If you’re into self or business development, then you must’ve faced some difficulties breaking a bad habit. Habits like procrastinating, digital distraction, bad sleeping routine, unhealthy eating habits, etc. These habits sometimes feel like they’re blocking your journey to become a better you. No matter how much you tried to break them, somehow, they sneaked back into your life.
During 2018, I went through a phase of attempting to break my bad habits, and breaking them seemed impossible! Sometimes, I could manage to keep away from my bad habits for a few weeks. However, I would end up bringing back the bad habits in my life once again.
I understand the process of breaking a bad habit is complicated. I’ve been there. I’ve tried many techniques and recorded my progress. After years of trying, I can now say that I’m getting closer to knowing myself and how I form habits. I broke out of many of my bad habits and introduced some good ones in my life. I will share my journey with you and my findings on how to break bad habits no matter how addictive they are.
Before I Start Explaining…
Before I get into some of the ways that keep my habits under control, I would like to mention something essential. We all need to keep in mind that bad habits don’t make us a bad person. Our brain is engineered to form habits and automate daily tasks to make us more efficient. Efficiency is our brain’s number one priority. Because of this characteristic of our minds, we create habits. Some of these habits are not constructive in our lives, and some habits are beneficial. For example, the habit of brushing our teeth keeps our teeth clean and healthy, and the process from beginning until the end feels automatic.
When you’re working on breaking and making habits, you should always keep in mind not to feel guilty or pity yourself if you have bad habits. Keeping the emotions out of the process of breaking and making new habits is extremely important. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t create emotional expectations. See this process as systematic as possible. This process is about understanding yourself and your daily routines.
The topic of habit formation and repetition is vast. There are many books (example: Atomic Habits by James Clear) that take you through how habits are formed, explaining its characteristics. In this article, I will be mostly summarizing critical information about this topic. The first essential information is understanding how habits are formed and repeated.
Habits are formed and repeated in 4 steps:
- Getting triggered
- Getting rewarded
The best way to understand the process is through an example. Take smoking, for instance. If a fictional character called John tried smoking a few times within his friendship group, then an event within that group has associated itself to smoking. If he was smoking with his friends when they went out to a bar, then going to a bar has already become the smoking trigger. This is the first step to form a habit. With enough repetition, John would smoke in bars, even if he was on his own. The bar triggers John to crave smoking, which takes us to the second step. Craving.
After a trigger, there comes a craving, which initiates a response. In the above example, the craving is wanting to smoke, and the response is smoking. And what smoking does, it gives John’s brain a nicotine rush for a few seconds, which is a reward. Since John’s mind enjoyed the nicotine rush, then next time John is in a bar (Trigger), he will crave smoking, and the feeling of that rush (craving), he will smoke (response) and get a nicotine rush (reward). This takes John into a feedback loop, which slowly creates more triggers in other places and situations and eventually makes John a regular smoker.
To break a bad habit, like quit smoking for John, we need to tackle each of the above 4 steps.
Break a Bad Habit: 1. Remove Triggers
Let’s tackle the first step of the habitual feedback loop, the trigger. The first and most crucial action that you need to take to break a bad habit is to remove as many triggers that lead to that lousy action as possible. This also means removing yourself from places and situations that might remind you of those bad habits.
To start, you need to first track your daily routine. You should carry a small notebook and write down everything you do for a day or two. You should also mark when you have done the bad habit that you want to drop. After tracking a day or two of your life, you will clearly understand the triggers that lead you to the bad habit. This tracking creates more awareness about your habits.
After understanding the triggers, you should avoid or eliminate the places and situations that bring the triggers for you. For example, John, our fictional character, by tracking his daily routine, finds out that when he goes to the bar, drives, takes a break, and when he drinks coffee, he’s triggered to smoke. What he can do is to stop going to the bar, replace smoking with singing songs while driving, play a game on his breaks instead of smoking, and drink less coffee. By extracting himself from places and situations that make him want to smoke, he will gradually notice that he is smoking less and eventually quits it completely.
Break a Bad Habit: 2. Make It Unattractive
Generally, our habits are modern-day solutions to ancient desires. Desires like: conserving energy, obtaining food and water, finding love and reproducing, connecting with others, social acceptance, reducing uncertainties, and achieving status. If you trace back any habit, good or bad, you will understand that it will be related to 1 or more of these ancient desires. So, the second step of breaking a bad habit starts with tracing the habit back to an ancient desire.
Once the desire behind the habits is identified, it is time to reverse that desire and connect the habit in a way that damages another ancient desire. For example, John traces back smoking to a hybrid of conserving energy and reducing uncertainties as the desires. By understanding that, he can then rewire smoking and tell himself that smoking is not socially accepted, so I will stand out negatively within a crowd. Or he can say to himself that people with status don’t smoke, so if I want to gain more status within society, he should drop smoking. Or he can even say that by smoking, I’m reducing the chances of finding love and damaging my health thus lowering the chances of reproducing.
By reminding yourself of the benefits of breaking a bad habit, you make that bad habit unattractive. Whenever you are making a bad habit, just repeat in your mind these benefits. Gradually, that bad habit becomes unattractive and thus creates fewer cravings to be repeated.
Break a Bad Habit: 3. Make It Difficult
Our brains are continually comparing future actions’ difficulty with the size of the reward gained. It works like a scale. If an action’s difficulty is less than the reward’s size, the brain commands the body to make an effort. Having this in mind, to make a habit disappear, you need to increase the difficulty of making the habit to the point that it exceeds the size of the reward.
Going back to John, our fictional character, to quit smoking, he could make smoking difficult. For example, if he smokes at home, he can leave his packet of cigarettes in his car, which is 5 floors down in the underground parking. By doing that, every time he wants to smoke, he compares getting his nicotine reward with the pain of going all the way downstairs to get his pack of cigarettes. If he still goes to the underground parking to smoke, he didn’t make the action difficult enough. He could leave his cigarettes at work and not buy a packet when he’s driving home. At one point, he will tell himself, “oh, I’m cannot be bothered to go all the way to the shop to buy a pack.”
Increasing the difficulty of making a habit eventually breaks the habits. This technique helps you break bad habits quicker and more effectively. If you want to eat healthily, don’t buy unhealthy. If you’re going to stop wasting time on social media, then remove the apps. Make it difficult!
Break a Bad Habit: 4. Make It Unrewarding
The previous section mentioned that our brains are continually comparing the difficulty of tasks with the rewards’ sizes after doing the task. So, we pick things to do when the reward exceeds the difficulty. Previously we talked about increasing the difficulty of doing the task to drop a habit. We can also decrease the size of the reward to break a habit.
Obviously, you can’t decrease the size of the reward for most habits like smoking. However, what you can do is create some sort of punishment to cancel the rewards out. There are ways to develop social punishment, like getting an accountability partner and habit contracting:
Accountability partner: Find someone that you would be held accountable if you make a bad habit. Talk to your family, partners, or friends to check up on you. Be truthful to them if you’ve continued with a bad habit. Eventually, social pressure and other people’s judgment will create enough punishment to break the habit.
Habit Contracting: Sign a contract with your family, partner, or friend, stating that there will be a sort of punishment if a bad habit is continuously made by you. Something like your social and state obligations. If you break the law, then you pay the price. You could write in the contract that if you check your social media apps for more than 30 minutes per day, then you have to pay $20 to your friend. If you find yourself paying $20 regularly, then the punishment amount is not significant enough. Increase it.
Going back to our example, John could ask his girlfriend to hold him accountable whenever he smokes. Or he could find someone that already smokes and also become an accountability partner himself while having the other person being his accountable partner.
John could also make a contract with his friend to pay $5 for every cigarette he has, and really stay by his words and pay his friend if he smokes.
My Last Words
Many techniques can help you break a bad habit. However, all techniques tackle one out of the four steps within the habitual feedback loop. So, understanding these four steps is crucial. Like any other change in your life, it always starts with observing yourself and your routines. By observing our brains, we can clearly understand the “difficulty-reward scale,” which is our primary decision-making tool for our lives.
So, I invite you to start writing down your daily routine from tomorrow for the next three days and observe how you’re spending your days. Then only after, make a plan to introduce good habits and break bad ones by fitting/removing them within your daily routine. Be honest with yourself. At the end of the day, you are the one receiving all the benefits. Change is difficult, so don’t take it personally that you’re not capable of changing yourself. Accept the challenge and do it systematically. Make a plan, follow the plan, trace, track, and repeat, and within no time, you will realize that your life is getting better daily.