Ask the Experts

Replacement Habits

I have a lot of bad habits. You can probably guess some of them: I drink too much, I don’t get enough sleep, stuff like that. On top of the normal college issues, I also smoke. And there’s some other stuff, but I don’t want to get too much into it. Instead, I want to ask the experts about a way out of it all. I’ve been reading about habit triggers and replacing habits. The idea is that you find out when and why you’re doing something unhealthy and replace the habit with some new habit based on the same “trigger.” My question is: does it work? And if so, how do I know what new activity to choose to replace each old habit?

The concept you’re referring to is a popular one in self-help circles, psychology studies, and among countless individuals–and there is some evidence that it does work. The process works as you describe: you pick a habit and track it, identify moments that you choose to indulge the habit, and look for consistent triggers. Then you attempt to replace the habit with something healthier. Perhaps, for instance, one might realize that he or she eats unhealthy foods when bored. That person could then pay extra attention to feelings of boredom and, when they strike, try to quickly exercise. Ideally, this person will find that whatever reward they got from eating bad foods is present as well, in exercise–perhaps both things distract them from feeling lonely. If that’s the case, perhaps the habit can be replaced.

That’s the science behind all of this: that habits are, according to psychologists, based on a structure of cue, routine, and reward. The cue, or trigger, is the thing that sparks the habit; the routine is the habit, and it can be changed; but the reward is a key part, too.

For instance, there are plenty of legal alternatives of online gambling, say the pros at New Jersey’s If you’re looking to kick illegal gambling purely because of legal concerns, legal gambling should work well as a replacement. But what if you’re looking to quit gambling because you have an addiction to it and it’s costing you too much money? Well, you could try to isolate something you think is a key factor in the addiction–say, the adrenaline rush–and replace it with a hobby that stimulates that.

But this example is telling, because it shows that things get trickier as activities become more addictive. Cigarette smoking, for instance, has rewards that can be replicated–like getting a few minutes of time alone, and having a reason to go outside, for instance–but it also has a nicotine rush that can’t be replicated by much else. E-cigarettes are an option, say the retailers at the vape shop Commonwealth Vapes, but the jury is still out regarding some health issues with e-cigarettes. Perhaps this is a situation where this strategy falls short and must be combined with something else: for instance, one could take a walk outside to replicate the two benefits mentioned, but also use a nicotine patch or gum to combat the addictive appeal.

Ultimately, your idea for targeting habits is a good one. It never hurts to gain insight into one’s own habits and tendencies, and it’s absolutely true that habits can be substituted. You can choose the right substitutions by focusing on the “reward” part of the equation; choose something that replicates that reward as safely as possible while eliminating superfluous and unhealthy elements. But be aware of the limitations of this method, and don’t be afraid to seek help for addiction or substance abuse. Take advantage of resources on campus and speak to medical professionals. With those things in your corner alongside your habit strategies, you’ll stand a much better chance of beating back your bad habits. Good luck!

“Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” — Brooke Shields

Suzanne Hite is a former publications editor serving the technology services sector.