That habit of eating candy every afternoon can sabotage weight loss and impact all aspects of health — from a blood sugar spike to brain fog to tooth decay — and if it feels impossible to break, that’s by design.
The brain is a “habit machine,” built that way by evolution to help make navigating life easier, said Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist and psychology professor at Stanford University in California.
Habits automate routine tasks, such as making breakfast or choosing the route to work, helping us avoid decision paralysis at every step, he writes in his recently-published book, “Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick,” told TODAY.
“People sometimes think about habits as a bad thing, but habits are there because they let us not have to think about what we're doing as we go throughout the world,” Poldrack told TODAY.
Habits are “sticky,” or difficult to get rid of once you have them, because our brains evolved to think the world would be similar from day to day — so why change? Studies show only about a third of people who make a change in their lives are able to maintain it for one year, he noted.
Habits can serve us well, but where things go wrong is that modern humans are faced with temptations designed to be incredibly rewarding — like that sweet or salty processed treat engineered to be highly palatable in ways that are almost addictive.
“The habit systems in our brains evolved in the context of a world where we didn't have potato chips and all these things that our brains find so stimulating compared to the little piece of fruit we might have found walking around wherever we were evolving tens of thousands of years ago,” Poldrack said.
“(It’s) part of why bad habits are so common in today's world.”
Willpower doesn’t play much of a role in changing a habit, it turns out. Here’s what works:
Change your mindset
Poldrack was a vegetarian for about 20 years, but he decided to switch to a meat-eating, low-carb diet for his health. For a long time after the change, he craved the chocolate candy he used to eat in the afternoon.
“The only thing that was powerful enough to overcome that was this kind of fundamental belief that I had to change who I was — not because I was ‘going on a diet’ and I had to do it in order to lose the weight, but because I thought fundamentally that this new way of eating was the only kind of healthy way of eating,” he said.
“It's kind of like a religious conversion in the sense that it's a change in fundamentally how you think about the world, what's right in the world, what’s good in the world and how you should live your life.”
He still eats some dessert on occasion, but in general sticks to a low-carb diet and has been able to maintain it for 10 years because of that mindset.
Don’t rely on willpower
The common view on willpower is just plain wrong, Poldrack writes in his book.
It's not that people with high self-control have a lot of desires and are really good at saying “no” to them in the moment — it’s that they just don't have as many desires to begin with, research shows. They seem better at developing good habits that might protect them from temptation.
So don’t think resisting a doughnut that’s right in front of you is just a matter of willpower.
“Our prefrontal cortex is just weak compared to our cravings and habits — and it's just worse if we're tired or stressed,” Poldrack said.
Plan ahead to avoid triggering the habit
Once you’re in the moment, it’s often too late. Design your life to avoid that moment in the first place by removing cues that trigger the behavior.
“Probably the best strategy that we know to help overcome a habit is to try to figure out what the temptations are and then, to the degree that you can, get them out of your life,” he noted.
“Think about how you plan to prevent yourself from getting sucked into the habit versus worrying about the ability to stop yourself once you're in the middle of it.”
Don’t pass by the candy vending machine in the afternoon. Avoid the break room if there’s a box of doughnuts on display. If you like going to the refrigerator at night to have some ice cream, don’t have ice cream in the house. Once the treats are within reach, the game is pretty much up.
Move to a new location
It’s obviously not practical for everyone, but moving to a new city seems to help people change their habits, Poldrack said. It’s a new-location-new-you kind of phenomenon. One study found people who were able to successfully make a change in their lives were almost three times as likely to have moved compared to “nonchangers,” he writes in his book.
Try ‘temptation bundling’
The idea is to let yourself do something you shouldn't in exchange for engaging in a more desired behavior. So if you have to eat something unhealthy, only do it on the way back from the gym.
Create reminders to create good habits
Often, the hardest part about creating good habits is just remembering “to do the thing,” Poldrack said.
He started wearing a bite guard for teeth grinding several months ago, but would sometimes wake up and realize he forgot to put it in. A sticky note on the mirror can make a big difference in staying on track.
Similarly, visible reminders to eat more fruits and vegetables or take a walk to the store instead of driving might help — anything you can do to create regular behavior that can ultimately become habit.
Think of the big picture
Nobody is perfect so there will be setbacks in your quest to change a habit. Don’t give up.
“People should give themselves and others a break when it comes to changing behavior and changing bad habits because our brains are built to make it difficult to do that,” Poldrack said.