Are you trying to lose weight? Begin an exercise program? Give up junk food? If you've struggled with giving up a bad habit, or trying to create a new one, don't be too hard on yourself; it's not a personal weakness or lack of self-control. Turns out, there's a whole science behind habit formation.

Nature hardwired humans to give greater value to an immediate reward (that piece of chocolate cake) rather than a delayed reward (losing 10 pounds). Temptations are rooted in visceral impulses, highly adaptive mechanisms that motivate behavior towards satisfying needs. Visceral impulses compromise our ability to resist temptation.

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is behind it all. Dopamine conditions our brain to want rewards again and again. Furthermore, our brain memorizes rituals and routines, especially for overeating. So if you typically eat your chocolate cake in the evening in front of the TV, every time you sit down to watch TV, your body associates that with eating cake.

A psychological phenomenon called restraint bias makes breaking old habits even more difficult. It seems we tend to overestimate our capacity for impulse control, so we expose ourselves to temptation, which promotes impulse behavior.

Kick the Habit

Here are a few tips for successfully changing a habit.

1. Keep repeating the new, desired behavior. Nature designed our brains to conserve energy for important things related to survival, so we automatically revert to habits; they require less brain energy. Successfully making a change requires intense, uninterrupted concentration and repetition. Don't worry; it only takes a few weeks to create a new habit.

2. Eliminate rituals associated with bad habits. Change the context (sitting in front of the TV in the evening). Context has a strong influence on our bad habit circuit.

3. Reduce stress. Stress causes our body to release the hormone cortisol, which inhibits the frontal lobe of the brain and makes us revert to behaviors that don't require conscious decisions. In other words, it impairs areas of our brain that need to be active to change.

4. Take a page from the AA manual. Learn what you can-and can't-control, and develop strategies for coping with those things beyond your control. This will help you reduce your stress.

5. Reward yourself. Rewarding yourself for the desired behavior engages the dopamine system so the brain learns to associate positive outcomes with the action and helps you form the new habit. Make the reward timely; remember, we want immediate rewards.

6. Exercise. It raises dopamine levels, making it easier to break bad habits.


Nordgren, Loran F., van Harreveld, Frenk, and van der Pligt, Joop. "The Restraint Bias: How the Illusion of Self-Restraint Promotes Impulsive Behavior." Psychological Science 2009. Web.