Breaking Bad Habits With the Behavioral Approach

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When working to change habitual and problematic attitudes, thinking patterns, or behaviors, remember how important it is to recognise your own efforts and to give yourself a pat on the back.

Recently, I read a summary of some recent research on habit formation. Dr. Wendy Wood, who presented the results of her most recent experiment at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, has made a career of studying habits. Her research examines how we form our habits in the first place; the neurobiology that underlies how our habits solidify; the environmental factors that help initiate and sustain our habits; why, once established, the habits we acquire are so hard to break; and what it really takes to break free of habits and reliably replace them with different behaviors. I took a closer look at several of Dr. Wood’s studies and some of the other current research on the topic. Having dealt with hundreds of individuals over the years who struggled with maladaptive thinking and behavior patterns that had become habitual, I was quite happy to learn that many of the principles the most recent research indicates are important for breaking bad habits are fairly well incorporated into the cognitive-behavioral model of treatment to which I have subscribed for some time now.

But one key element of the model I use turns out to be notably absent from the research: the value of self-initiated reinforcement for implementing the strategies necessary to overcome old habits. In my personal experience, that particular element has proven of great value to those working hard to make behavioral changes that last.

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Wood and other habit researchers agree that it takes a lot of dedicated “will power,” especially at first, to change our habitual ways of doing things. Habits are actually adaptive behaviors in some ways, primarily because they help us conserve mental energy. Much of the time (estimates range from 42-50 percent of the time), we’re “automatically” responding to contextual cues in our environment and behaving in a manner that we’ve “conditioned” ourselves to behave as opposed to being fully aware, attentive, and self-directed. To change our habitual courses of action requires a conscientious, deliberate effort, and that, of course, takes energy. For example, perhaps we’ve been used to taking the same exit off the freeway every day for years to get to work, but then there’s a change in our work location that requires us to take a different exit. Unless we pay particular attention to where we are and what we’re doing and deliberately re-direct our behavior, it’s easy to find ourselves exiting on the old ramp “out of habit.” To reliably establish a new habit, we have to remain fairly mindful and self-directed for a while. Even after our new route has itself become relatively routine, there’s still a chance that from time to time we’ll inadvertently take the old exit, especially during times when we’re not particularly alert or our minds are occupied with something else other than where we’re going. Once established, old habits are definitely hard to retire completely. Even after we’ve set our minds on a new course, there’s always the possibility of reverting to old ways.

If there’s anything we know for sure from years of behavioral science research it’s that reinforcing a behavior — i.e., associating the behavior with a positive consequence or “reward” of some kind — increases the likelihood it will recur. We also know that withdrawing reinforcement from a behavior makes it more likely it will decrease over time. So, when I’m working with clients to change old, habitual, and problematic thinking patterns, attitudes, or behaviors, I always urge them to make it a priority to give themselves some positive strokes for the efforts they make to be more mindful of and change their thoughts and actions. I’ve found that it’s not enough to simply be mindful of or correct a dysfunctional thought or behavior. It’s also necessary to recognize and reward oneself for deliberately changing course. That recognition and reinforcement goes a long way toward helping a person maintain short-term gains over the long run. And, of course, the lack of reinforcement inherently conferred on the old destructive patterns makes it more likely that temptations to revert to old ways will diminish. (For more on the topics of becoming more mindful of thinking and behavior patterns and using self-reinforcement strategies to maintain gains, see “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement”). Besides purely mental self-recognition and reinforcement, there are myriad other ways to take the rewards out of old, destructive behaviors and to be sure there are ample rewards for deliberately engaging in more adaptive behaviors. Putting the right reward structure in place can make all the difference between firmly moving in a healthier new direction and struggling with persistent “relapses.”

Cognitive-Behavioral psychology teaches us that the ways we think about things and the ways we behave are inextricably interconnected. Just as surely as our attitudes and thinking patterns influence our behavior, the ways we behave and the consequences that derive from those behaviors influence the ways in which we think about things. All too often, even therapists well-versed in cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approaches forget this and overly focus their efforts on changing cognitions as opposed to behavior. (For more on this issue see “Putting the “B” Back into Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy”.) When we act out of habit, we’re generally not thinking too much. But when we deliberately re-direct our behavior — even momentarily — we necessarily become more mindful. This takes some energy at first, but the long-term “payoffs” are enormous. We begin looking at things in a whole new way and come to new insights and conclusions about the world around us and how to cope with its stressors. And if accomplishing all that isn’t worth an internal pat on the back, I’m not sure what is.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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