Breaking Bad (Habits)
Australian Women’s Weekly NZ|February 2021
In 2020, the structure of our days was dismantled, disrupting our habits for better and worse. Genevieve Gannon investigates whether brain science can get us back on track.
Genevieve Gannon

It’s almost 2am when the credits cut to the next episode of my TV show and even though I know I should go to bed, I’m being sucked into the story. I’m on my summer break, so I keep watching. My trip home for Christmas has been cancelled and I can feel myself slipping into the bad habits I developed during the first COVID-19 lockdown – the worst of which was late-night Netflix binges.

Like everyone else, the middle of 2020 destroyed the framework that kept my life upright and my days became a chaotic mess of neglected laundry and Chocolate Royals for dinner. But just as I’m settling in for the fifth episode of The Crown, I recall the powerful lessons I learnt last year about habit formation, and force myself to switch off the TV.

Six months ago, I contacted University of Southern California Professor Wendy Wood, who is widely regarded as the world’s leading authority on habit formation. I wanted to know how to stop my bad habits from taking over my life, while keeping the good habits that lockdown allowed me to cultivate. What she taught me was a revelation.

“You can make pretty much any behaviour more habitual, as long as you do it the same way each time. The things that get repeated over and over and get us a reward form into habit,” she told me. “It’s surprising how much we rely on that structure.”

Professor Wood has spent three decades studying the brain science behind habit formation and says 80 per cent of people misunderstand habits, which is why we so often fail when we try to change them. We believe we change our actions through willpower, but this is not only incorrect, it’s counterproductive.

“The problem with our willpower myth is it leads to self-blame,” she explained. “It suggests we have failed, instead of [showing that] we haven’t set up our environments correctly in order to make it easier on us.”

Professor Wood’s research is part of a growing body of work that proves habit formation is all about external cues, repetition and rewards. Habits are controlled not by the conscious, decision-making parts of our brains, but a “vast, semi-hidden non-conscious apparatus”, which responds to external cues.

MRI scans of people learning a task show marked brain activity in the area involved in decision-making and executive control, but as the task is repeated the neural activity moves to other areas, and the task becomes part of subconscious habit memory. This is why we might dash out the front door, only to stop mid-step, thinking, “Wait! Have I left the iron on?” When we perform a habit we’re not “consciously attending”, the actions have become automated.

“The idea that you should just muscle through and make it happen is not helpful to anyone. You want to think about how you can make it so that you can do it over and over,” Professor Wood said.

In order to reset my habits once out of lockdown, I had to create an environment that supported good habits and add “friction” to inhibit the bad habits I wanted to eliminate. By December, I was pleased to discover Professor Wood’s teachings were incredibly effective, which was empowering.

But summer’s mini-spike in Sydney left me once against listless and without boundaries. Luckily, I had the tools to ensure I didn’t fall into my old ways.

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