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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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

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Last Updated on February 17, 2021

50 Ways to Increase Productivity and Achieve More in Less Time

50 Ways to Increase Productivity and Achieve More in Less Time

If you feel like you don’t have enough time to do everything you want to do, maybe it’s time to check-in with your time management skills.

No one is born to be very good at time management, so that’s okay if you think you’re bad in it. But everyone can learn to boost their productivity and achieve more!

Here are 50 ways to increase productivity and add hours to your day.

1. Set a Timer

Estimate the time you need to tackle different tasks and set a timer for each of your tasks. How you go about this is up to you as there are many different ways. There is the Pomodoro technique where you focus on a task for 25 minutes followed by a five minute break afterwards.

In the event that you have a task that will take much longer than that, you can consider one of the many timer-based apps. One that comes to mind is Clockify. It’s used for freelancers and entrepreneurs alike, however it’s a good way to be setting yourself a timer. It provides reports and you can serve as a project manager of sorts too. Best of all, it’s free.

2. Eliminate All Distractions

Distractions include the phone, email notifications and having multiple web browsers open on the desktop. Just as it’s important to be organized offline, it’s key to have things organized online as well. This free guide End Distractions And Find Your Focus is a good tool to help you. With this guide, you’ll learn how to get rid of distractions and boost productivity. Grab your free guide here.

You can also learn more on how to get rid of all distractions in this guide: How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

3. Listen to Music That Boosts Productivity

Distractions should be avoided, but sometimes a bit of music in the background can help you focus.

Of course, it doesn’t need to be heavy rock music, but a bit of Beethoven may do you some good.

Here’s a complete guide to help you pick the right music for better productivity: How To Maximize Your Productivity With Music: A Complete Guide

4. Find Meaning in What You Do (And Love What You Do)

Enjoying what you do is the ultimate way to increase your productivity.

If you aren’t sure what you love doing yet, don’t worry. Leo Babauta has some unique ways to help you: How to Find Your Passion

5. Prioritize your tasks ahead of time.

By listing your tasks in order of importance, you can make sure that you finish all of your most important tasks during the day.

Learn a unique technique to Prioritize Right in 10 Minutes and Work 10X Faster.

6. Batch Similar Tasks into a Single Batch.

Tasks like blog writing, phone calls, email and errands can be grouped into a single batch. You will save time by completing similar tasks in one session. One way to help you with organizing all of those things is through the app Todoist. It’s an easy and simple way for you to plan out your day, set reminders, and group all of your most important tasks in a convenient spot.

7. Complete Your Most Dreaded Tasks First Thing in the Morning.

Whichever activity you are dreading the most is probably the one you need to complete first thing in the morning.

Many people tend to check emails in the morning because after checking a list of emails, they feel fulfilled. But that’s just an illusion of having achieved more.

Doing simple tasks like checking emails first in the morning is bad for you. Instead, do the difficult tasks because you have more energy in the morning to tackle them!

8. Reward Yourself for Finishing a Big Task

To stay motivated for whatever you do, reward yourself every now and then.

Keep track of your small wins and milestones and celebrate them. So whenever you struggle about your progress, you see how far you’ve come!

Find out more about this 2-Step Approach to Self-Motivation: Track Small Wins and Reward Yourself.

9. Don’t Multitask

Research has shown that multitasking is not productive. If you think you can multitask, think again.

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For optimum productivity, focus on one thing at a time.

10. Step Away from the Computer

The Internet has become one of the number one distraction. To increase your productivity, try to do as much of your work offline as possible.

I do this a lot when I try to brainstom new ideas and have found it to be very beneficial to simply unplug.

11. Use Focus Tools

Make good use of apps and technology to help you remove distractions.

Here’re 18 Best Time Management Apps and Tools to help you stay focused. This way, you’re not distracted by the web, e-mail, or IM.

Also, join the free Fast-Track Class – Overcoming Distraction, and you’ll learn the one simple method to work even when you’re surrounded by distractions. Join the free session now!

12. Just Start

Often times, starting is the hardest part. People tend to wait for the perfect time with perfect condition to start. But there’s no perfect condition.

Once you get going, you will quickly get into a rhythm that could last for hours.

13. Find out Your Productive Hours

Everyone has a certain time of the day in which they are more productive than others. For me, it’s the morning.

Find out when your prime time is for productivity and optimize your work schedule accordingly.

14. Keep a Notebook and Pen on Hand at All Times

This way, you can write down your thoughts, to-dos and ideas at any time. The key is to get everything out of your head and onto paper. Your subconscious mind won’t be reminding you about it every other second. Another consideration is getting the app Evernote. Not only does this save you on ink and paper, Evernote is a convenient place for you to jot down notes and thoughts and then share them with the team. In certain circumstances, this can prove useful if you’re the type of person that has a lot of ideas that you want to share.

15. Write a Blog to Chronicle Your Own Personal Development and Achievements

The blog keeps you accountable and always working towards self improvement and personal growth.

When you write down all the small achievements you’ve been having, you’re also more motivated to move forward.

And you know what, this is how I started Lifehack too! What also helped me in starting Lifehack is WordPress, which allows people to set up a website for free. WordPress has simplified a lot of the process of building a site to the point that virtually anyone can build a website now.

16. Write out a To-Do-List Each Day

I like to plan my day the night before. This way, I can get started on my most important tasks as soon as I wake up. The Full Life Planner is a nice tool to help you organize your days and get things that matter done. Check out the planner here and start to plan your day ahead easily!

Make sure you don’t make any of these common to-do-list mistakes!

17. Write Your Most Important Tasks and To-Dos on a Calendar.

The key to good time management is knowing where to be and what to be doing there at any given time. Effective calendar management goes hand in hand with good task list management.

Learn here How to Use a Calendar to Create Time and Space.

18. Reflect on Your Productivity Constantly

As you go throughout your day, repeatedly ask yourself:

“Am I currently making the best possible use of my time?”

This one simple question can be an excellent boost to your productivity.

19. Get up Early Before Anyone Else

I know it could be difficult for some to wake up early in the morning but nothing beats a quiet house!

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Here’s How to Start Your Day at 5:00 AM and some Simple Things Early Risers Do to make waking up early easier.

20. Get Plenty of Sleep

When you work online, sleep can become a long lost memory. However, it’s important to get plenty of sleep so that your working hours can be as productive as possible.

Try out this night routine which I highly recommend for productivity: The Ultimate Night Routine Guide: Sleep Better and Wake Up Productive

21. Exercise

Research has shown that midday exercise boosts productivity and morale in the workplace.

Take a short walk at lunch or do some simple stretches during your break to maximize your productivity.

Here I have some exercises recommendations for you:

22. Outsource as Much as Possible

If you want to achieve more in less time, learn to delegate or outsource work. Here are just a few of the companies that will help you outsource your everyday tasks:

Also, read this guide to learn how to delegate effectively: How to Delegate Work (the Definitive Guide for Successful Leaders)

23. Set Some Exciting Goals

Without worthy goals, you will never be motivated to get things done.

Set goals that are challenging and achievable. The best goal setting framework is a SMART goal. That said, there are other tools that can help you out as well. For example, The Dreamers’ Guide To Reaching Your Goal is a great guide to help you set and reach goals effectively. Grab your free guide and learn how to make your goals happen this year!

24. Tell Other People About Your Goals

When you tell others about your goals, you will instantly be held accountable.

25. Listen to Podcasts

Listen to educational podcasts or audio books while you’re driving to work, cleaning the house, exercising, or cooking dinner.

Audio learning has the power to add hours to your day. Not to mention, your cranium is sure to thank you for it.

Some recommendations for you: 11 Podcasts To Inspire Yourself

26. Read David Allen’s best-selling book Getting Things Done

This is one of the most important productivity books you will ever read. Read it, apply the tips in your daily lives and get more things done.

Here’re more great books about productivity too: 35 Books on Productivity and Organizational Skills for an Effective Life

27. Learn to Speed Read

When you can read faster, you will read and learn more! Check out these 10 Ways to Increase Your Reading Speed.

You can also make use of the app OutRead to help speed up your reading speed!

28. Learn to Skip When You Read

When you’re reading a book, just read the parts that you need and skip the rest. But you have to read with a purpose.

Learn how to make it work here: How to Read 10X Faster and Retain More

29. Focus on Result-Oriented Activities

Pareto’s law (also known as the 80 20 rule) states that 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs. This means that 20% of our actions result in 80% of the results.

We must find the 20% that is creating the 80% of our desired outcomes and focus solely on those activities.

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30. Take a Break

You can’t always be working at optimum productivity. Instead, you should shoot for working in short bursts at your most productive times.

31. Start a Polyphasic Sleep Schedule

What is polyphasic sleep?

Polyphasic sleep is a sleep pattern specification intended to compress sleep time to 2-5 hours daily.[1] This is achieved by spreading out sleep into short (around 20-45 minute) naps throughout the day. This allows for more waking hours with relatively high alertness.

While you can learn more about it here, you’re recommended to take some naps during the day to recharge your energy too.

32. Learn to Say “No”.

We can’t do everything and therefore we must learn when to say no in order to save our sanity.

Learn the Gentle Art of Saying No from Leo Babauta.

33. Go on an Information Diet

Most of the world lives on information overload. We must eliminate mindless Internet surfing.

Stop reading three different newspapers a day and checking your RSS feeds multiple times a day. Otherwise, you’ll never get anything done.

The key is to limit yourself only to information that you can immediately take action on. Here’re some simple tips you can try: 10 Simple Productivity Tricks To Manage Overloaded Information

34. Organize Your Office

The piles of paper around your desk can be a huge barrier on your productivity. Optimize your time by organizing your office, setting up a system and dumping the junk.

Check out these 21 Tips to Organize Your Office and Get More Done and 20 Easy Home Office Organization Ideas to Boost Your Productivity.

35. Find a Mentor

By modeling after those who have already achieved success, you will save yourself a lot of time and energy.

A good mentor is hard to find, so here’s a guide to help you: What to Look for in a Mentor

36. Learn Keyboard Shortcuts

With technology’s help, you can double your work efficiency. Even better, you learn all the shortcuts when using technology, for example keyboard shortcuts.

When you use keyboard shortcut, you gain 64 hours every year!

Not sure what shortcuts to lear? Check out these 22 Tricks That Can Make Anyone A Keyboard Ninja.

Besides learning the shortcuts, you can also create keyboard shortcuts with AutoHotKey.

37. Improve Your Typing Speed to Save Time

Do you know you can save 21 days per year just by typing fast?

You don’t really need to take some serious courses to type faster, try these typing games online:

38. Work from Home and Avoid the Daily Commute

If your job is a flexible one, consider working from home. This saves you the commute time and you’ll find yourself more energetic throughout the day as you have saved the long ride.

Take a look at these tips to help you stay productive while working from home:

How to Work from Home and Stay Ultra-Productive

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39. Get Rid of Time Wasters

Common time wasters include Instant Messenger, video games, Flickr, checking your stats 10 times a day, television and extraneous Internet surfing.

Don’t rely on your willpower, make use of some of these useful tools to help you stay focus: 10 Online Apps for Better Focus

40. Plan Your Meals in Advance

Plan out all of your meals a week ahead and make your grocery list accordingly. This allows you to focus on the necessary – saving you time and money. You can also save yourself even more time through a wide variety of apps. One app that I find helpful is Mealime. It’s an app that provides you with a wide selection of recipes and also a convenient spot for your grocery list as well.

Considering the fact that over 4 million users have this app, it goes to show that there is a good selection of meal plans that you can follow and that the app is friendly to use.

41. Cook Your Meals in Bulk

When you cook your meals in bulk, you will have plenty of leftovers. This can avoid having to cook everyday.

Find out more about how to make cooking in bulk works: Once a Month Cooking: Productivity Hack or Overrated Time Suck?

42. Protect Yourself from Unnecessary Phone Time with Caller ID

The minutes you spend on picking up unnecessary phone calls are time wasted. You can prevent that from happening.

Check out this detailed guide how you can deal with those unnecessary phone calls: How To Lose the Useless Items that Weigh Down Your Day – Cellphone Calls

43. Take Shorter Showers

This one may sound silly but it’s actually something I struggle with. I spend up to 30 minutes in the shower. Think of the time I could save simply by speeding up a bit.

44. Save the Trips to Bank by Taking Direct Deposit

Many employers now offer direct deposit. If yours does, then be sure and take advantage of it and save yourself from a number of trips to the bank.

45. Auto Pay Your Bills

How many times have you been worried about whether you missed the bills deadline?

Auto paying your bills will save you time and eliminate late fees and increased interest rates.

46. Shop Online

Whenever possible, avoid going to the store. When you shop online, you can be more focus about what you’re getting.

47. Speed up your Internet With a Broadband Connection

Many people are aware of the slow speed of internet but aren’t doing anything about it. In fact, this is the number one Internet time-saver!

If you must use dial-up, then you can use accelerators like Propel and SlipStream to double or even triple your speed.

48. Keep up the Speed of Your Computer

If you’re a Windows user, use Windows hibernation feature to avoid the slowdown of exiting and restarting Windows.

Or maybe, consider switching to Mac as there’re plenty of Advantages You Probably Don’t Know About Switching To Mac From PC.

49. Turn off the TV

The average American watches more than 4 hours of television every day. Over a 65-year life, that’s 9 years glued to the tube.

For better health and productivity, turn off the TV. Here’re 11 more reasons to tell you to stop watching TV so often.

Turn off the TV and you are sure to get more out of life.

50. Use a Tivo or DVR

This can help you cut an hour-long television show down to just 40 minutes. You can save time while not missing the fun.

So, here’s the ultimate list of techniques you should learn to boost productivity. Pick the techniques that work for you and make them your daily habits. As time goes, you’ll find yourself being a lot more productive.

More Time Management Tips

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

[1] Medical News Today: What is biphasic and polyphasic sleep?

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