Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on March 12, 2020

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.

Advertising

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.

3 Steps to Breaking a Bad Habit

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.

Advertising

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.

Advertising

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?

Advertising

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.

More Tips About Breaking a Habit

Featured photo credit: THE 5TH via unsplash.com

More by this author

Bruno Boksic

An expert in habit building

How to Break a Bad Habit and Retrain Your Brain How to Create Your Best Morning Routine for Success How to Change a Habit With the Four Quadrants of Change Goals vs Objectives: What Are Their Differences? 4 Steps to Build a Positive Habit Stacking Routine

Trending in Smartcut

1 How to Stop Bad Habits: 9 Scientifically Proven Methods 2 How to Lead a Team More Effectively and Be a True Leader at Work 3 How to Make a Career Change at 50 for Great Opportunities 4 What Job Should You Have? 10 Questions to Help You Figure It Out 5 The Ultimate Guide to Prioritizing Your Work And Life

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising
Advertising

Last Updated on April 6, 2020

15 Best Productivity Hacks for Procrastinators

15 Best Productivity Hacks for Procrastinators

Let me guess.

You should be doing something else rather than reading this article. But due to some unknown force of nature, you decided to procrastinate by reading an article about how to hack procrastination. You deserve a pat on the back.

Fortunately, procrastination is not a disease. It’s just a mindset that can be changed, however, here are some productivity tips you need to start getting work done:

First, you need to acknowledge that procrastinating is an unhealthy habit. Not only you’re prioritizing unimportant things, basically, nothing gets done. Still unsure if you’re a procrastinator? Check out this article: Types of Procrastination (And How To Fix Procrastination And Start Doing)

Second, your commitment to change is very important. You should be physically, emotionally, and mentally determined to change this habit. If not, then you’ll just succumb to the tempting lure of doing other things rather than your tasks or chores.

Here are sthe best productivity hacks to improve productivity and keep yourself from procrastinating at work:

1. Give (10+2)*5 a Try

Let’s start with a classic but very effective hack called (10+2)*5 created by Merlin Mann,[1] author of 43Folders.com. Don’t worry. This is not a complicated Mathematical formula you need to solve.

Advertising

The (10+2)*5 simply means 10 minutes work + 2 minutes break multiplied by 5, completing 1 hour. It is crucial to stick with the time limits and not skipping work and break schedules. The point of this is for you to create a jam-packed routine of work and break schedules. The result? You will eventually skip your break schedules.

2. Use Red and Blue More Often

Clean your desk and remove things that might distract you. According to a Science Daily study[2] about which colors improve brain performance, red was found out to increase attention to details while blue sparks creativity. Surrounding your workplace with these colors not only benefits your brain, it’s also pleasing to the eye.

3. Create a Break Agenda

List all the things you want to do on your break, be it surfing the web, checking your emails, snack time, taking selfies, Facebook/Twitter—everything.

Like the (10+2)*5 hack, squeeze these in between work time but the difference is you schedule these activities for ONLY 20 minutes. Eventually, you’ll take your break minutes wisely. You’re finishing tasks while sidetracking to doing the things you enjoy.

4. Set a Timetable for Your Tasks

Like any other habits, procrastinating is a tough wall to break. Replace this habit with another habit. When you’re assigned a task, set a timetable for each step. Let’s say you have a big research task. Here’s a sample timetable:

9:00 – 9:10 am – Set up all your tools, browser tabs, emails, coffee, etc..
9:10 – 10:00 am – Internet research
10:00 – 10:45 am – Look through existing files
10:45 – 11:00 am – Break time!
11:00 – 12:00 pm – Outline the research report

Deadlines are the best hack for getting things done. Setting a specific time to finish a task creates time pressure even if the deadline has passed.

Advertising

5. Take It Outside!

Do yourself a favor and don’t ruin the comfy vibe of your home. If you need to work on a stressful project, do it in a library or coffee shop. You’ll never finish it anyway. Your cozy sofa and toasty bed will just lure you into napping yourself to doom.

6. Become Productively Lazy

Instead of finding all sorts of ways to unproductively procrastinate, use your habit to look for shortcuts and new ways to finish your tasks. Staple multiple papers at a time or master the 3-second t-shirt folding technique. A strong drive combined with laziness sometimes bring out the productive and creative side you never knew you have!

7. Assign a ‘Task Deputy’

It could be your colleague, your supervisor, or your significant other, anyone who has the unforgiving guts to reprimand you when you procrastinate. You could go the extra mile by paying up unfinished tasks or times you open your Facebook or watch a funny cat video on YouTube. Let’s see how five bucks every time you procrastinate will change you.

8. Consider a Gadget-Free Desk

According to a study by Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, average users check on their phones 150 times per day and having your phone just an elbow away just creates sizzle to this habit.[3]

Removing mobile devices and gadgets allows you to focus on your work without the constant interruption from notifications, calls, and text messages. It eliminates the very distracting ambiance and the urge to unlock your phone just because.

9. Prepping the Night

Before hitting the sack to oblivion, prepare everything you’ll need the next day. This will probably take you 15 minutes tops, saving you more time for coffee in the morning.

Spin class at am? Pack up your gym clothes, shoes, socks, etc. or better, create a checklist so you don’t miss anything. You can also prep your food into containers and just grab one before leaving.

Advertising

10. Do a 7-Minute Workout in the Morning

Exercising is proven to increase productivity and stimulate release of endorphin or “Happy Hormones”.

Take a jog outdoors and get warmed up for the day. Don’t feel like running outside? Hop on a treadmilli. It’s a great investment and there are a lot of ways you can use a treadmill like endurance running and metabolism training. On a budget? Here’s a 7 minute, no-equipment needed workout you can do at home:

11. Set-up Mini Tasks

If you’re given a big project, break it down into mini tasks. Create a checklist and start with the easy ones until you finish. Got an article to write? Just start with the title and the first sentence. Or perhaps you have a visual presentation to make?

Spend 15 minutes on your outline, take five minutes coffee break, then finish the first two slides. Accomplishing something, no matter how tiny, still gives you that sense of fulfillment.

12. Create an Inspirational Board or Reminder

I found these mini desk chalkboards from Etsy you can use to write motivating quotes.

Or you know what? Simply write “Do it now!” and stare at it for 10 seconds every time you feel like dropping by on Reddit.

13. Redecorate Your Room

Redecorating my room motivates me to maintain that ‘new’ look for some time until I get use to it and eventually stop. So I redecorate again and again, it became a monthly habit really. Here are some DIY ideas you can do to any room without spending much.

Advertising

14. Ready Your Nibbles

You know that trip to the pantry? It’s just seconds away but it took you several minutes just to get your fruit snacks in the fridge. Before starting a task, prepare your nibbles on your desk to avoid zoning out and losing yourself on the way to the pantry.

Bonus productivity hacks you can do at home:

15. Schedule Your Chores

Write down your chores in a weekly basis with matching day and time when you should be doing these.

For the artsy folks, you can create fun chore charts like these or simply stick the list somewhere visibly annoying e.g. mirrors, doors, TV. The trick is listing as many chores as you can for the week and including unfinished chores the following week. Who likes seeing a long list of chores first thing in the morning?

More Tips to Overcome Procrastination

Featured photo credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters via unsplash.com

Reference

Read Next