I think I can say that even thinking about breaking bad habits can be irritating, don’t you think?
You might be sitting there, reading this, biting your nails or swallowing down your second Big Mac or perhaps sucking on the 30th cigarette of the day and thinking to yourself ‘Why, oh why, can’t I stop?’
You know this repetitive habit, whatever it may be, is not doing you any good.
I know it’s not doing you any good.
And yet you catch yourself half way through the act and can’t even remember how it came to be.
Humans are habitual beings, creatures of habit. Our magnificent brains have this wonderful trick to place certain behaviours on automation so that we don’t have to use brain power thinking about a process that we do so often.
For a behavior to even be considered a habit, some aspect of it must be automatic.
You react on autopilot, no thinking required.
It’s pretty damn clever if you think about it. A lot of energy and brain power is used up during those times where we have to actively make choices, actively react and actively consider the outcomes.
However, when we create a habit loop we take the responsibility off our shoulders and pass it to the co-pilot to manage for us so that we can focus on the more important things. The trickier tasks.
In a lot of scenarios this is hugely beneficial.
Think about it. Think of all of the thousands of little actions that you make every day which you do without even realizing that you’ve even taken a moment to think about it.
You wake up and instinctively have breakfast, get dressed, have a coffee and brush your teeth.
Before leaving the house you habitually put clothes on because you’ve learned that not everyone wants to see your special bits, it goes against the norm.
You don’t leave the house without checking your keys because you have repeatedly noticed that actually, you will in fact need them to enter your humble abode at the end of the day.
There are thousands of routines and behaviours that we can consider GOOD HABITS that save us a heck of a lot of time and energy by the very nature of not having to think about them at all.
The problem arises when a habit is created from internalising an act that has been repeated consistently over a period of time which does not actually benefit us in the long run.
It would be criminal to discuss this topic without heralding Mr Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habits.
You will find moments throughout this book where you’ll have to pick your chin up off the floor (if you’re anything like me) as you realize just how much power our habits have over us. What’s worse is the power it allows OTHERS to have over us.
Advertisers and marketing agencies can easily use and manipulate the ‘habit loop’ system to leverage their influence over us mere consumers.
And, upon reading this book, believe me when I say that it’s bloody annoying to realize just how sneaky these corporate machines can be when it comes to using our habits as their tool for product selling and promotion.
More on that a bit later. There is a great little story about Febreeze to be found in this book which I’ll briefly enlighten you on.
So, when it comes to breaking BAD habits it’s probably necessary to have a conflab about what a habit is and how we form them in the first place before we can go about breaking the bad habit loop.
WHAT IS A HABIT?
Habits are actions and behaviours that have been repeated so often that they become instinctual. They are habitual reactions to our cues or triggers.
This is the habit loop that Charles Duhigg discusses in his book.
What kick-starts the habit is a cue or trigger within the environment which can often be catagorized into one of the following: location, time, emotional state, other people or following a specific action.
Once we have the cue we carry out the routine or behaviour. This is the specific area that becomes second nature once it has been repeated enough to form a habit. THIS, the behaviour/routine is what needs to be altered.
Followed by this comes the reward of carrying out this behaviour.
Repeating this cycle often and consistently is what turns this cycle of events into a habit. It’s only by constant repetition that we learn to do anything and habits are not exempt from this.
Now it seems that we only actually find ourselves in this habit loop because we are seeking the reward for our actions.
Us humans, we need constant gratification and satisfaction to do absolutely anything otherwise what’s the damn point, right?
The problem here is that where breaking bad habits is concerned, the difficulty lies in the fact that we want that sweet sweet reward. But oftentimes the behaviour and means of getting said reward makes it rather temporary.
It’s just another quick fix that often perpetuates the ‘bad’ habit loop cycle.
BAD HABIT OR GOOD HABIT? HOW DO I TELL THE DIFFERENCE?!
According to James Clear author or Atomic Habit, there are two main instigating factors that cause bad habits and those are:
STRESS AND BOREDOM.
No surprise here right?
Ok, so you’re stressed and freaking out about some work thing that you don’t want to go to. But your boss is bullying you into it for little or no reward and no support so you HAVE to go and you feel completely unprepared…you might feel a smidge stressed, no?
This perhaps would be the perfect time to grab yourself some Dutch courage, light a cigarette, bite your nails, yell at your partner or anything else that might get you to the REWARD of mitigating some of the stress that’s weighing you down.
Or, how about this.
You’re stuck at home. Everyone else is out and you have no plans for your day and are becoming restless thinking about your lack of purpose or meaning.
You cannot think of a single thing to do with yourself and there is no-one to contact either. So, maybe you grab yourself a midday pimms. Light a cigarette, bite your nails, yell at your partner down the phone or anything else that might get you to the REWARD of mitigating some of the boredom that’s weighing you down.
When habits are created out of boredom they are usually some sort of QUICK FIX.
And boy, do we love a quick fix.
However, there is a caveat as mentioned previously – these quick fixes are just that. Quick and TEMPORARY.
Take this habit loop as an example:
Sad – Eat – Feel Better
A LOT of us out there can relate to this bad habit loop and for some it can be hugely damaging.
So the cue here is feeling sad. And this could be brought on for many reasons but the cue itself is the feeling of sadness.
The routine and behaviour that this triggers is to eat. Eating food, especially naughty food, is an instant feel-good. It is quick to kick in and gives us that boost and uplift that we’re looking for.
It gives us, temporarily, the reward that we are after of feeling good, feeling better.
What makes this a BAD HABIT LOOP?
Well, when at its extreme this very habit loop could be the cause of obesity and diabetes in people who are grossly overweight and unhealthy in their bodies.
The habit loop provided a temporary fix but it did not address the underlying problem and also actually feeds back into the cue itself.
Eating destructively in a bid to counteract negative feelings tends to lead to food guilt. This in turn brings us back full circle to feeling pretty crumby about ourselves and yep, you guessed it, the cycle starts all over again.
BREAKING BAD HABITS LIKE THIS IS HARD AND ESSENTIAL
Breaking bad habits is no easy task.
If it were then a lot of us would be struggling a hell of a lot less than we currently are. It’s important to recognize that bad habits can be incredibly destructive and must be stopped. Much like the evil villain in any Disney movie so we can finally live in peace as the content Princes and Princesses that we are.
Breaking bad habits can put us on the path to accomplishing our goals, living a healthy life, repairing damaged relationships and relieving anxiety and tension. With bad habits comes a life of un-fulfilment, a life lacking purpose and meaning.
(For more on that grab your free ‘Finding Your Purpose’ e-book for 10 strange questions that might help you find an answer)
JEEEEEEEZ EMMA! A bit much don’t you think?
Urm, no. I need you to hear what I’m saying here friend.
Breaking bad habits is bloody hard. They’ve become hard wired into us and have done so because they give us this quick temporary fix that we so adore.
But not only does this often feed back into the habit loop but it also tells us that there is a greater underlying issue here that you are not dealing with.
Bad habits are formed as a way of procrastination, detachment, denial and self-protection.
All of these make it pretty tough to go after your goals, try new things or chase your dreams.
That bad habit that you think provides you with relief from the stresses and worries of life is simply distracting you from it. It is simply allowing you to ignore the problem.
And this is why breaking bad habits is hard.
Because they are ingrained for one. And because it often means taking a closer look at ourselves and learning to understand and know ourselves a bit better, on a deeper level in a way that we might not be willing to explore.
HOW TO BEGIN BREAKING BAD HABITS?
How many of you, like myself, try to look at the likes of successful people for motivation and inspiration and think, ‘I’ll do what they do and maybe I can follow in their footsteps’?
Generally, what happens in this scenario is that we give it a good bash (bravo, darling) before realizing that actually it takes quite a lot of work and suddenly we aren’t so successful.
Here’s the truth, breaking bad habits will take time, effort and dedication.
You’re trying to undo a behaviour that has become second nature to you so yeah, there is no quick fix here. Just a long hard slog with a pretty epic payoff if you can keep at it.
Here are some important things to take into account when breaking bad habits…
1. DON’T ERASE BAD HABITS, REPLACE THEM
Some people are bloody amazing when it comes to quitting things that are bad for them.
‘Oh hey, Steve, have you quit smoking yet?’
‘Yep, one day I just had enough and went cold Turkey.’
People like Steve are my heroes but listen up, cold turkey rarely work for most people. What’s more, going cold turkey where your habits are concerned is a sure fire way to relapse.
That’s why, when you’re starting out you want to look to REPLACE bad habits, not ERASE them.
Using the example we looked at earlier –
Sad – Eat – Feel Better
Ok, so, should you be looking into the reasons behind your sadness? Yes.
Should you be trying to understand and eradicate the cue? Yes.
Is this likely to happen overnight? Probably not.
Whilst you’re working on the cue here, which is the feeling of sadness, you need to look at replacing the routine. The behaviour of EATING when you feel sad.
So, in turning a bad habit into a good habit we might try and alter the loop to be something more like this –
Sad – Run – Feel Better
By replacing eating with running or walking you are not eradicating the habit loop, because that may well take a lot more psychological and introspective work. But you are swapping a negative behavior with something positive.
Unfortunately, we are always still after the reward. So, advice from the hypocrites of the world along the lines of, ‘Just STOP’ must be ignored. Because the problem with just stopping, even if we have the willpower to, is that it denies us of the reward.
2. START WITH TEENY TINY MINUSCULE CHANGES
When I’m saying teeny tiny here I’m talking almost LAUGHABLE. Bordering on the ridiculous.
Understand that breaking bad habits and reforming them into positive ones (or eventually eradicating them altogether if you get that far) takes a long time. Which is why people struggle.
You’re fighting against your natural urge to behave this way or that given a specific cue. You’re going against an action that comes so naturally to you now that breaking this habit loop will take time.
So, you want to start small.
Why? Well, to give you every possible chance of being successful.
How small are we talking? Well, if the aim is to go for a run after work instead of sitting on the couch you might start by simply putting your trainers on. Don’t go for the run, don’t even tie up those neon orange shoe laces – just put the shoes on.
The next day perhaps you tie the laces.
The next maybe you step outside your front door. Then walk to the end of the road. And then around the block and before you know it, ‘Oh what the heck! I’ve bothered to come this far I MAY AS WELL go for that run’.
Sound ridiculous? Good.
The smaller the actions you take the better because they are achievable. They take you small miniscule steps away from the bad habit and toward the good habit. You have literally NO EXCUSE for not doing it because you are asking so little of yourself.
By appreciating the process you take your focus away from the end goal which might feel unachievable and overwhelming.
Not only this, it encourages the notion of ‘Oh well, if I’ve come this far I might as well do the rest’
If you’ve bothered to walk to the end of the road why would you not go that little bit further and walk around the block?
The smaller the steps you take then the better chance you have of succeeding and breaking the bad habit.
3. ERADICATE TRIGGERS BY CHANGING YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Although I’ve mentioned the importance of replacing a bad habit rather than eliminating it, you wouldn’t believe how much control you have over the cues that trigger your negative behaviours.
Manipulate your environment in accordance to the cues that you have noticed cause your negative routine.
If you have to have to have a bottle of vodka when you order a pizza then stop buying pizza. If you have to eat 10 cookies when you have a cup of tea then don’t drink tea or replace it with a different hot drink. Or even better, don’t buy the cookies!
If you want reinforce a healthy habit and exercise every morning before work then set out the clothes that you need and put them by the side of your bed ready for when you wake up.
What you are doing here is CHOOSING a cue that you want to associate with a POSITIVE behaviour and is reinforced by A PREDETERMINED REWARD OF YOUR CHOICE.
Give yourself the best opportunity for breaking bad habits and learning new healthy habits by organizing your environment in a way that is beneficial to you.
When there are physical cues that trigger the habit loop, you can help yourself greatly by removing them or replacing them.
BIGGEST AID FOR BREAKING BAD HABITS?
You must understand your cues and the rewards that you are seeking to fully grasp the behaviors that you need to change. Sometimes however, they aren’t as easy to spot as you think.
Remember how I mentioned ‘Febreeze’ earlier on?
Well, in a nutshell, Febreeze tried for a long time to find out exactly what it was that people wanted. And initially, they assumed that what they wanted was to remove nasty smells from their lives.
And this was exactly what the people thought they wanted as well.
But after trialling out Febreeze products with a sample group using a product which did exactly what they hoped, eradicating nasty smells from the house, they were surprised by the results.
People didn’t seem all too fussed. The dog owner didn’t seem too impressed even though it removed the smell of dog from her furniture. The mum of 6 didn’t seem overly enthused that it removed that smell of dirty nappy from her home…it was all just a bit lack lustre.
What happened? They had an odour free product.
Once they recognized that the sample group weren’t ‘satisfied’ having cleaned and finished it all off with an odourless spray (which did the exact job they wanted perfectly well) Febreeze went back to the drawing board.
They made some alterations and added a variety of scents to their products which they associated with freshness and cleanliness. Cotton, fruity smells, pine…you get the gist.
Low and behold this was a massive hit.
You see people were not receiving the REWARD how they wanted. The cue might have been nasty smells, seeing their untidy houses or finding dust or dirt about the place which triggered the behavior to clean… But, what Febreeze didn’t expect was that although the stench of bleach and chemicals that competitor products produced was unpleasant, it signaled the reward.
The sample group could SMELL that their houses were clean. It validated that their work and efforts were worth-while.
By adding the fresh scents to their products they had managed to tap into what people actually wanted. And what they wanted was the reward of a clean smelling house.
Their senses telling them that their behavior was worth-while.
Although the odorless products did their jobs incredibly well, they did not provide the reward that people did not even realize they wanted.
That story might have been a bit long winded but it genuinely had me gawping in disbelief when I initially read about it in The Power Of Habit.
The take away here being that it’s not always so easy to really hone in on what the cues, behaviours and rewards actually are.
So, you need to raise your self-awareness and increase your emotional intelligence. This might take trial and error but it will set you up for success when it comes to breaking those bad habits and replacing them with healthy ones.
YOU HAVE MORE CONTROL THAN YOU THINK
Have you heard of Keystone habits?
They. Are. Brilliant.
A keystone (or cornerstoner) habit is one that has the ability to affect a wide variety of aspects of your life.
So while some smaller bad habits might be worth tackling, like biting your nails when you’re bored for example, they are isolated in the effects they have on our day to day life.
However, a perfect example of a keystone habit that has the capacity to positively affect our lives in a variety of ways is exercise. Generally speaking, those people who can master the habit of exercising regularly eat healthier, sleep better, procrastinate less, work harder, feel more positive and more!
This one healthy habit has a domino effect that can literally change your life which is why people hark on about it! It’s not for funzies!
Tackling the keystone habits will have the greatest impact on your life. And, whilst you shouldn’t stop trying to break the other bad habits, if you were going to tackle one at a time (which I would suggest) then a keystone habit would be a great place to start.