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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

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Bruno Boksic

An expert in habit building

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Last Updated on September 18, 2019

15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

15 Best Organizing Tips For Office Organization and Getting More Done

You may think that you don’t have time for office organization, but if you really knew how much time that disorganization cost you, you’d reconsider.

Rearranging and moving piles occasionally doesn’t count. Neither does clearing off your desk, if you swipe the mess into a bin, or a desk drawer.

A relatively neat and orderly office space clears the way for higher productivity and less wasted time.

Organizing your office doesn’t have to take days, it can be done a little at a time. In fact, maintaining an organized office is much more effective if you treat it like an on-going project, instead of a massive assault.

So, if you’re ready to get started, the following organizing tips will help you transform your office into an efficient workspace.

1. Purge Your Office

De-clutter, empty, shred, get rid of everything that you don’t need or want. Look around. What haven’t you used in a while?

Take one area at a time. If it doesn’t work, send it out for repair or toss it. If you haven’t used it in months and can’t think of when you’ll actually need it, out it goes. This goes for furniture, equipment, supplies, etc.

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Don’t forget about knick-knacks, plants (real or artificial), and decorations – if they’re covered with dust and make your office look shabby, they’re fair game.

2. Gather and Redistribute

Gather up every item that isn’t where it belongs and put it where it does.

3. Establish Work “Zones”

Decide what type of activity happens in each area of your office. You’ll probably have a main workspace (most likely your desk,) a reference area (filing cabinet, shelves, binders,) and a supply area (closet, shelves or drawers.)

Place the appropriate equipment and supplies are located in the proper area as much as possible.

4. Close Proximity

Position the equipment and supplies that you use most within reach. Things that you rarely use can be stored or put away.

5. Get a Good Labeler

Choose a label maker that’s simple to use. Take the time to label shelves, bins, baskets drawers. Not only will it remind you where things go, but it will also help others who may have a need to find, use, or put away anything in your workspace.

6. Revise Your Filing System

As we move fully into the digital age, the need to store paper files has decreased.

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What can your store digitally? Are you duplicating files? You may be able to eliminate some of the files and folders you’ve used in the past. If you’re storing files on your computer, make sure you are doing regular back-ups.

Here’re some storage ideas for creating a smooth filing system:

  • Create a meeting folder – Put all “items to be discussed” in there along with items that need to be handed off, reports that need to be given, etc. It’ll help you be prepared for meetings and save you stress in the even that a meeting is moved up.
  • Create a WOR folder – So much of our messy papers are things that are on hold until someone else responds or acts. Corral them in a WOR (Waiting on Response) folder. Check it every few days for outstanding actions you may need to follow-up on.
  • Storage boxes – Use inexpensive storage boxes to keep archived files and get them out of your current file space.
  • Magazine boxes – Use magazine boxes or binders to store magazines and catalogs you really want to store. Please make sure you really need them for reference or research, otherwise recycle them, or give away.
  • Reading folder – Designate a file for print articles and documents you want to read that aren’t urgent.
  • Archive files – When a project is complete, put all of the materials together and file them away. Keep your “working folders” for projects in progress.
  • File weekly – Don’t let your filing pile up. Put your papers in a “To File” folder and file everything once a week.

Learn more tips on organizing your files here: How to Organize Your Files for Better Productivity

7. Clear off Your Desk

Remove everything, clean it thoroughly and put back only those items that are essential for daily use.

If you have difficulty declutter stuff, this Declutter Formula will help you throw away stuff without regretting later.

8. Organize your Desktop

Now that you’ve streamlined your desktop, it’s a good idea to organize it.

Use desktop organizers or containers to organize the items on your desk. Use trays for papers, containers for smaller items.

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Don’t forget your computer desktop! Make sure the files or images are all in organized folders. I’d recommend you clear your computer desktop everyday before you leave work.

9. Organize Your Drawers

Put items used together in the same drawer space, stamps with envelopes, sticky pads with notepads, etc.

Use drawer organizers for little items – paper clips, tacks, etc. Use a separate drawer for personal items.

10. Separate Inboxes

If you work regularly with other people, create a folder, tray, or inbox for each.

11. Clear Your Piles

Hopefully with your new organized office, you won’t create piles of paper anymore, but you still have to sort through the old ones.

Go through the pile (a little at a time if necessary) and put it in the appropriate place or dump it.

12. Sort Mails

Don’t just stick mail in a pile to be sorted or rifle through and take out the pieces you need right now. Sort it as soon as you get it – To act, To read, To file, To delegate or hand off. .

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13. Assign Discard Dates

You don’t need to keep every piece of paper indefinitely. Mark on files or documents when they can be tossed or shredded.

Some legal or financial documents must be kept for specified length of time. Make sure you know what those requirements are.

14. Filter Your Emails

Some emails are important to read, others are just not that important.

When you use the filter system to label different types of emails, you know their priority and which to reply first.

Take a look at these tips to achieve inbox zero: The Ultimate Way to get to Inbox Zero

15. Straighten Your Desk

At the end of the day, do a quick straighten, so you have a clean start the next day.

Bottom Line

Use one tip or try them all. The amount of effort you put into creating and maintaining an efficient work area will pay off in a big way.

Instead of spending time looking for things and shuffling piles, you’ll be able to spend your time…well…working and you’ll enjoy being clutter free!

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Featured photo credit: Alesia Kazantceva via unsplash.com

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