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Why Forming a New Good Habit Is Easier Than Breaking a Bad One

Why Forming a New Good Habit Is Easier Than Breaking a Bad One
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We’ve all got a few bad habits. No one’s perfect. Whether it’s eating too much candy, leaving everything until the last minute, watching too much TV, skipping workouts, or letting e-mails pile up at work, we all do things that go against our best interests.

So why don’t we just drop our bad habits? Every year, millions of us make New Year’s resolutions in a bid to change. Unfortunately, as you know, it’s not that simple. Our bad habits become a regular way of life. We start to say things like, “Oh, that’s just how I am!” and “It’s just what I do.” It can feel impossible to break a habit once and for all. In fact, the more you try to resist a habit, the more it can stick.

The science behind bad habits

We all repeat things that feel good, even if we know that they won’t help us in the long run. This is because bad habits such as drinking alcohol, eating too much sugary food, and spending too long in front of the TV trigger the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in the brain.[1] When your brain learns that a particular action makes you feel good, it compels you to repeat it in the future. Your bad habits serve a purpose. Although you might not like the end result, they give you a positive outcome in the moment. This is why they are so hard to kick.

If you develop the habit of slumping in front of the TV as soon as you get in from work, you will probably start skipping workouts, which becomes another bad habit. You might also start to snack in front of your favorite shows. Suddenly, you will have slipped into not one, not two, but three bad habits!

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It’s human nature to seek out rewards, even if they harm us. For instance, 70% of smokers say that they would like to quit but cannot do so, despite the fact that everyone knows that smoking is terrible for human health.[2]

What should you do instead?

Quite simply, you need to start building better habits and stop wasting time and effort trying to break free from your negative behaviours.

Stop judging yourself

You’ve probably already tried telling yourself to just stop with the bad habits and do better in future. Unfortunately, berating yourself only leads to a negative self-image and self-doubt. This kind of negative thinking can become a bad habit in itself.

Thinking about your own faults isn’t much fun. You may have noticed that when you try to break a bad habit, your mind comes up with all kinds of justifications as to why you should carry on doing the same old thing. Habits make you feel comfortable, remember? It’s hard to give that up. Moreover, if you’ve been engaging in the same old habits for months or even years, they will be firmly entrenched. This makes them hard to shift.

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For example, let’s say that you want to cut down on the amount of alcohol you drink each week. One of your bad habits is to have a large glass of wine every night just before you sit down for dinner. You could try scolding yourself, reading up on the dangers of drinking too much, and telling yourself sternly that you are “going to stop this week.”

Unfortunately, the most likely outcome in this situation is that you will feel uncomfortable at the prospect of giving up your bad habit, and possibly guilty or ashamed of having the problem in the first place. So how do you deal with these feelings? By carrying on drinking, of course!

Change your focus

You need to take a new approach. Instead of beating yourself up, it’s time to think about developing behaviors that can provide you with a sense of comfort without damaging your physical or psychological health. If you know that your new habits will help you feel better, you will be motivated to start them! This is much easier than trying to break a bad habit.

When identifying your bad habits and adopting new, positive behaviors, you need to think like a detective or scientist. Take a step back and look at the situation from an objective point of view. If this is difficult for you, pretend that you are trying to help someone else. This can provide you with a clearer perspective.

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First, think about the root causes of your bad habit. Why did it start, and what triggers keep it going? For instance, if you have fallen into the habit of eating high-fat microwave dinners after work, this may be because you went through a busy time in your life where you didn’t have the energy to cook a healthy meal in the evening. At the time, prepackaged microwave dinners may been an adequate temporary solution.

The next step is to devise new habits that will give you the same level of comfort. Ask yourself how you can make it simple to start putting your new habits in place.

Check out this guide for lots of tips on how to make a new habit stick.

Get into the habit of building better habits

We all know that bad habits are comfortable, but you can change!

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Remember, habits become more engrained over time. The more often you repeat an action – whether good or bad – the more likely it is to stick. This also goes for the habit-building habit too.

Once you’ve mastered the art of squeezing out bad habits with more positive behaviours, it will get easier and easier to build the life you want.

Featured photo credit: pixabay via pixabay.com

Reference

[1] Truthhawk: Why Do We Have Bad Habits?
[2] News In Health: Breaking Bad Habits

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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