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Last Updated on October 16, 2018

How to Break a Bad Habit and Retrain Your Brain

How to Break a Bad Habit and Retrain Your Brain

The words said by Aristotle more than 2000 years ago still ring true:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The world has changed much since those days, but the functions of human systems are still the same. And when it comes to habits, they rule supreme, whether it’s good ones like reading and writing or bad ones like drinking and smoking.

But it all comes down the Operating System (OS) in your brain which can be trained, untrained, and re-trained.

Since you opened this article to learn how to break a bad habit, we will focus on breaking that pesky habit that’s been bothering you. So sit comfortably and let’s jump right in.

How habits form

A habit is a nun’s clothes. Joke aside, a habit is set of automated tasks your brain does. But just as with everything in this world, a habit isn’t just a habit.

When you break it down to its smallest pieces, you actually get three distinct parts which make a habit.

There’re 2 types of habits: conscious habits and hidden habits. And plenty of your bad habits are hidden, you can try to identify your hidden habits here first.

Research done by Charles Duhigg and presented in his book The Power Of Habits shows us that a habit consists of three parts:

  • Cue
  • Routine
  • Reward

Cue

Cue is basically a trigger which sends the impulse to the brain that it is time to do the routine. Cues can be internal or external. An internal cue depends on your emotional state and your thoughts.

The easiest example is when you feel nervous and you start biting your nails.

The feeling of nervousness is an internal cue and your brain acknowledges that cue and goes into a routine which is to bite the nails.

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One more example is showering. As soon as you step into the shower/bathtub, your mind simply goes blank and you start shampooing your body. You probably have no idea, but every single time you shampoo your body the same way.

First comes the torso, then the hands, then legs. It doesn’t even matter what the order is, but what matters is that the cue for the routine of showering is you entering the bathtub/shower.

Cues are triggers which start the automated process of a routine in our head.

Routine

This is the action that we do when we are triggered or cued up. In the example above, the routine is showering and biting your nails. Our mind does this automatically.

The routine is impregnated in our minds in the area called the basal ganglia and once the routine is set, it is impossible to forget it. That’s why you know how to ride a bike even if you haven’t sat on it for 30 years.

Reward

This is the emotional/physical/physiological response to the routine which gives us a certain high.

Every habit has a reward not only as a motivator but as a way to signal to our brain that the habit is done and that it needs to get off “autopilot.”

Now, the process of breaking down a habit is a little bit different than what it is when establishing a new habit. But still, it has only three simple steps which are above-mentioned.

We just have a different approach towards them when breaking a habit. So, let’s start with it.

Breaking down a habit with these 3 easy steps

The three easy ways to break down a habit include making certain things hard to do.

1. Make the cue invisible

We know that a cue is a trigger for the habit. Unless there is a cue, a habit won’t start. So one of the steps of breaking a habit is to make the cue invisible.

Most of the times, the habits that we make are simple to do and are triggered by simple cues.

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Imagine taking a walk down the street. You do it burn off some calories and because it’s healthy for the body (and mind). But there is an ice cream stand at the bottom of the street and every single time you walk past it, you can’t help yourself but to stand and pick a chocolate chip flavored ice cream.

You did it so many times that it became a habit. The cue is spotting the ice cream stand. That triggers an emotional reaction, a craving from our side for some delicious ice cream which we then buy (routine). As soon as we take the first lick of the ice cream, we immediately feel the impeccable taste of that chocolate melting in our mouths (reward).

To make the cue invisible, you need to put yourself in a situation where you won’t trigger the cue in your head. Since you know the location of the stand, you need to win this game not at the stand, declining to act on a routine. But what you need to do is choose a different street to walk on and completely ignore this one.

That is the place where you win the battle. You win it by not entering in the battle at all.

By making the cue invisible, you can completely skip the bad habit and after enough repetitions, break it. But what if it’s impossible to make the cue invisible – like a TV set in the living room and your nasty habit of binge-watching whatever is on the TV.

That’s where we make the routine difficult.

2. Make the routine difficult

In the case above, where we want to break down the habit of watching TV endlessly as soon as we get back home, we can’t make the cue invisible. So we create the routine difficult.

If the habit is comprised of sitting on the sofa after work (cue), grabbing the remote and turning on the TV (routine), and watching entertainment (reward), we will make the routine difficult.

We will use something called the 20-second rule. The 20-second rule states that if you make an action so “difficult” that it takes us to jumpstart it, we won’t do it at all.

In the case above, you can make the routine difficult by implementing the 20-second rule by:

  • Unplug the TV from the power source. So every time that you come home and sit on the sofa, you will need to get up, plug the TV in the chord and sit back down on the sofa to watch TV.
  • Put the remote in the other room. Again, the same spiel applies as in the case above.
  • Remove the batters from the remote and keep them stored in the basement. Again, the same example from above counts.

Even though these examples sound a bit ridiculous and you think that there is no way that this will ever work, I have a plethora of research which proves otherwise.

By the way, this also when you are creating a new, good habit. You simply reverse the 20-second rule, making the object as close/easy as possible for you to do.

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Never doubt the laziness of your brain to perform a certain action.

Last but not least, we can make the end of the habit, the reward, unsatisfying.

3. Make the reward unsatisfying

Rewards have two functions. The first is to satisfy a craving. The second one is to teach us.

We will stay with the first one because that one is crucial when breaking bad habits.

Satisfy a craving

When you take habits into account, this is common sense. The reward that comes after we performed a certain routine is natural and expected.

But when breaking a habit, we need to reverse this process and make the satisfying effect unsatisfying and here is how we do that.

When we satisfy a craving, we are not, in fact, satisfying an end, we are satisfying a means to an end. This is the mindset shift we need to make to think about “rewards” in their right way.

When you are craving for that cookie even though you know that you want to lose weight, you are, in fact, not craving to eat a cookie or its flavor. You are craving for the emotions, the feelings you get from eating that cookie.

That is the part which is addictive and which closes the habit loop (the reward).

What you crave from a reward is an emotion which makes you feel good, one way or another, and the way that you make the reward unsatisfying is by finding a reward which gives you the same or bigger intensity of that emotion. Here is an example:

You like gambling and putting a big load of money on the table. The reward that you get is the feeling known as “the thrill of the action.” So what you crave isn’t putting a $100,000 on the Blackjack table, it’s the feeling of “the thrill of the action.”

What else could give you the same emotional push? Is it skydiving, scuba diving, driving a racing car or playing Counter-strike in virtual reality?

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Once you try different things and figure out that you can get a bigger intensity from a different, less dangerous activity for you, you will switch the activity that you were doing because the first one will no longer give you the thrill.

Let’s take a look at another example:

You want a cookie and you want it bad. But as in the example above, you learned that the same feeling of comfort can be gained by chewing on almonds which even though they don’t taste the same, give you the same feeling of comfort.

The examples for this are endless and you just need to try a couple of different things which give you the same or greater intensity of the emotion.

There is also a second function of a reward and that is to teach us but it is not important when breaking bad habits.

Conclusion

Our brains are like computer programs. We can change them if we code them the way we want to. \

Bad habits are just a piece of bad coding which snuck in our brains when we weren’t watching. But there is a way to break them.

The first thing is to understand how habits form and that they are comprised of cues, routines, and rewards.

If we want to change the habits, we need to make the cues invisible, the routines hard, and the rewards unsatisfying.

All of this seems harder than it is, but in reality, it’s simple and easy to do. We just need to remember Jim Rohn’s saying when it comes to simple and easy actions:

“Simple and easy things and simple and easy to do. But simple and easy things are also simple and easy not to do.”

Consistency is the key to breaking any bad habit – don’t beat yourself up if you fail once. Just keep on pushing with simple and easy ways to break them and you will soon enough lose the bad habits and retrain your brain.

Featured photo credit: THE 5TH via unsplash.com

More by this author

Bruno Boksic

An expert in habit building

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Published on January 16, 2019

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

We’re all busy, but sometimes we go through periods where the work piles up and it seems like it might never end.

You might have such a heavy workload that it feels too intimidating to even start.

You may have said yes to some or too many projects, and now you’re afraid you won’t be able to deliver.

That’s when you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and start looking at what’s working and what’s not working.

Here’re 13 strategies you can use to get out from under your overwhelming workload:

1. Acknowledge You Can’t Do It All

Many of us have a tendency to think we can do more than we actually can. We take on more and more projects and responsibility and wear numerous hats.

We all have the opportunity to have and take on more work than we can reasonably expect to get done. Unfortunately, our workload is not static. Even now, while you are reading this article, I’m guessing that your inbox is filling up with fresh new tasks.

To make real, effective progress, you have to have both the courage and resourcefulness to say, “This is not working”. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all and look for better solutions.

At any given time in your life, there are likely many things that aren’t going according to plan. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself and those around you about what’s not working for you, both personally and professionally.

The more you exercise your ability to tell the truth about what’s working and what’s not working, the faster you’ll make progress.

2. Focus on Your Unique Strengths

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a leader or working as part of a team, every individual has unique strengths they can bring to the table.

The challenge is that many people end up doing things that they’re simply not very good at.

In the pursuit of reaching your goals or delivering a project, people end up doing everything themselves or taking on things that don’t play to their unique strengths. This can result in frustration, overwhelm and overwork.

It can mean projects taking a lot longer to complete because of knowledge gaps, or simply not utilizing the unique strengths of other people you work with.

It is often not about how to complete this project more effectively but who can help deliver this project.

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So, what are your unique strengths that will ensure your workload is delivered more effectively? Here’re some questions to help you reflect:

  • Are you a great strategist?
  • Are you an effective planner?
  • Is Project Management your strength?
  • Is communication and bringing people together your strength?
  • Are you the ideas person?
  • Is Implementation your strength?

Think about how you can bring the biggest value to your work and the projects you undertake.

3. Use the Strengths of Your Team

One of the simplest ways to manage your workload effectively is to free up your time so you bring your highest level of energy, focus and strengths to each project.

Delegation or better teamwork is the solution.

Everyone has unique strengths. It’s essential to think teamwork rather than working in isolation to ensure projects can be completed effectively. Besides, every time you give away a task or project that doesn’t play to your unique strengths, you open up an opportunity to do something you’re more talented at. This will empower both yourself and those around you.

Rather than taking on all the responsibilities yourself, look at who you can work with to deliver the best results possible.

4. Take Time for Planning

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. – Abraham Lincoln

One hour of effective planning could save hours of time. Rather than just rushing in and getting started on projects, take the time to map everything in.

You can take the time to think about:

  • What’s the purpose of the project?
  • How Important is it?
  • When does it need to be delivered by?
  • What is the best result and worst result for this project?
  • What are the KPIs?
  • What does the project plan and key milestones look like?
  • Who is working on this project?
  • What is everyone’s responsibilities?
  • What tolerances can I add in?
  • What are the review stages?
  • What are the challenges we may face and the solutions for these challenges?

Having absolute clarity on the project, the project deliverables and the result you want can save a lot of time. It also gets you clear on the priorities and timelines, so you can block out the required amount of time to focus and concentrate.

5. Focus on Priorities

Not everything is a priority, although it can often feel, in the moment, that it is.

Whatever you’re working on, there is always the Most Urgent, Important or Most Valuable projects or tasks.

One tool you can use to maximize your productivity and focus on your biggest priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix. This strategic tool for taking action on the things that matter most is simple. You separate your actions based on four possibilities:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
  3. Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

James Clear has a great description on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix: How to be More Productive By Using the Eisenhower Box

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    The method I use with my coaching clients is to ask them to lay out their Top Five priorities for the day. Then to start with the most important priority first. At the end of the day, you review performance against these priorities.

    If you didn’t get everything accomplished, start the next day with your number one priority.

    If you are given additional task/projects during the day, then you will need to gauge their importance V the other priorities.

    6. Take Time Out

    To stay on top of a heavy workload, it’s important to take time out to rest and recuperate.

    If your energy levels are high and your mind and body is refreshed and alert, you are in more of a peak state to handle a heavy workload.

    Take time out of your day to go for a walk or get some exercise in. Leave early when possible and spend time with people who give you a lot of energy.

    In the background, it’s essential to get a good night’s sleep and eat healthily to sharpen the mind.

    Take a look at this article learn about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

    7. Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

    Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be tough. The balance we all crave is very different from one another.

    I’ve written before about 13 Work Life Balance Tips for a Happy and Productive Life. Working longer and harder doesn’t mean achieving more, especially if you have no time to spend with the people that matter most. The quality of who you are as a person, the relationships you have, the time you spend in work, deciding on what matters most is completely within your control.

    Work-life balance is about finding peace within yourself to be fully present, wherever you are, whether that be in the office or at home, right now. It’s about choosing what matters most and creating your own balanced life.

    If you feel there is not enough balance, then it may be time to make a change.

    8. Stop Multitasking

    Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply can’t work effectively by doing more than one thing at a time—at least more than one thing that requires focused attention.

    So get your list of priorities (see earlier point), do the most important thing first, then move to the next item and work down your list.

    When you split your focus over a multitude of different areas, you can’t consistently deliver a high performance. You won’t be fully present on the one task or project at hand.

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    If you allocate blocked time and create firm boundaries for specific activities and commitments, you won’t feel so overwhelmed or overworked with everything you have to do.

    9. Work in Blocks of Time

    To keep your energy up to produce your best results it’s essential to take regular breaks.

    I use the 60-60-30 method myself and teach it to my coaching clients.

    Work on a project for a sustained period of 50 minutes.

    Then take a 10-minute break. This could be taking a walk, having a healthy snack or just having a conversation with someone.

    Then continue to work on the project for a further 50 minutes.

    Then take another 10-minute break.

    Then take a complete 30-minute break to unplug from the work. This could be time for a proper lunch, a quick bit of exercise, reading or having a walk.

    By simply taking some time out, your energy levels stay up, the quality of your work improves and you reduce the risk of becoming burned out.

    10. Get Rid of Distractions

    Make an estimation on how many times you are distracted during an average working day. Now take that number and multiply it by 25. According to Gloria Mark in her study on The Cost of Interrupted Work, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after interruption.[1]

    “Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity.”

    Distractions don’t just take up your time during the distraction, they can derail your mental progress and focus for almost 25 minutes. So, if you are distracted 5 times per day, you could be losing almost 2 hours every day of productive work and almost 10 hours every week.

    If you have an important project to work on, find a space where you won’t be distracted, or try doing this.

    11. Commit Focused Time to Smaller Tasks

    You know sometimes, you need to simply tackle these tasks and take action on them. But there’s always something more pressing.

    Small tasks can often get in the way of your most important projects. They sit there on your daily To Do list but are often forgotten about because of more important priorities or because they hold no interest for you. But they take up mental energy. They clutter your mind.

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    Commit to spending a specific period of time completing all the small tasks you have on your To Do list. It will give you peace of mind and the space to focus more on your bigger priorities.

    12. Take a Time Audit

    Do you know exactly where your time is going each day? Are you spending too long on certain projects and tasks to the detriment of bigger opportunities?

    Spend a bit of time to analyze where you are spending your time. This insight will amaze you and give you the clarity to start adjusting where you focus your time and on what projects.

    You can start by taking a piece of paper and creating three columns:

    Column A is Priority Work. Column B is Good Work. Column C is low value work or stuff.

    Each day, write down the project or task and the time spent on each. Allocate that time to one of the columns.

    At the end of the week, record the total time spent in each column.

    If you are spending far too much time on certain types of work, look to change things so your focused time is in Column B and C.

    13. Protect Your Confidence

    It is essential to protect our confidence to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed, stressed and lose belief.

    When you have confidence as a daily resource, you are in a better position to problem solve, learn quicker, respond to anything, adjust to anything, and achieve your biggest opportunities.

    Confidence gives you the ability to transform fear into focused and relaxed thinking, communication, and action. This is key to put your mind into a productive state.

    When confidence is high, you can clearly see the possibilities at hand and create strategies to take advantage of them, or to solve the challenges you face each day.

    Final Words

    A heavy workload can be tough to deal with and can cause stress, burnout and ongoing frustration.

    The key is to tackle it head on, rather than let it go on and compound the long-term effects. Hopefully, you can take action on at least one of these tips.

    If it gets too much, and negatively affects your physical and mental health, it may be time to talk to someone. Instead of dealing with it alone and staying unhappier, resentful and getting to a point where you simply can’t cope, you have to make a change for your own sanity.

    Featured photo credit: Hannah Wei via unsplash.com

    Reference

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