Breaking Bad (Habits)

by Alexa DiCostanzo | 2/20/19 2:25am

How long does it take to break a bad habit? According to the European Journal of Social Psychology, it takes 66 days for the mind and body to accustom to meaningful, lasting change. Sixty-six days?! That’s an entire term at school here. We didn’t shoot out the womb addicted to our cell phones or playing pong. So what gives? 

Most of our habits aren’t bad at all. In fact, they are essential to our ability to function normally. We take the same route to class each day, for example, without thinking much about it. Habits, once engrained, save us massive cognitive effort, which frees up our brainpower to focus on more important things, like the new and unexpected. Without our habits, we’d waste an absurd amount of time each day deciding where to sit. 

The downside to the body’s propensity to form habits is that once patterns become routine, they are much more difficult to change. Our habits have a way of slipping beneath our consciousness, fading into the background of the given. Even when some habits no longer benefit us — drinking too much soda or speaking loudly in public, for instance — it’s hard to step back and think about them critically. And even when we do admit a need to change, oftentimes it feels like the short-term gratification outweighs the long-term benefits. (“I ate three corn dogs at Late Night last night,” a friend told me recently, offering a Snapchat photo as proof. “Two in one hand, one in the other. I always do stuff like this. I regretted it SO much this morning.”)

Dartmouth students share a lot of the same bad habits, and most are not embarrassed to admit that they haven’t changed them. Connor O’Leary ’19 is one such student. “I’ve never triumphed over anything,” O’Leary joked. “My bad habit is that bite my nails, but I still do that.”  

Nail-biting doesn’t hurt anyone, but negative thought patterns do. Some bad habits legitimate or necessitate our conscious effort to repattern ways of thinking. When asked about her own social predispositions, Emily Levine ’19 admitted to what she called hyper honesty. “If something’s actually bothering me, I will always say it,” she said. “It’s a bad habit because I can’t filter what I’m feeling.” 

“I’m sure a lot of people would say that is a good habit,” I told her.

“Well, yeah. Not saying what I really felt — that used to be my bad habit,” Levine said. “[Now] I’m compensating for the fact that I used to be scared to be honest and confrontative.” She thought for a moment. “A lot of habits I have now are [reactions] to previous habits I had of being too meek, too vulnerable, too scared.” She laughed and then added, “I have a habit now of genuinely trying to make people uncomfortable.” 

I asked her for an example.

“Sometimes when I pass people [on the street] who seem to have an attitude of ‘I’m better than others,’ I’ll start really obviously and disgustingly wipe my nose with my hand, or make it look like I’m picking my nose,” she said. This new habit, she explained, was replacement for an old one: the tendency to focus too much on the opinions of others.

“A lot of habits I have now are [reactions] to previous habits I had of being too meek, too vulnerable, too scared.”

The idea of replacing a bad habit with a good one corresponds to similar advice offered by Alex Eldredge ’19. With bad habits, she explained, “you don’t want to think in terms of restriction — in terms of what you’re getting rid of — but [in terms of] what you’re replacing.” It’s all about positive reinforcement, in other words. “If you replace a bad habit with a good habit, you’ll find there’s not enough space for the bad habit any more. You kind of edge it out,” she said. To take a page from Levine’s book: if you catch yourself worrying what others think, replace it with a habit to prove each time you don’t care at all. 

Eldredge’s wisdom stems from her own new personal experiment. “This term, I started making my bed every morning — which is something I’ve never done, embarrassingly. But it’s my priority. I don’t care if I’m running late. I will make the damn bed,” she said. “To be successful in a implementing a new habit, you have to make it your absolute number one priority.”

At Dartmouth, cell-phone addiction was another hang-up for most students. When I asked Warren Coleman ’22 which habit he felt most ashamed of, he didn’t hesitate in his answer: his cellphone usage. Most of us can probably relate to that — who wants to wait in a 35-minute-long Hop line without at least one mind-numbing distraction? But Felix Nyabuto ’21 had a different take. After using an app that recorded how many hours a day he spent on his iPhone, he discovered he had racked up a staggering six to seven hours a day staring into a tiny screen. 

“I was like, what? I’m spending a quarter of my day on my phone? That’s 25 percent of my life!” he said. “And there was no happiness that came out of that.” Now he leaves his phone in his dorm during the day, and checks notifications at 4 p.m. before he leaves again in the evening. 

“It gives me more time to interact,” Nyabuto explained. “Now if I’m at an event and it’s boring, I just talk to people.” 

For those of us born after 1995, this is a wild concept. I have witnessed that Millennials, while in a waiting room with strangers, tend to turn to their phones rather than interact with each other. Adults from older generations, on the other hand, smile, introduce themselves and start conversation more frequently than their younger counterparts. 

“I thought, I’m gonna stop recording s—t, and just look at it. And just share it, and just experience it,” Nyabuto explained. To live a mostly phoneless life: it’s an interesting thought. If we couldn’t send texts or Snaps, we’d probably get out of our houses and heads a lot more. It would get too lonely otherwise.

Forcing ourselves to break from routine is difficult. This becomes doubly true when that habit is instantly gratifying. Objectively, pushing off writing that paper until the day it’s due is not the greatest move. Yet when someone asks us if we’re going out the night before, an “I don’t know” often turns into “I guess I could, just for like 30 minutes — an hour, tops.” Maybe we tolerate bad habits until we acknowledge the long term as more important than the present. Ideally, our bad habits do not end as much as they evolve into something better. Rewiring neural pathways cemented by years of repetition is no easy feat. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, 66 days doesn’t seem so long at all.