A Psychology Professor Reveals How to Break Bad Habits Once and for All

January 26, 2017, 1:00 AM UTC

This article is part of Tools of the Trade, a weekly series in which a variety of experts share actionable tips for achieving fast and effective results on everything from forming good habits to raising money.

This week Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at New York University who specializes in the relationship between goals and behavior, offers his take on how to develop better habits.

Everyone has bad habits. Maybe you snack when you’re distressed, and drink too much when relaxing with friends. Or maybe you waste too much time on social media, and get into too unnecessary arguments with colleagues, friends, and family.

To change these bad habits, friends and therapists might say you simply have to make it your goal, and down the road – if you just try hard enough – you will get rid of them. However, extensive research in the science of motivation has shown that there is a wide disparity between having the goal of controlling one’s bad habits and actually doing so. This is true for bad habits relating to all domains of life including health, work, and one’s social life. So what can you do to reduce these gaps?

In my research in the U.S. and Germany on the self-regulation of goal pursuit, I discovered that people have to make plans on how to implement their goals. The most effective plans are those that specify when, where and how you want to act on your goals by using an “if-then” format. Take drinking too much in the company of your friends as an example. In the “if” part of the plan, you identify the critical situation that usually triggers your bad habit. Perhaps the trigger is being offered a drink by your friends. In the “then” part, you specify an action that can halt accepting the offer such as responding to it by saying that you prefer a glass of water today. And then you link the “if” and the “then” parts together by making an “if-then” plan: “If on Friday evening my friends offer me a drink, then I will answer: I prefer to have a glass of water today!”

Sound too simple? Well, an endless line of studies published in peer-reviewed journals conducted with children, adults, and old to very old people around the world have shown that “if-then” plans significantly increase the rate of goal attainment. This is true for goals in the health, achievement and interpersonal domain, for people from different cultural and social backgrounds, and even for people who have problems with self-regulation in general (e.g., children with ADHD, people who suffer from addictions, frontal lobe patients).

How can simple “if-then” plans be so effective in achieving behavior change? In laboratory experiments, we discovered that these plans make performing the behavior specified in the “then” part much easier when the critical situation is encountered. The person no longer has to tell herself that she wants to break a bad habit and then try hard to do so. Rather, encountering the critical situation specified in the “if” part triggers the pre-planned response in a fast, effortless, and incidental manner. Since the “if-then” plan delegates the initiation of the planned response to the specified critical situation, it is taken out of the hands of the person who – as a consequence – no longer has to play the role of the willful “controller” of her actions. Instead, she now makes a pre-programmed, almost automatic response.

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It is not difficult to learn to make good “if-then” plans. You only have to detect the personal critical situations that trigger your bad habits, and you have to identify those behaviors that you can and want to perform instead of the habitual ones. Gabriele Oettingen, a colleague at New York University, has developed an App called WOOP (Wish-Outcome-Obstacle-Plan) that guides you through a number of steps helping you to specify the “if” parts and the “then” parts of the “if-then” plans needed.

So if you do not want to fall prey to your bad habit of checking emails whenever there is a free moment, just make the following “if-then” plan: If I find a moment of quiet time tonight, then I will download the WOOP App.