What does it mean to break a habit

Changing Habits: 8 Steps + 66 Days to New Life!

Humans are creatures of habits. A large part of our behavior takes place unconsciously and is controlled by habits. Through rituals and routines. The way to the office is always the same, as is the first pick for coffee in the morning. It is these established automatisms that make our lives easier on the one hand because they do not unnecessarily burden our thinking apparatus. But life on autopilot can also put a strain on our everyday lives - especially if the habits are harmful and we want to change them. We'll show you how to do it - in 8 steps ...

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

➠ Content: This is what awaits you

What are habits?

Habits - these are processes and behaviors that usually run automatically and unconsciously. "Between 30 and 50 percent of our daily actions are determined by habits," says Bas Verplanken, for example, a social psychologist at the University of Bath in England. He's been researching habits for more than 20 years.

How does a habit come about?

Neuroscientists locate our habits in the bilateral nuclei of our brain below the cerebral cortex - in the so-called basal ganglia. For example, when we learn new skills and behavior patterns, the cerebral cortex becomes active first. This is where the headquarters for our conscious action is located, which can also be observed on the computer tomograph. The more we practice this and are successful, the more this process becomes independent and the brain signals migrate deeper and deeper into the brain - until they are finally established as a routine in the basal ganglia. We have literally internalized the habit.

Why is it so hard to change?

A full 95 percent of our daily decisions do not even reach our consciousness, has found out Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman. We meet them practically as if on autopilot. That is why there is no point in getting to grips with routines and bad habits at work with appeals and education. No matter how convincing savings plans and modernization programs are: Arguments do not achieve our usual behavior - they simply escape our minds.

Sometimes that's a good thing. Routines relieve our brain. Each new stimulus requires attention, concentration, and mental processing. That costs a lot of energy. Our brain therefore strives to riualize recurring processes. That gives us stability and security. At the same time, we don't have to think about it anymore. This saves mental energy for other tasks.


If you want to change your life, you have to change your habits first.

The 3 components of a habit

In order to be able to change habits, one must first understand what elements they are made up of and how habits work. The author Charles Duhigg ("The Power of Habit") once summed it up as follows: A habit - whether good or bad - consists of three components:

  • Lust: The reason or trigger why you pick up a cigarette or coffee. This can be a specific time, an event or a feeling.
  • reward: It is the real reason why habits manifest themselves and become automatisms. From a biochemical point of view, this is the result of the associated release of the reward messenger substance dopamine in the brain. Habits are therefore also comparable to an addiction.
  • routine: The regular repetition of a certain action or a typical behavior pattern: the butt after waking up, the schnapps after lunch, ...

Self-test: This is how strong your habits are

Pleasure and reward are the strongest bonds. But the power of routine should not be underestimated either. There is also a nice self-test: Please try the following:

Please fold your hands as if in prayer: fingers interlocked, thumbs on top of each other. Finished? Now please only change the position of your thumbs so that the usually lower one is on top!



How does it feel: unusual? Unpleasant? Unbearable? The US psychologist Dawna Markova has found that it takes people around two weeks to get used to such a simple attitude. Until then, the brain will incessantly fire alarm signals to the conscious mind: “Alarm! Something's wrong here. ”And that's only because two thumbs are not on top of each other as usual! It is hard to imagine what happens when we want to get rid of much heavier habits ...

The irony effect

“Never get fat again! Never smoke again! ”- You know such resolutions. Unfortunately, they have an ironic echo: the more and the louder we say we want to do something “never again”, the greater the likelihood that we will do it again. Scientists working with Marieke Adriaanse from the University of Utrecht have examined this so-called "irony effect" in more detail and found that such avoidance measures for undesirable behavior are extremely inefficient. And that they lead to the opposite effect all the more often: We smoke and eat as if there were no tomorrow. One reason: our brain cannot think “not”. Now please do NOT try to think of a pink elephant! What are you thinking of Exactly: pink elephants. This is how negative resolutions work too: They reinforce the message and awareness of what you actually want to avoid.

Changing habits in 8 steps

So as not to stir up false expectations: Getting rid of a long-cherished and cherished habit is not a children's birthday party. That doesn't happen overnight and requires a lot of work, perseverance and self-discipline. But it works! The following 8 steps have proven themselves a thousand times over and are essential for success:

1. Recognize habit

The first step to permanently (!) Get rid of a annoying habit is the simplest: Identify and name the bad habit that you want to get rid of. Then put an end to it - for good and without exception! Otherwise you risk relapse. After all, alcoholics who want to get dry are not allowed to drink any more schnapps.

2. Identify the trigger

There are certain triggers for every (bad) habit. In psychology these are called “triggers”. For example, some people always reach for chocolate when they are frustrated. Triggers can generally be: emotions (moods), places, times of day or time, people (presence), actions (behavior). By identifying these triggers, you can break through the automatism - and counter it with an alternative (see next point).

3. Find an alternative

Think of a sensible or healthy alternative to the bad habit. For example, chewing (sugar-free) gum instead of picking up a cigarette. Important: You should enjoy the new habit-to-be, and you should be convinced that it makes sense. For example, the psychologist Jeff Stone from the University of Arizona in Tucson was able to show that people who want to change a habit have to believe that their new resolution or purpose is really important and right (see also this experiment on the use of condoms at a university, PDF).

4. Replace custom

The best way to get rid of bad habits is to replace them with better ones right away. There, where you break the habit of annoying things, there are dangerous spaces. You should immediately fill them with something meaningful. Idling only increases the risk of relapse. Instead, the first success is soon followed by the next. This is confirmed, for example, by studies by the US psychologist Roy Baumeister: He wanted his students to live healthier lives. Instead of giving long lectures on healthy eating, he only let her lift dumbbells for two months. Effect: The participants were not only fitter afterwards, but also ate healthier and drank less alcohol. Once you began to consciously pay attention to a habit, you also paid attention to the rest of your behavior. Some also speak of one in this context Habit loop.

5. Reward successes

With all the work (on yourself), fun shouldn't be neglected. So reward yourself for your first and small successes! In this way, your subconscious also learns that the new habit is worthwhile. Psychologists would also speak of “positive conditioning” here.

6. Look for supporters

Talk about your successes publicly (for example on Facebook) - that is disciplined. Anyone who feels they are being watched creates helpful social pressure - and may also receive suggestions, positive feedback and be cheered on. In general: Find like-minded people and supporters. Above all, in order to be able to better overcome setbacks and relapses (comparable to the “Alcoholics Anonymous” program). Because these will come!

7. Avoid temptation

Avoid anything that leads you to old routines. Do you want to lose weight? Then don't buy any chocolate in the first place! And don't go outside the door for a smoking break either.

8. Practice discipline

The last step is probably the hardest. Because now it's just a matter of persevering. For a while. In fact, changing habits or abandoning them takes a lot of time and patience. Especially if you want to break bad habits, you have to stick with it. But it's worth it: Maintaining good habits and, above all, the “right” habits is a key to a contented, successful and happy life.

How long does it take to change a habit?

It takes a full 66 days to establish a new habit. This is the result of studies by the psychologist Phillippa Lally from University College in London. In the experiment, she asked her test subjects to acquire a new routine within 84 days: take a 15-minute walk every day; Do 50 sit-ups every morning and eat a piece of fruit for lunch. The test subjects recorded their progress on a daily basis. Result: The phase from consciously performing an activity to becoming an automated habit lasted an average of 66 days.

Another, albeit less surprising, result of the study is that complex habits take about 1.5 times more time to turn into automatisms. After all, skipping a day with it has little effect on the learning process. The good news from this: If you want to acquire a new habit, you can slut for a day or two to achieve your goal. The bad: you have to work on it in a disciplined manner for at least two months and persevere.

Changing habits: this prevents success

Relapses and success blocks are often based on three typical mistakes that stand in our way and prevent us from getting rid of bad habits:

Unknown triggers

Every habit is ultimately based on one or more triggers - stress, boredom, lovesickness or job frustration. If these remain undetected and untreated, you live in constant struggle with these temptations. It is essential to identify the exact trigger stimulus!

Wrong motivation

To break routines, you need discipline. But that depends on your motivation. Why do you want to give yourself a break? Or is there something else behind it? You can only persevere if you have the right motivation.

Too much at once

For years we have (unconsciously) trained our habits, now they run off automatically. So never try to break more than one habit at a time. That seldom succeeds. It is better to concentrate all energies on one annoying routine first. "When it comes to big goals, it helps to break them down into small steps - and to reward each of them," advises brain researcher Gerhard Roth, for example. "In doing so, you should increase the intervals between the rewards and vary their type." Otherwise these would also become a habit - and thus useless.

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Bonus: An autobiography in five chapters

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in
I am lost ... I am without hope.
It's not my fault.
It takes forever to get out again.

I am walking down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I'm in the same place again.
But it's not my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

I am walking down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it.
I still fall in ... out of habit.
My eyes are open
I know where i am
It's my fault.
I'll come out right away.

I am walking down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I go around it.

I go another street.

Portia Nelson, Songwriter and artist
[Photo credit: Karrierebibel.de]