Oft have I mentioned Aristotle’s great insight about therapy: the best way to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. It’s far more effective than just trying to break a bad habit.
Now, Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin has discovered that Aristotle was right. Since he does not credit the philosopher, I suspect that he learned it independently.
New York Magazine reports:
If you're trying to break a bad habit — don't. You're better off replacing an unwanted behavior with a better (or at least neutral) one than trying to teach yourself to stop doing something altogether, according to Art Markman, a University of Texas at Austin psychologist who studies how people learn.
Markman explains why this works and why it’s so difficult just to break a bad habit:
Here’s the place where most people fail when they’re [trying to] change behaviors. They start by saying, I need to stop biting my nails. Now, the problem with that is that’s a negative goal. Why is that a problem? Because it’s something you don’t want to do. And the reason that that’s a problem is because your habit learning system is an active system. It wants to associate behaviors with the environment. If you say I don’t want to do something, then what you’re doing is focusing yourself on not acting.
When Markman discovered that he had been biting his nails while he was reading at his desk, he bought himself some desk toys. Instead of biting his nails he fiddled with the toys.
His desk is now littered with a Slinky, a toy car, and figurines of Gumby and Poky, among other baubles. Apparently he just needed something to fiddle with as he read silently at his desk, because it worked; he hasn't reverted to his nail-biting habit in years. Although now, he says, "I'm addicted to desk toys."
Another obvious example comes from Alcoholics Anonymous. To overcome the habit of going to a bar and having a few drinks after work, AA tells people to go to AA meetings… even to make a habit of it.