Like most of us, I spend way too much time online. Part of this is for work, but if I’m honest, a sizable chunk consists of mindless scrolling. I typically succumb during periods of boredom, though the stress of a deadline can lead me down a rabbit hole.

Let’s say I’m, oh, I don’t know, researching a story on changing bad habits. Soon enough, I’m pinning an air-fryer recipe on Pinterest and buying a sherpa-fleece-lined scarf. And I’ve tried willing myself to make today the day I don’t check social media 34 times before noon. Yet somehow, as I take my first sip of coffee, my cursor makes its way to that tab all on its own. I learn every day what researchers are also finding out: Relying upon willpower - the notion that you can overcome temptation and stick to a goal if you simply try hard enough - isn’t the most efficient, effective way to change habits.

In fact, “there’s no clear evidence that willpower even exists,” says neuroscientist Dr Judson Brewer. And if it does exist, it tends to flake out at just the moments we need it most. Dr Brewer cites research suggesting that during times of stress, such as when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, the area of the brain thought to be responsible for controlling behaviour, called the prefrontal cortex, goes “offline,” making us more likely to give in to unsavoury habits. If you’ve ever bitten your nails to the quick after a breakup or emptied your coworker’s lolly bowl when tensions were running high at work, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

The new science of habit formation offers several smart strategies for breaking bad habits, none of which rely on white-knuckling it. “There are other parts of our minds that are much better suited to helping us stop certain patterns of behaviour and create newer, better ones,” says psychologist Dr Wendy Wood. “There are ways to do this in spite of the challenges of everyday life that tend to throw us off course.”

How do bad habits take root?

Bad habits are born from wanting to feel good. Like the latest smartphone, our brains have older, basic components packed in alongside newer ones that developed as the human brain evolved. The newer regions, like the prefrontal cortex, govern rational thinking and decision-making - “I should order the salad, not the burger”; “I shouldn’t watch baby-panda videos with a deadline looming” - while a key feature of our older brain involves the “reward-based learning” system, centred in the basal ganglia. “This area simply makes us want to do more of the things that feel good and less of the things that feel bad,” Dr Brewer explains.

In caveman days, this helped us survive: Because life was precarious and food was scarce, when we spotted fruit, seeds, or grass, our brains shouted, “Eat that!” We ate the berries, they tasted good, and that in turn prompted our brains to release a chemical called dopamine, which cemented this smart strategy in place. In behavioural neuroscience terms, this is called a habit loop, a three-part system composed of a trigger (in this case, a food sighting), a behaviour (eating the food), and a reward (contentment and survival).

A few million years later, the possibility of famine is less of a daily issue for most of us, “but plenty of other things came into existence with the ability to make us feel bad,” says Dr Brewer - work drama, breakups, the perfect Facebook lives of others. “These are new problems, but our primitive brain wants to use the same old programming, so it sends the message, ‘You’re not feeling great. Try doing something that will trigger dopamine and maybe you’ll feel better.’”

Sugary foods are one of the fastest ways to satisfy a dopamine craving.

And many of these things are not great for us. Sugary foods are one of the fastest ways to satisfy that dopamine craving; alcohol and cigarettes can do the same. Plenty of behavioural habits can give us the same buzz: Dating apps, “likes” on social media, and online shopping all provide an instant dopamine rush, reinforcing those habit loops.

But once a new pleasure becomes ingrained, it can start to feel very different. “The first time you realised you could check your phone while waiting in line, it felt interesting and fun,” explains neuroscientist  Dr Uma Karmarkar. “You thought, Oh, I was bored, but now I’m interested.” Soon enough, though, Scrolling While Bored becomes your new normal. “Now, it’s no longer a pleasant surprise; in fact, not being able to check your phone while bored actually makes you feel uncomfortable.”

In other words, it became a habit. Karmarkar pointed out a similar pattern of behaviour among longtime smokers. “They don’t talk as much about the pleasure they get from having a cigarette during a smoke break, but they do talk about how much they miss that smoke break if they can’t have it.”

Since willpower isn’t enough to overcome millennia of hardwiring to break a pattern that makes you feel really good - or keeps you from feeling really bad - it’s time to dive into the research and figure out how to replace the old habits with newer, more desirable ones. Try these strategies that experts say give you the best chance of success:

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