How to break bad habits using neuroscience

break bad habits

What are habits?

Your brain is fundamentally lazy.

When it can, it wires thoughts, emotions, or behaviours into circuits deep below the surface, where they become automated. Automated thoughts, feelings or behaviours are habits. And habits allow your brain to work on autopilot.

During a day, hundreds of habits—automated chunks of thought, emotion, or behaviour—come online and offline, usually with little conscious awareness.

Some habits you might think of as good are washing your hands after you visit the bathroom, brushing your teeth, or meditating daily.

Others you may consider ‘bad’ (unwanted is probably a more useful word), such as always being plugged into social media, negative self-talk or snacking on junk food.

But in reality, most of your habits are neutral—by habit, you drive along the same roads to work, position yourself in the same spot in a gym class, fill your shopping cart with the same food at the same supermarket, and tune your ears into the same music.

The defining features of habits

Good, bad, or neutral, neuroscientists have found that all habits have a few defining features:

  1. Habits are learned over time by being repeatedly, usually in pursuit of a goal.
  2. Habits are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.
  3. Habits are performed automatically, often with little conscious awareness or motivation.
  4. Habits are persistent—once formed, they are very hard to break. 

Where Habits Are Stored in the Brain

When we start learning something new, our prefrontal cortex (PFC) and brain networks involved in the action (e.g. motor cortex) is super active. But as we keep practising the skill (or thought, or behaviour), the PFC hands over the new skill to a deep brain structure called the basal ganglia, where they’re stored for easy access. This neural-handover is why new skills can be challenging at first (they require a lot of brain power) but get easier and feel more natural over time.

Your brain’s coordination centre for habits is called the striatum, which is located deep beneath the cortex and forms part of the basal ganglia.

The striatum is richly connected to the PFC (involved in higher-order thinking, feeling, and sensing) and the midbrain.

The midbrain provides input from dopamine-containing neurons (brain cells). Dopamine is a brain chemical strongly associated with creating positive feelings related to rewards and events of emotional significance.

Once a habit is stored, another brain region—the infralimbic cortex—causes you to carry out the habit when triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.

A malfunctioning striatum is seen when habits become disordered, such as obsessive-compulsive behaviours and addiction.

How Habits Form

Consider how negative self-talk, a common and damaging bad habit, forms. Negative self-talk is the inner voice in your mind that repeats a subtle yet demeaning running commentary. Examples include:

  • “I’m useless; I’ll never succeed.”
  • “I never look good in any outfit.”
  • “I’m a bad parent; my children will grow up and hate me. They deserve so much better.”

As you repeat a negative statement repeatedly to yourself, neurons in the prefrontal-striatal-midbrain circuit fire together repeatedly. The connections between neurons strengthen, and eventually, the circuit wires together, storing the thought as a habit.

This is where the mantra “Neurons that fire together wire together” comes into play. Turning a thought into an enduring habit is brain plasticity in action.

Use Neuroscience to Break Bad Habits

So, how do you break a bad habit? Neuroscience research provides two clues:

  • Habits are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.
  • Habits are persistent—once formed, they are very hard to break.

Therefore, to break the habit:

  • Learn to recognise the trigger for your bad habit.
  • Wire a new healthy or positive habit to override the bad habit trigger.

Breaking your bad habit could be achieved by carefully paying attention to what, where, when, and why your habit is triggered. Once you recognize the trigger, the trick is to consciously and mindfully repeat your new desired behaviour, action, or thought instead. Like forming the old habit, you must repeat this process repeatedly until the new habit is wired to the old trigger—eventually masking the old habit.

For example, in the first few years after having my boys, my negative inner voice was automatically triggered when loading or emptying the dishwasher. I’d habitually tell myself, “Your children deserve a better mother … you can’t even empty a dishwasher without crying.” I learned to recognise that opening the dishwasher door was my ‘trigger’. I now use the opening of the dishwasher door to practice mindful and careful loading and unloading of crockery and cutlery. Over time, I replaced negative self-talk with a mindfulness practice.

Old habits never die (it’s not lack of willpower)

Of course, the process of breaking bad habits is not always easy. However, choosing a new habit that is enjoyable and rewarding will engage the dopaminergic neurons in your prefrontal cortex-striatal-midbrain circuit and make the process of wiring in the new habits quicker and easier.

Also, understand that old habits never die; instead, they become masked by new habits, and you may sometimes experience a momentary relapse. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall back into your old ways. It isn’t a lack of willpower or some moral failing on your part. It’s your neurobiology in action.

Instead, mindfully pick yourself up. Treat yourself with compassion. And put into practice your new positive habit once again.

As Artistole once said,

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

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  1. Shirley Woods on May 25, 2016 at 9:40 am

    Thanks for the newsletters! There is always some very valuable information. I am reading several books on the brain and I am in awe of what has been accomplished over the last decade.

    Thanks again,

  2. Mark Jankelson on May 25, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    Great suggestions Sarah. As an executive coach the other thing I suggest to my clients is to enlist the support of trusted others in this process. Kind of like a “guardian angel” who is prepared to provide feedback and commentary in the moment in order to make the unconscious conscious.

  3. Julie on May 28, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    Love love love this.

  4. Felix on May 30, 2016 at 5:01 am

    My first time blog to your very well comprehensive area of neuroscience! With regards to Naomi and her child and lack of commitment. My own son, now 30, at 6 showed signs of ADHD. We enrolled him in tae-kwondo, and became very committed with deligent practice and passion. He became an national and international competitor, excelled in academics and other sports, and the arts. He suffered physical injuries, brief depression when he loss horribly. We have 2 other children who showed passion in other areas. We did not discourage only encouraged. And when they stopped, we said they were looking for commitment in other areas, and they found them! They also had a lot of support from others and other sources, other than us as parents. I didn’t find my passion and career until I turned 30. And now after 37 years as an MSW, mental health therapist, can identify, understand, and support others who are so called “late bloomers”. Stay Well, Live Aloha (I’m Hawaiian)

  5. francisco frannie on September 6, 2016 at 12:21 am

    Great comments – Coincidentally if you are wanting a CA TR-205 , my boss edited a fillable form here

  6. Jimmy on February 10, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    Dear Dr McKay,

    This is my first time here, and I have been following your neuroscience work for a while because I have benefited from a transformation of my own bad habits into something greater. Years ago, I beat my alcohol addiction and had lived a very different live since. I am still changing and experimenting with my own habits. I truly believe we are the sum of all our good and bad habits. If we learn to increase our good habits and reduce our bad ones, we will lead a successful life.

    Your work provides excellent scientific grounding for many of the transformative experiences of habit change which is why I am so interested. I do a lot study on this area of study on my own too and hope to be involve in ‘habit therapy’ for others one day. Right now, being a teacher is already honing my other skills.

    Regarding this post on breaking habits through neuroscience, I could not agree more. I find that once your are able to recognize your triggers, great things begin to happen. It is when you are aware of the impending arrival of your triggers that activates your prefrontal cortex to help you with reasoning, willpower, and all. Without the awareness of triggers you just go into autopilot mode.

    Hence, trigger recognition is key and I found Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit, very useful in helping us to find our triggers. Would you have anything to add regarding helping people recognizing their triggers?

    Sorry for the long post.


  7. Thomas A Mckernan on June 11, 2018 at 12:51 am

    Thanks Dr Mckay, for offering to teach me about my mind.

  8. Alex on April 13, 2021 at 8:33 am

    Dr Mckay thanks for this service, you provide a lot of meaning to the chaos of the reality…

  9. Alex Martinez on February 4, 2024 at 4:00 am

    Dr Mckay, thanks so much for your work and this article. could share some technical papers that explain this process “But as we keep practising the skill (or thought, or behaviour), the PFC hands over the new skill to a deep brain structure called the basal ganglia, where they’re stored for easy access.” that would be very helpful for a homework. thanks a lot. Alex Martinez

    • Sarah McKay on February 4, 2024 at 2:29 pm

      I’ve added a link under ‘neural-handover’. Cheers

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