Go for Gold

What to do: Use a calendar or chart to track how many days you can go habit-free. Reward yourself for weeklong winning streaks in a small but meaningful way.

Why it works: It's human nature to appreciate a gold foil star—or a "good job!" Psychologists know this, and so do kindergarten teachers and proactive moms who wallpaper the bathroom with behavior charts. It's also the idea behind Happify, a new emotional-wellness app that helps people build happiness habits via interactive games. Members earn medals by completing activities to help them develop skills like "cope better with stress." Happify's developers have found that users who receive a gold medal in their first set of activities (like a game that makes you quickly react to positive words while avoiding negative ones) go on to complete 48 percent more activities than those who receive a silver medal. That's why Happify, like many games, starts you out with shorter levels and easier goals that help you quickly rack up gold medals. And being constantly reminded of your medal-winning prowess motivates you to sign up to develop more skills (a win-win for both the user and the developers).

What habits it helps break: Habits that cost you money, like buying coffee at the café, because you can put the cash you've save each time you make the drink at home toward something else that you renting an old movie (Goldfinger, On Golden Pond or Fool's Gold come to mind).

Think Long Term

What to do: Accept failure (at first).

Why it works: There's a depressing irony to the way habits work: The more you try not to think about them, the more they dominate your thoughts. This has been proven time and again in different experiments where people were instructed not to think about white bears, or cigarettes, or disturbing emotional memories, or their favorite food. In all cases, the people in the studies began thinking about these things even more than before. The mind starts an unconscious monitoring process to check if you're still thinking about the verboten subject, writes Dean, and then anything that looks vaguely like it triggers the thought again ("That crumpled tissue reminds me of...a white bear"). This may be why people sometimes find that when they first try to change a habit, they actually start doing it more, Dean explains. The resulting disappointment often sends them deeper into the clutches of their vice. Dean suggests viewing this as a "just a phase" in the larger process of breaking a habit—but a phase with an end in sight.

What habits it helps break: Smoking. Surveys show that it takes the average smoker five to seven attempts to kick the habit for good, which is more than double what most smokers would anticipate.

Fantasize Wildly

What to do: Keep telling yourself how your life will improve once you're no longer oversnacking or picking or procrastinating. At the same time, remind yourself how unhealthy, unnecessary, distracting or just plain annoying your habit is and how badly you want to change it.

Why it works: It raises the stakes. The more relevant and vivid you can make the negative thoughts of the bad habit, the more likely you are to exercise self-control, writes Dean. These mental caricatures serve as reminders to keep you on track. Multiple experiments have shown that those who attach strong feelings to a habit are more motivated to change than are those who treat the habit like it's no big deal.

What habits it helps break: Start with things that gross you out—when you're not the one doing them (like nail-biting, hair-chewing). They're easier to visualize and harder to justify to yourself, since you've already seen on others that those habits are unattractive.

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