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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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Last Updated on November 15, 2018

Success In Reaching Goals Is Determined By Mindset

Success In Reaching Goals Is Determined By Mindset

What do you think it takes to achieve your goals? Hard work? Lots of actions? While these are paramount to becoming successful in reaching our goals, neither of these are possible without a positive mindset.

As humans, we naturally tend to lean towards a negative outlook when it comes to our hopes and dreams. We are prone to believing that we have limitations either from within ourselves or from external forces keeping us from truly getting to where we want to be in life. Our tendency to think that we’ll “believe it when we see it” suggests that our mindsets are focused on our goals not really being attainable until they’ve been achieved. The problem with this is that this common mindset fuels our limiting beliefs and shows a lack of faith in ourselves.

The Success Mindset

Success in achieving our goals comes down to a ‘success mindset’. Successful mindsets are those focused on victory, based on positive mental attitudes, empowering inclinations and good habits. Acquiring a success mindset is the sure-fire way to dramatically increase your chance to achieve your goals.

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The idea that achieving our goals comes down to our habits and actions is actually a typical type of mindset that misses a crucial point; that our mindset is, in fact, the determiner of our energy and what actions we take. A negative mindset will tend to create negative actions and similarly if we have a mindset that will only set into action once we see ‘proof’ that our goals are achievable, then the road will be much longer and arduous. This is why, instead of thinking “I’ll believe it when I see it”, a success mindset will think “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

The Placebo Effect and What It Shows Us About The Power of Mindset

The placebo effect is a perfect example of how mindset really can be powerful. In scientific trials, a group of participants were told they received medication that will heal an ailment but were actually given a sugar pill that does nothing (the placebo). Yet after the trial the participants believed it’s had a positive effect – sometimes even cured their ailment even though nothing has changed. This is the power of mindset.

How do we apply this to our goals? Well, when we set goals and dreams how often do we really believe they’ll come to fruition? Have absolute faith that they can be achieved? Have a complete unwavering expectation? Most of us don’t because we hold on to negative mindsets and limiting beliefs about ourselves that stop us from fully believing we are capable or that it’s at all possible. We tend to listen to the opinions of others despite them misaligning with our own or bow to societal pressures that make us believe we should think and act a certain way. There are many reasons why we possess these types of mindsets but a success mindset can be achieved.

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How To Create a Success Mindset

People with success mindsets have a particular way of perceiving things. They have positive outlooks and are able to put faith fully in their ability to succeed. With that in mind, here are a few ways that can turn a negative mindset into a successful one.

1. A Success Mindset Comes From a Growth Mindset

How does a mindset even manifest itself? It comes from the way you talk to yourself in the privacy of your own head. Realising this will go a long way towards noticing how you speak to yourself and others around you. If it’s mainly negative language you use when you talk about your goals and aspirations then this is an example of a fixed mindset.

A negative mindset brings with it a huge number of limiting beliefs. It creates a fixed mindset – one that can’t see beyond it’s own limitations. A growth mindset sees these limitations and looks beyond them – it finds ways to overcome obstacles and believes that this will result in success. When you think of your goal, a fixed mindset may think “what if I fail?” A growth mindset would look at the same goal and think “failures happen but that doesn’t mean I won’t be successful.”

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There’s a lot of power in changing your perspective.

2. Look For The Successes

It’s really important to get your mind focused on positive aspects of your goal. Finding inspiration through others can be really uplifting and keep you on track with developing your success mindset; reinforcing your belief that your dreams can be achieved. Find people that you can talk with about how they achieved their goals and seek out and surround yourself with positive people. This is crucial if you’re learning to develop a positive mindset.

3. Eliminate Negativity

You can come up against a lot of negativity sometimes either through other people or within yourself. Understanding that other people’s negative opinions are created through their own fears and limiting beliefs will go a long way in sustaining your success mindset. But for a lot of us, negative chatter can come from within and these usually manifest as negative words such as can’t, won’t, shouldn’t. Sometimes, when we think of how we’re going to achieve our goals, statements in our minds come out as negative absolutes: ‘It never works out for me’ or ‘I always fail.’

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When you notice these coming up you need to turn them around with ‘It always works out for me!’ and ‘I never fail!’ The trick is to believe it no matter what’s happened in the past. Remember that every new day is a clean slate and for you to adjust your mindset.

4. Create a Vision

Envisioning your end goal and seeing it in your mind is an important trait of a success mindset. Allowing ourselves to imagine our success creates a powerful excitement that shouldn’t be underestimated. When our brain becomes excited at the thought of achieving our goals, we become more committed, work harder towards achieving it and more likely to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

If this involves creating a vision board that you can look at to remind yourself every day then go for it. Small techniques like this go a long way in sustaining your success mindset and shouldn’t be dismissed.

An Inspirational Story…

For centuries experts said that running a mile in under 4 minutes was humanly impossible. On the 6th May 1954, Rodger Bannister did just that. As part of his training, Bannister relentlessly visualised the achievement, believing he could accomplish what everyone said wasn’t possible…and he did it.

What’s more amazing is that, as soon as Bannister achieved the 4-minute mile, more and more people also achieved it. How was this possible after so many years of no one achieving it? Because in people’s minds it was suddenly possible – once people knew that it was achievable it created a mindset of success and now, after over fifty years since Bannister did the ‘impossible’, his record has been lowered by 17 seconds – the power of the success mindset!

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