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The Science Behind Changing Bad Habits

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Losing weight and quitting smoking lead the list of New Year's resolutions. But many won't even make it through the weekend without going back to old habits.

So, why is it so hard to get rid of the habits we don't want, and so difficult to acquire the habits we do want?

People have been trying to figure that out for centuries, but now brain research has given us some insight on what forms a habit. Does it take more than willpower to succeed? How important is repetition?

"Generally, we think of two different response strategies that control how we do something," said Tina Gremel, assistant professor of psychology at UC San Diego.

"Let's say you walk into a room, you flip the light switch. That action may be controlled by, 'I want to turn on the light' or it may be controlled because you always flip the light switch when you enter room. We have two different processes — this habitual process and we have a goal process," Germel told KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday.

Matthew Bruhin, a San Diego psychanalyst and addiction specialist, told KPBS it takes about three weeks to move from a short-term effort into a habitual behavior pattern. He said many people fail at keeping New Year's resolutions because they tried to do too much at once instead of setting small, intermediate and long-term goals.

Related: Only 44 Percent Of Americans Made New Year’s Resolutions

"I think there can be several behaviors," Bruhin said. "One may be faulty planning. The other is old-fashioned teamwork. A lot of time we need motivation from external factors to breakthrough barriers."

Bruhin said it's important to break your goals into manageable parts. Instead of just resolving to lose weight, figure out how you will get there. Will you exercise everyday, three times a week? The goal is more realistic if it's more clear, he said.

He also suggested rewarding yourself and not being too hard on yourself if you don't reach your goals.

"Inherently, human beings want to grow and get to a better place in their lives," Bruhin said. "The motivation is there. For most people, they just don't understand how to move down that path."


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