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Ditch Pop Psychology Myths to Truly Change Habits, Say Researchers

Researchers at the University of Surrey argue that by abandoning “pop psychology myths” about habits, we can better understand our habits and take more effective steps to change them. The new analysis questions the common description of all stable behaviors as habitual and the implication that forming new habits will always lead to long-term positive change.

According to researchers, a habit is simply a mental link between a situation (cue) and an action (response). When someone with a habit encounters the situation, an unconscious impulse drives the action. However, whether this drive leads to habitual behavior depends on other competitive drives that influence our actions.

The battle of impulses: habits versus other factors

Dr Benjamin Gardner, co-author and reader in Psychology at the University of Surrey, explains that habit impulses are just one of many feelings we can have at any given moment. “Impulses are like babies, each crying for our attention. We can only serve one at a time. These impulses come from various sources: intentions, plans, emotions and habits. We act on the impulse that demands our attention by crying louder at a given moment,” he states.

While habit impulses are usually the strongest and guide us to do what we normally do, there are times when other impulses, such as cold weather derailing a regular morning run, can override our habits.

Form new habits and face setbacks

The article notes that forming a new habit creates an association that can help you stay on track, but it does not guarantee that a new behavior will always stick. Dr Phillippa Lally, co-author of the study and senior lecturer in Psychology at the University of Surrey, illustrates this with the example of someone who has developed the habit of eating a healthy breakfast every morning, but was derailed by a single interruption, such as like waking up late and having a sugary snack on the go.

“This one interruption can make them feel like they have failed, which could lead them to give up the habit of healthy eating altogether. When it comes to making a new behavior stick, it’s a good idea to form a habit and have a backup plan for dealing with setbacks, like having healthy snacks on hand that you can grab quickly on busy mornings,” advises Dr. Lally.

As for breaking bad habits, the Surrey researchers suggest several methods, including avoiding the trigger, making it harder to act impulsively, and stopping when you feel the urge. Dr. Gardner explains, “While the underlying habit may remain, these strategies reduce the chances of ‘bad’ behaviors occurring automatically.”

Dr. Lally adds that if you can’t avoid the signs of your habit or make the behavior more difficult, changing 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 behavior should become dominant over time, overpowering any impulses that arise from your old habit,” he says.

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