To Break Bad Habits, You Must Create New Ones

Rather than focus on not doing something you shouldn't do, create a new habit to override the old, bad one.

To Break Bad Habits, You Must Create New Ones

Rather than trying to focus on getting rid of a bad habit, it may be easier to try developing a new one (preferably one that's also positive, too).


Melissa Dahl from NYMag writes on an interview with Art Markman, a University of Texas at Austin psychologist, who has struggled forming his own positive habits and breaking his bad ones. In his interview with The Psychology Podcast, he talks about the power of positive goals versus negative goals. For instance, say you don't want to bite your nails anymore:

“Because it’s something you don’t want to do. And the reason that that’s a problem is because your habit-learning system is an active system. It wants to associate behaviors with the environment. If you say I don’t want to do something, then what you’re doing is focusing yourself on not acting.”

Markman says in his interview that it's much easier to learn something new than to break an old habit. So, the best way to break that bad habit is to replace it with a new one. Brett McKay from the Art of Manliness found his own research to break his habits, and discovered his actions could be broken down into three steps: cue, routine, and reward.

In order to figure out what cue was driving his routine to drink Mountain Dew in the afternoon, he tried replacing the habit with drinking water one day and going out for a walk the next. In his own tests, he found that the quick walk won out and helped him get that burst of energy he needed to get through the rest of the day. Likewise, Markman found he would bite his nails while he read. So, he got some toys and squish balls to play with, which did the trick — his hands simply required some occupation while he read.

Of course, changing these long-held habits does take some effort. Studies say it takes 66 days to form a new one. But with some mental trickery to recognize the routine you need to change in order to get that same feeling of reward, you'll be well on your way to forming a more productive, positive habit.

What bad habit have you conquered or wish to overcome? Sound off in the comments below.

Read more at NYMag.

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How much can living in the city change you? If you were an urban fox, you could be evolving yourself to a whole new stage and becoming more like a dog, according to a fascinating new study.

Researchers compared skulls from rural foxes around London with foxes who lived inside the city and found important variations. Rural foxes showed adaptation for speed and hunting after quick, small prey, while urban fox skulls exhibited changes that made it easier for them to scavenge, looking through human refuse for food, rather than chasing it. Their snouts were shorter and stronger, making it easier to open packages and chew up leftovers. They also have smaller brains, not meant for hunting but for interacting with stationary food sources, reports Science magazine.

Interestingly, there was much similarity found between the male and female skulls of the urban foxes.

The observed changes correspond to what Charles Darwin called the "domestication syndrome," comprised of traits that go along with an animal's transition from being wild, to tamed, to domesticated.

The study was led by Kevin Parsons, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow.

"What's really fascinating here is that the foxes are doing this to themselves," Parsons told the BBC. "This is the result of foxes that have decided to live near people, showing these traits that make them look more like domesticated animals."

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Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP

"Some of the basic environmental aspects that may have occurred during the initial phases of domestication for our current pets, like dogs and cats, were probably similar to the conditions in which our urban foxes and other urban animals are living today," said Kitchener. "So, adapting to life around humans actually primes some animals for domestication."

The specimen came from the National Museum Scotland's collection of around 1,500 fox skulls.

You can read the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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