We all know the old adage: Building a new habit takes at least 21 days. But what does it take to give up unhealthy or harmful routines, like smoking and late-night snacking, that have been part of our lives for years?
Once your brain locks in a habit, it’s not easy to let it go. “It could take twice as long as 21 days or longer,” says Tom Horvath, Ph.D., author of Sex, Drugs, Gambling, & Chocolate: A Workbook for Overcoming Addictions (Impact). Your mind is your own personal cloud, continuously storing and protecting memories of actions like backups on your phone. Frequent behaviors such as brushing your teeth or getting dressed snag prime real estate in your mind cloud, making it easy to recall them when prompted, says George Woods M.D., neuropsychiatrist and president of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health.
The first time you perform an act, such as stopping at the vending machine on your way from your boss’s office, Woods says your brain creates a folder for that memory. “If you do that only once in a while, that folder won’t fill up, or move to the part of the brain responsible for subconscious thinking and actions.” But if you buzz by to grab chips or candy after the next few meetings with your supervisor, your brain learns face time with a manager should be followed by junk food. Eventually your brain will note that a stop at the vending machine is a source of comfort at work and a snacking pattern will be created.
Unlike photos stored in your cloud, the files in your noggin can never truly be deleted. But they can become harder to access if new ones replace them. “To break an old habit, you must, in a sense, makwe a new one,” says Frederick Woolverton, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and founder of The Village Institute for Psychotherapy. Whether you want to ditch your dependency on desserts, cigs or texting while driving, this six-step plan is sure to help you retrain your brain.
REALIZE CHANGE IS NECESSARY.
If you’re paying an emotional, mental or physical price for a regular practice, it’s time to stop it. “Consequences like embarrassments, criticisms or negative reactions from people around you are warning signs a habit is bad,” says Horvath. “A good one shouldn’t make you feel remorseful or leave you with regret.” An action that leads to loss and shame also signals your routine could use some shaking up.
“I lost so much time with my children because of smoking,” says Sheyda Irani, 38, a St. Louis mom and nurse. A smoker since she was 16, Irani developed a pack-a-day habit by her twenty-eighth birthday. “I felt like such a hypocrite because I would counsel patients with respiratory problems who smoked about the importance of quitting, and here I was going out to have a cigarette on break. I didn’t know how I could look my son in the eye and tell him not to smoke or do drugs.”
SHIFT YOUR PERSPECTIVE.
Don’t get stuck in a cycle of self-loathing over the difficulty you’re experiencing in altering your current routine. “Negativity rarely works to change behavior,” says Woods. Instead, he suggests seeing things in a different light. “Reframe “I have to quit smoking because it’s bad for me’ as “quitting smoking will give me more time with my loved ones” to get into the positive mind-set that will help you—and your brain—want to stick to a new habit.”
PICK A NEW HABIT.
Look for healthy actions to fill the void that cutting a bad habit from your life might leave. “Break down a habit piece by piece to spot areas you can swap the negative for the positive,” says Woods. That’s how Andrea Calhoun, 26, trimmed more than 40 pounds from her 4’11” frame. At 19 years old, Houston-based Calhoun was prediabetic, but eating a half-dozen doughnuts at a time. “Then an hour or two after doughnuts or other desserts, I’d get a Big Mac. My eating habits were horrible,” she says. A 2009 trip to the emergency room helped Calhoun see the need for adjustment.
Facing a health crisis and not wanting to catch a glimpse of her reflection, Calhoun says she “woke up” in the hospital. “Something clicked and I realized I couldn’t go on like that, possibly killing myself with unhealthy eating habits,” she says. Whenever the urge to pop something sweet into her mouth strikes, Calhoun, now a personal trainer and competitive bodybuilder, grabs gum instead of doughnuts. She has also replaced her late-night bags of chips and cookies with rice cakes or a handful of nuts: “I didn’t give up snacking; I traded it for healthy snacking.”
KNOW YOU’RE NOT ALONE.
Ask a family member or your bestie to be on standby for moral support or a quick pep talk via text when your willpower dips. “Nothing beats human connection and encouragement when you’re struggling to change behavior,” says Woolverton, who cowrote Unhooked: How to Quit Anything (Skyhorse Publishing). That’s especially true in the early stages of your journey. “In the beginning, there will always be feelings of deprivation. That’s when you need the support of others who understand your struggle to get through those tough first few days or weeks.”
Telling coworkers and loved ones about her plan to quit smoking was instrumental in Irani’s efforts: “I had several moments of weakness, but having those supportive rocks and their unwavering encouragement has helped me get—and stay—smoke-free since October 2010.”
SET A REMINDER.
Staying connected to your reason for change increases your chances of success. “Reminders help us remember what’s important when we are tempted to fall back into a bad habit,” says Horvath. Tape a picture of how you want to look in a bathing suit on the fridge, or set your child’s photo on your phone to bring to mind what you’d lose if you text while driving.
Rewards can keep feelings of deprivation at bay. “Tying a positive experience to a new habit increases the likelihood you won’t relapse,” says Woolverton. To stay on track, every day Irani deposited $5 in a jar—the amount she would spend on cigarettes. “At the end of the week, I rewarded myself with a splurge bought with cigarette money. Even if I needed the money for a bill, I treated myself because I didn’t want to rob myself of the pleasure of a good choice for my children and me.”
Be sure to cut yourself some slack. Even with rewards, reminders and a commitment to change, Horvath says replacing a bad habit can take longer than simply starting a new good one. “Instead of weeks, it can take several months to move a new habit into a spot an old one once occupied,” he says.