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February 22, 2012

Smart Girls, Bad Habits

Stop drunk-texting your ex, snacking late-night, and skipping the gym! New research into how the brain really works may help you get into a positive groove — once and for all.

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Lisa Allen, 34, had struggled with her weight most of her life. She had been smoking and drinking since she was 16, and had problems managing her money and debt. When her husband left her for another woman, she was poised for a downward spiral. However, something clicked in Allen. She started to plan a trip, something to look forward to — trekking through the desert in Egypt. It was a crazy idea, she admitted, but in order to get into shape for her dream vacation, she replaced her old habit of smoking with jogging, which in turn changed her daily routine — how she ate, looked, and spent her time and money. Over the course of four years, she lost 60 pounds, completed a marathon, bought a home, and got engaged. By replacing one single pattern, she changed the rest of her life.

Allen is the first success story in New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg's new book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. The latest in a crop of books on changing how we behave — Willpower by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney and The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., also recently hit bookstores — it taps into cutting-edge research in neuroscience, psychology, and even consumer research (how brands get us to buy things) to explain why it's so hard to stick to our intentions (go to the gym! Stop seeing your ex! Avoid that third margarita!). And even more important, it gives us a blueprint of how to reprogram ourselves with a minimum amount of effort.

Good old-fashioned willpower won't get you very far in Duhigg's book. According to the latest studies, the brain clings to old routines — they're easy and conserve our decision-making neurons so we can save them for problem-solving at work or figuring out what to wear in the morning. Habits become encoded — everything from brushing your teeth in the morning to buying a new pair of shoes you don't need to falling for the wrong guy over and over. We do them without thinking. "Without our habits, our brains would be overwhelmed with details," explains Duhigg. At best, habits are our brains' way of simplifying our lives and saving us stress and energy. At worst, they're our brains being lazy. But because habits are hardwired, the strategy is not to undo them. According to Duhigg, the trick is to replace a bad behavior with a better one.

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