How Tetris Can Break Your Bad Habits

Imagine this. It’s 2004 and you’ve been playing the new Rocket Power game on your purple Game Boy Advance for hours now. You’re stuck on the same level and no amount of help from your older brother will get you free from the purple goo monsters that you just can’t seem to beat. After a while you decide staring for so long at the monsters is getting old and you’ll pick it up again another day. You put your Game Boy away and already almost move on to your next task until you see something out of the corner of your eye; a purple goo monster.

I don’t mean to say that the purple goo monster is real and somehow jumped out of the Game Boy Jumanji style. What I mean is that sometimes after staring so intensely for so long at a screen, the images can stay in our brain for long after we stop seeing them.

This isn’t just something you can only experience after hours of playing Rocket Power, it’s actually a well-documented phenomenon called the Tetris Effect. Have you ever played Tetris for so long that when you close your eyes you can see the outline of the blocks? That’s the Tetris Effect, or in my case, the Rocket Power Effect. This was documented in a 2000 Harvard Study where a group of people played Tetris for multiple hours a day out of a three-day period. Five of these group members suffered from amnesia, and researchers found these participants recalled blocks spinning in their minds while they tried to sleep, even though they did not remember playing the game.

In a world so obsessed with social media and being glued to our screens, it’s almost jarring to think that our habits can actually leave a residue behind in our brains. But before you throw your PlayStation away there is still hope for a brighter future!

If we can apply the Tetris method to our everyday lives maybe we can break the bad habits that haunt us. What if we practiced picking up our phone, looking down at it for a moment then immediately putting it down and walking away? What if we repeated this behavior over and over for a few days? A Healthy Magazine article states that,

“The point is, what we spend a lot of time thinking about profoundly affects our brain. Repetition is essential to developing a new mindset. Like the Tetris players in the study who played over and over again, you’ll need to do things again and again until new neural pathways are formed, and you begin to think differently without effort.”

Just like how the image of the spinning blocks stays in our minds long after we stop playing, maybe the repeated act of putting our phone down and walking away can stay with us too.

However, I believe that we can take this a step further if we really want to make a new healthier habit stick. The best way to go about this is to look at other repeated unconscious behavior and examine what it is that makes us so addicted. I am referring to the constant allure of social media, how Instagram will withhold likes to keep us checking back in or Facebook’s red alert to tell us someone has sent us a message. Author Nir Eyal, in his book Hooked: How to Build Habit Forming Products, writes

“The technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions. It’s the impulse to check a message notification. It’s the pull to visit YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter for just a few minutes, only to find yourself still tapping and scrolling an hour later. None of this is an accident. It is all just as their designers intended”.

So how can the Tetris Effect + The Purposeful Manipulation To Get Us To Stay On Social Media = A Foolproof Way To Break Bad Habits? Simply put we take what we know from the Tetris Effect, that repeated actions will leave an impact in our brain. Next, we combine that with the fact that we know that social media designers program red hearts and other addictive features to simulate dopamine to get us to stay on their apps.

As I mentioned before we spend a lot of our time on our phones, so what should we do to break this habit? Every time you pick your phone up, take a moment and think if you really need to do something on it or if you’re just bored and want to scroll. If you fall into the second category put your phone back down and walk away. Now to really seal this behavior and break the habit, give yourself a small treat like a piece of candy. This represents the little red heart and its rush of dopamine. Repeat this behavior for a few days and I guarantee your phone habit, or any other habit you’re trying to break will be gone.

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