Can we change bad habits permanently?

Establishing new habits is easier than shedding old ones


Read on one side

"Without outside help, it is next to impossible to change the personality in a targeted manner on a large scale," says neuroscientist Gerhard Roth. If people want to radically change their lives, a study by scientists at Harvard University showed, New Year's Eve resolutions are not enough. Large behavioral changes are often related to serious illness, divorce, job change, or a new reference group - they happen when the context changes. "In these so-called teachable moments, habits are broken at times. You have to reorient yourself, rethink your own behavior and look for information," says Verplanken. Those who strive for change have the best chance in these moments.

In the case of large goals, it also helps to break them down into small steps - and reward each of them. "Instead of emulating a big goal, you agree with yourself on small steps for which you think up small self-rewards," says Roth. One should increase the intervals between the rewards and vary them in their nature - so that they do not become a habit and thus useless.

So Rugel hadn't made up his mind that he would never drink again in his life - that would have robbed him of the strength to do without immediately. The goal of Alcoholics Anonymous is to leave the first glass today. Rugel kept the rule even more open: "Not now," he said to himself. Every temptation he had resisted gave him courage. Even small successes drive you and can help you through a difficult beginning.

When it comes to eating habits, scientists assume that it takes at least three years for the new behavior to become stable. For the first time after five years of abstinence, Herbert Rugel felt somewhat immune to reaching for the bottle. But even today, 28 years later, he regularly goes to self-help meetings. The danger of returning to the beaten path remains.

Establishing a new one is a bit easier than shedding an old habit. Buckling up in the car or putting your plate in the sink after eating - you quickly get used to such less complex activities. Others, like exercising regularly, are more expensive. The recipe for success: The desired behavior must be coupled with a clear trigger and then reinforced by a reward.

Early morning athletes, for example, can put their running shoes right next to the bed and put them on as soon as they get up. "At the beginning you have to do it very consciously," says Julia Thurn. The sports scientist is doing her doctorate at the University of Stuttgart on habit strength and physical activity. The goal is for our brain to link standing up and seeing our running shoes with jogging and for us to act automatically. However, this only works if it succeeds in generating a desire, and that requires a good reward. The vague prospect of getting slimmer at some point is not enough. The wages must be specific and direct, such as a nice breakfast.

Thurn recommends keeping a list of ticking the box each time after exercising, and after ten ticks there is a reward, such as a massage. Gerhard Roth also advises external pressure. By arranging to meet others, for example. Here, too, a plan helps. "What do I do? Where? How? With whom? This makes the goal clearer - the first prerequisite for achieving it," says Thurn. And something else belongs in the plan. What happens if it suddenly rains, if unexpected visitors appear? "You let yourself be deterred from something like that once or twice, you feel inconsistent and then often let it stay away", says Thurn. A so-called if-then plan helps: if visitors come unexpectedly, I take them for a walk.

Once you have passed the first hurdle to establish a new trigger, the habit becomes a sure-fire success. People who go jogging regularly will sooner or later feel the urge to go outside. People who are used to eating fruit automatically crave it after a while. Being able to arouse a desire in us is also a tempting prospect for companies - they have long since discovered the potential of habits for themselves. Human resources departments, product development laboratories and entire floors of management are now dealing with their mechanisms.

The example of a refrigerator parts manufacturer in Ireland shows the power of habits. Managers wanted employees at the Galway site to cycle to work. They promised themselves a greener image and a more balanced staff. The way you get to work, however, is considered a particularly deeply rooted habit because so many things are interwoven with it: time is short in the morning, the children still have to be taken to school, shopping needs to be done. In addition, Ireland is not just an area to cycle in because of the damp weather - the traffic is also considered dangerous for cyclists.

"Routines in organizations and institutions are standardized interaction processes. Some of them are planned by management, but can also arise spontaneously. Their value lies in the fact that they become a habit," says Ulrich Witt, head of the Department of Evolutionary Economics at the Max Planck Institute for Economics in Jena. Safety standards are a typical example of this: If safety is important in a factory, there are clear instructions and training. It is crucial that the safety routines become a habit for employees, which they no longer have to think about in dangerous situations. "Routines decide how burdens, tasks, earnings and information are distributed - and they can protect against abuse of power," says Witt.

The managers in Ireland couldn't order their employees to leave the car at home, they had to get them to do it voluntarily. The program began with "Earth Day": after the lunch break, the conveyor belts stopped, there was music, a bike that you could use to mix a smoothie while pedaling, and a competition. The prize was a trip to an island. The only thing the participants had to do was form a team of three and leave the car at home as often as possible for five weeks. Every time someone came by bike or on foot, his team received a point.

"The social component was the deciding factor," says Barbara Hei├čerer, who accompanied the project as a doctoral student. The employees began to share their experiences with puddles in the corridors and on a specially set up website. Some raved about how relaxed they came home by bike.

Social pressure and recognition help. The company built showers for those who arrived sweaty or drenched in rain, and provided information about government subsidies for buying bicycles. "Cycling suddenly became something that was cool. Those who often came by bike became role models," says Hei├čerer. "There was a real hype." So the trip to the island had become completely unimportant at the end of the competition.