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How to Program Your Mind to Kick the Bad Habit

How to Program Your Mind to Kick the Bad Habit

As you’re reading this, you may be checking your phone or Facebook, slouching in your chair, or snacking without thinking. Perhaps you’re reading this right before bedtime even though you know that the light from your electronics can negatively impact your sleep pattern.[1]

We are all guilty of some of these things from time to time.

The Love-Hate Relationship With Bad Habits

Having bad habits doesn’t make someone a bad person— even if you are aware that your behavior could have a negative impact on your health or well-being. If you are having trouble making a change, you’re likely telling yourself one of two things:

  • I’ve been [insert your habit here] for such a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be affecting my life that much. It would take too much effort to quit, and I don’t think it’s necessary.
  • I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t know any other way to function. I don’t think that I can quit.

Bad habits have become so ingrained in everyday behaviors that it is bound to be tough to change them. These routines are such a part of life that even knowing the potential negative impacts might not be enough to change them.[2]

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For example, a stressful phone call at work could be a trigger for you. The stress might make you want to eat an entire bag of chips. That bag of chips gave you some level of satisfaction. The reward is happening on a chemical and hormonal level in your body. Even though you know that snacking excessively is unhealthy, your body may crave junk food whenever you are under stress.[3] Before you know it, for good or for ill, you’ve initiated the process of habit-formation.[4] Oftentimes, this version of autopilot is a form of escape.

Maybe you smoke because you feel that it helps to relieve your stress. Perhaps you slouch chronically because you are fatigued, and it seems easier to slump over than sit up straight. Bad habits provide with some form of comfort which can make them tough to break.

Imagine I had two offers for you, the first offer was giving you 100 dollars today, and the second offer was giving you 1000 dollars but only 7 years later. Which offer would you take? Even though you know that you can get more money if you wait, you’re likely to take the first offer because you don’t like to delay the reward.

Instant gratification has always been the greatest enemy when it comes to breaking bad habits. Knowing something can have a negative effect is never enough to make someone quit. Bad habits exist because they are actually making people feel good.

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How to Break up With Bad Habits

Here are three proven steps to get over bad habits once and for all.

1. Take your mind away.

After you’ve made up your mind to quit, and you’ve found your alternative, commit to quitting your bad habits by going mindless every time a bad habit trigger appears.[5] Committing to change means that you can’t make excuses and you can’t give yourself any room to convince yourself why you can just skip it once. Don’t think whether you should do the bad habit or not, just don’t do it no matter what.

For example, if you want to eliminate your incessant slouching at work, you have to tell yourself that you aren’t going to slouch while you’re working no matter what. Just stick to sitting up straight, no excuses on why you can slouch for a while.

2. Be super aware whether you have done the bad habit every day.

Write down how things are going with your commitment.[6] It’s easy to lose track of progress if you don’t make a note of your behaviors.

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You are bound to slip up when you are turning over a new leaf. Writing down your behaviors might reveal patterns related to these moments of weakness. If you can spot the pattern, you may be able to disrupt it.

3. Have a strict reward and punishment system.

Reward yourself when you stick with your commitment. Maybe you will allow yourself to take a five-minute dance break or eat a cookie with your lunch in exchange for not mindlessly chomping on snacks at your desk. Your reward doesn’t have to be costly, but it should be valuable to you. The only stipulation is that you can’t reward your good behavior with the bad habit.

Designate a consequence for engaging in the negative habit. The consequence doesn’t need to be emotionally damaging. It just needs to cause enough discomfort or inconvenience to make you think twice about falling into old patterns.

People have been doing this for decades with the “swear jar.”[7] Every time they say a bad word, they have to sacrifice money to the jar. You could come up with your own version of the swear jar or find some other consequence that will motivate you to stay on the proper path. Maybe every day that you snack on candy at your desk, you have to take your friend out to a healthy lunch. Having to incur this extra cost and effort will keep you accountable.

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Your system of rewards and consequences are transactions that can help you eliminate your bad habits and automate the good ones.

Train Yourself Like a Dog (for a Good Cause)

Ultimately, you’ll want to train yourself to do the right things the way that Pavlov’s dogs salivated automatically when they heard a bell ring.[8] The dogs salivated (their routine) without thinking because they had been classically conditioned to associate the sound of the bell ringing (a trigger) with food (their reward).

Don’t let a fear of failure stand in your way. Even if you have been engaged in a bad habit for years, it is still possible to eliminate the unhealthy behavior. Know that it may not be easy at first, but eventually the good habit will become your natural response to the trigger. The commitment to break bad habits could lead you to a healthier and more successful future. The change can start today.

Share to those who love instant pleasure too much, there is actually a way out.

Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io

Reference

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Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

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