How to Banish Bad Habits and Control Temptations

Part of the reason habits are so difficult to change is they are triggered unconsciously, often by situations we've encountered time and time again. Before going into the bathroom: turn on the light. After getting new email: waste 10 minutes aimlessly surfing the web.

New research published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests the top strategies to combat bad habits were:

  • Vigilant monitoring: watching out for slip-ups and saying “Don't do it!” to yourself.
  • Distraction: trying to think about something else.
  • Stimulus control: removing the opportunity to perform the habit, say by leaving the bar, fast-food restaurant or electronics store.

So, why does vigilant monitoring work for habits but not for temptations?  Quinn et al. argue that it doesn't work for temptations because watching out for slip-ups heightens our attention to the temptation which we are, ironically, once again tempted by. Stimulus control, though, removes the opportunity: out of sight, out of mind.

Unlike temptations, habits are learnt by repetition and so they can sneak in under the radar. We find ourselves repeating them without thinking. Vigilant monitoring probably works because it helps us notice the habit and remember that we wanted to change it.

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The Study