Part of understanding how to break a habit begins by understanding what a habit is and how it becomes an established pattern to begin with. Habits are routines in our behavior that we repeat on a regular basis and which tend to occur on a subconscious level. Because everyone is different and the reasons behind our habits depend on the individual, their surroundings, worldviews, and experiences, there is no one way to eliminate a particular bad habit.
But, regardless of the root cause behind the habit forming in the first place, one thing is for certain…it was bred into a habit by repetition. MIT researchers identified there is a simple neurological loop that exists at the core of every habit we develop. This loop consists of a cue or trigger, the routine or repeated action and the reward we come to crave.
To understand why these three conditions occur we need to comprehend that when we perform a function it causes a synapse to fire in our brains. The synapse permits a nerve cell (neuron) to pass a chemical signal to another cell. When the presynaptic neuron releases the chemical, called a neurotransmitter, it then binds to receptors. The response initiated by the neurotransmitter either excites or inhibits the postsynaptic neuron.
Once the connection has been made, new neural pathways begin to form in our brain. These new neural pathways become stronger the more they are used or satiated, which cause them to become long-term connections. The pathway needs to be fed regularly to stay intact. It is for this reason that sheer willpower alone is normally not enough to break a habit. But, the good news is that the same repetition that developed the habit can be used to bring it to an end.
Since a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows, there is a formula you can follow to change a habit. The formula requires identifying the elements that, when combined to form the cycle, develop into your habit. Begin the process by detecting the routine or behavior you want to change.
The next step is to determine what the cue for the routine is. To identify which craving is the driving force behind your habitual cue, it can be isolated into one of five categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, or immediately preceding action.
Finally, ascertain what the reward actually is in return for your behavior. Properly identifying the reward is a critical element in changing a habit since it is why the synapses trigger a cue for the routine to take place. Experiment with different rewards until you are able to isolate what it is you are actually craving. For instance, you may think that the reward for going to the coffee shop to get coffee daily at the same time is the coffee itself when the actual reward triggering the habit could be because you crave interacting with the people who are there at that time of day.
Knowing the cue, routine and reward of the habit allows us to re-design the formula. Instead of allowing the subconscious to run the habit on autopilot, we need to begin making conscious choices again. Consider various ways you can supplant old vices with new routines. Every day that you implement a new routine serves to develop new neural pathways until the old ones formed of the bad habit loop wither and detach, thereby breaking the habit.