Dan Ariely’s Suggestion on How to Break a Bad Habit

Dan Ariely, a noted behavioral economist at Duke University, and author of several best selling books, shared a way to break a bad habit in today’s Wall Street Journal.

A reader had written in, asking Dan how he could break a soda drinking habit.

Ariely referred to a study from 2005 by Reuven Dar of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues from 2005. In the study, the researchers compared the craving for cigarettes of Orthodox Jewish smokers on weekdays with their craving on the Sabbath, when religious law forbids them to start fires or smoke. The results indicated that  their irritability and yearning for a smoke were lower on the Sabbath than during the week—seemingly because the demands of Sabbath observance were so ingrained that forgoing smoking felt meaningful. By contrast, not smoking on, say, Tuesday took much more willpower.

Ariely then offers the following recommendation:

Try making a concrete rule against drinking soda, and try to tie it to something you care deeply about—like your health or your family.

This seems to make sense, but I wonder if it works just as well when trying to establish a healthy habit, like exercising every day or meditating every day.

I’ve written about habits before, and it may be helpful to share some of the tips from that post as well.


Research has shown that it takes, on average, 66 days to establish a habit.  And it’s no surprise that how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In the research study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

But before you look at those numbers of 66 days or 254 days, and think that seems way too long, there are some helpful takeaways from the research.

  • “First, there is no reason to get down on yourself if you try something for a few weeks and it doesn’t become a habit. It’s supposed to take longer than that! There is no need to judge yourself if you can’t master a behavior in 21 short days. Embrace the long, slow walk to greatness and focus on putting in your reps.”
  • “Second, you don’t have to be perfect. Making a mistake once or twice has no measurable impact on your long-term habits. This is why you should treat failure like a scientist, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and develop strategies for getting back on track quickly.”
  • “And third, embracing longer timelines can help us realize that habits are a process and not an event. All of the “21 Days” hype can make it really easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just do this and it’ll be done.” But habits never work that way. You have to embrace the process. You have to commit to the system.”

So the basic takeaway, from both Ariely and my older blog post noted above, is that you have to have a good reason fro why you want to form a new habit, and you have to be patient, both with how long the process will take, as well as with yourself when you occasionally fall back into the old habit.

Change is often difficult, but that makes you enjoy the eventual change that eventually takes place.



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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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