How to Kick that Habit

Now that Duke University researchers have shown how habits form, and unform, in the brain, the idea of actually breaking a bad habit looks like even more of a challenge. But researchers say, take heart, it can still be done! In fact, knowing what you're up against, as revealed in Duke's research, plays a big role in winning the battle. 

Here are some tips for breaking bad habits: 

1. Understand the Situation 

The first step is to figure out when and why you are practicing the habit that you want to change. Essentially, if you can notice when you are doing the action, under what circumstances and what feelings are attached to it, you will be able to understand what motivates the action. For example, do you bite your nails when you are feeling stressed? Do you bite your nails in all types of stressful situations, or only when you are meeting new people? Those are the types of questions to ask. 

2. Write it Down 

Since habits essentially rewire your brain, it makes sense that to change the habit you will need to rewire the first rewiring that correlates to the bad habit. To do that, you will need to make yourself consciously aware of the action of the bad habit. Putting the bad habit in writing will help to accomplish that. 

Logging the bad habit will establish a baseline. Write down everything about the habit, including what leads up to it; your feelings before, during and after. Then write out a list of the pros and cons of the behavior. It’s suggested that you do this for one week. 

Finally, analyze the data to understand what the triggers are. By measuring the behavior, you are more likely to change it because you are much more aware of it in the first place. 

3. Know and Switch 

Once you realize when and why you are performing the bad habit, the next step is to find a replacement that is not dangerous, annoying or distracting (or whatever the problem was with the habit you're trying to break). 

For example, if you bit your nails when you were stressed, try gum instead. 

Meditation is also an option. Once you know the trigger, meditation can help distract you if you are in a trigger situation. Alternatively, leaving the situation and taking a walk, or participating in another activity such as checking news sites on the internet, can also be a solution to avoiding triggers. The key is understanding the trigger and replacing the negative behavior with an alternative.

So, if you find yourself in the cycle of a bad habit, take a cue from Duke's research and try taking these conscious steps to rewire your brain and break free. 

— Frank Graff 

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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