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Is it possible to break a bad habit?

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Breaking bad habits and forming better ones is a type of learning, something we do throughout our lives, so it is possible to change habits at any age.

Our ability to learn new facts and skills continues right through life, into the ninth decade and beyond (should we get that far). At a neural level, recent evidence suggests that ‘neurogenesis’ (the growth of new nerve cells, or ‘neurons’) also persists through life, and this may play a role in learning and storing new information.


I mention all this because acquiring new habits, and breaking old ones, is essentially a form of learning. The uplifting implication, then, is that it’s definitely worth trying to change your ways. In fact, with the right approach, you still have a very good chance of learning better habits, whether that’s eating healthier, doing more exercise, drinking less alcohol, or watching less trash on television (no judgment – we all do!).

Some basic advice in this regard is to pay attention to the cues or prompts that automatically trigger your bad habits and then practise alternative, preferable behaviours instead – ideally ones that serve a similar need or that you find enjoyable in some way. Alternatively, avoid the triggers of your bad habits in the first place by changing up your routine. Another powerful approach is to establish and rehearse some basic ‘if-then’ intentions, the more specific the better, such as: “if it is three o’clock, then I will go for a brisk walk”.

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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.


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