surrey researchers suggest several methods. 

There are multiple ways to stop ourselves from acting on our habits. Imagine you want to stop snacking in front of the TV. One way is to avoid the trigger – don’t switch on the set. Another is to make it harder to act impulsively – not keeping snacks at home. Or, you could stop yourself when you feel the urge

While the underlying habit may remain, these strategies reduce the chances of ‘bad’ behaviours from occurring automatically.


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If You Can’t Avoid, Swap

In principle, if you can’t avoid your habit cues or make the behaviour more difficult, swapping out a bad habit for a good one is the next best strategy.

It’s much easier to do something than nothing, and as long as you’re consistent, the new behaviour should become dominant over time, overpowering any impulses arising from your old habit.


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“An idea is something that won’t work unless you do.” - Thomas A. Edison


Researchers debunk myths about habits, showing they are mental links between situations and actions. Habits compete with other impulses, like intentions and emotions, to influence behavior.

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