Trying to Break a Bad Habit? New Research Suggests You’re Doing It Wrong

Authored by

NLI Staff
Despite what you may think, trying not to do a behavior can actually reinforce it.

Key Points:

  • To build a new habit, we often need to unlearn an old one.
  • New research suggests that choosing the wrong habit-building strategy might actually make the bad habit stronger.
  • Applying these findings can help individuals and organizations change undesired behaviors.

Chayton, a recently promoted manager, is feeling overwhelmed with his new work responsibilities. As a result, he’s started taking work home with him, spending most of the weekend checking items off his list. It’s helped significantly with his workload but not with his family or well-being. After losing his cool with his children a few times, he decides to stop bringing work home on the weekend. To break this habit, he sets an alert on his phone for Saturday mornings, telling himself not to open his computer except for a few hours on Sunday afternoon. For a while, his plan seems to be working. He enjoys the weekend and returns to work refreshed and better able to focus. But then he starts a new project, and his meetings and workload increase. Without realizing it, he silences the alert, opens his computer on Saturday morning, and the weekend is lost in work.

Building a new habit is hard. It takes time and attention, and the challenge is only made greater if there’s an older habit in its place that needs to be unlearned. Organizations face a similar challenge — but at a much larger scale: getting hundreds, if not thousands, of employees to learn and act on a new set of behaviors.

In addition to communicating the new desired behaviors, a common approach is telling employees what not to do: “Remember, don’t multitask in virtual meetings. Instead, put your phone away and close other browser tabs.” It seems reasonable enough, yet most organizational change initiatives struggle to succeed. One possible reason, new research suggests, is that in the realm of habit formation, actively reminding someone what not to do may actually strengthen the undesired behavior.

The neuroscience of making (and breaking) habits

We all have habits — ingrained behaviors that we default to automatically. They can be as simple as making your bed every morning or as complex as driving to work along the same route while eating breakfast and doing your makeup. These habits generally occur outside of conscious awareness, and once they develop, they can be performed with little thought or attention, even under pressure or stress.

Habits are acquired gradually through an associative learning process, where experiences or topics become mentally linked to one another, and that involves practice and attention. At a neural level, new synaptic connections form between sensory and motor areas of the brain, and they strengthen over the course of learning and reinforcement. As long as we practice the behaviors, the connections get stronger.

Organizations may need to encourage their employees to build new habits if their behaviors aren’t aligned with organizational goals or interfere with their performance. Not only is this a time-consuming process, but it also must coincide with the unlearning of ineffective habits. The mechanism for losing a habit is the opposite of how one forms — synaptic connections become weaker over time, eventually being lost. But until this happens, it’s very easy for old habits to resurface, particularly when you’re stressed or cognitively overwhelmed.

Don’t think about the pink elephant

If you’ve ever tried to break a bad habit by reminding yourself what not to do, you’re not alone — it’s a natural human reaction. However, recent research suggests this may actually hurt your ability to overwrite the old habit with the new one.

In the study, researchers explored the impact of active suppression — reminding yourself not to do something — on the acquisition of a new habit and the simultaneous unlearning of an old one. The study participants were asked to learn rules about when to respond to images on a screen, with the researchers recording how quickly they reacted to the triggers. On the following day, they performed a similar task but with different rules. As they were learning the new rules, some participants were told to actively suppress how they wanted to react.

Interestingly, the researchers found that all participants were able to form the new habit. However, when people learned the new habit by actively suppressing the old one, the old habit remained alongside the new one. Active suppression actually worked against the unlearning process, making the older behavior even stronger than before.

Here’s what to think about instead

Instead of trying to actively suppress an old habit, here are three brain-based tactics to try when you want to change a behavior.

Put systems in place. Make sure it’s easy to engage in a new habit by setting up systems that reinforce the desired behavior. For example, organizations that want to encourage better focus during virtual meetings can restructure the way they conduct meetings, such as adding a requirement for cameras to be on. They could also shorten meetings by 10 minutes, with an alert that indicates when the meeting should end. This system would give people a few extra minutes to attend to other tasks before their next meeting, reducing the temptation to multitask.

Realize the power of social pressure. We’re incredibly sensitive to social pressure or social norms, especially in the form of role modeling from leaders. Role modeling acts as a positive reinforcement of what good behavior looks like, leading to quicker learning and stronger neural connections. For example, if managers turn on their cameras during meetings and make it a point to share when they’re putting their phone away and closing other tabs, others will be more likely to engage in those behaviors.

Embrace a growth mindset. The best way to accomplish change is with a growth mindset, the belief that skills can be improved over time with learning and effort. Building a new habit is difficult, and there may be setbacks, especially in the face of pressure. Recognizing small steps of progress is important. For the organization working to improve virtual meetings, some weeks may be busier than others, and people may find it difficult to avoid distraction by other tasks. However, facing this challenge with a growth mindset helps people recognize even small improvements, such as leaving their camera on for at least part of the meeting

Let’s go back to Chayton. After he decided to stop working on Saturdays, he made sure to set himself up for success. Instead of giving himself time on Saturday mornings to think about work or remind himself not to work, Chayton made a set of non-work plans, such as going to the gym with his family or meeting friends for breakfast. He also asked for help from his team and manager. They checked in with him on Fridays to share weekend plans with each other. Also, Chayton recognized there will be times when his workload increases. He shared these challenges with his team and manager, and together, they worked out a plan to help him get his work done without overrunning the entire weekend. Having a growth mindset made it easier to view increased workload or stress as just a bump in the road, and he was able to get back on track the next week. Before long, he was looking forward to Saturdays so much that he wasn’t even tempted to open his laptop.

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