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Last Updated on October 13, 2020

How to Break Bad Habits (The Only Effective Way)

How to Break Bad Habits (The Only Effective Way)

Do you struggle with that afternoon snack which creates love handles? How about that smoking or drinking habit which is already starting to get pesky? Or the nail-biting, overspending, too much TV or social media?

I get it.

I had all of those and more, and it seemed like an impossible task to get rid of them. And for someone scared, frustrated, and with no information and guidance– it was.

But that all changed when I learned that all of the above are mechanical tasks automated by our brains or simply said — habits.

And all habits fall under the same laws and rules of creation and “destruction.” So I learned how to destroy and break habits and I applied that to the ones in my life.

They didn’t only work for myself, I shared the way with my friends and it worked for them too. So the process which I will describe in the article will work for you too.

It’s time to get rid of those troublesome bad habits and the first step is has nothing to do with the habit.

1. Work on Your Environment

The first thing to stop doing a habit has actually nothing to do with the actual performance on the habit. It has everything to do with the environment around you.

See, habits consists of three parts: A cue– which signalizes the brain to go into routine- which is the actual performance of the habit, and the reward- which is the satisfaction that we get from performing that routine.

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It’s like you walking down the street and spotting an ice-cream stand (cue). You immediately walk over there and get double chocolate ice cream balls. You start devouring it (routine) and as soon as the sweet taste of ice cold chocolate hits your tongue, you feel the ecstasy (reward).

Environmental design is all about changing your environment so that you don’t experience the cue at all.

In the case above, it would mean not walking down the street where they sell the ice cream that you really want to have. Or to make it way harder for you to consume the ice cream by leaving your wallet at home and not being able to buy it. Or knowing that the stand only takes cash and you only carry cards with you.

As long as you can make the environment go in your favor as much as possible, it will be easier to drop the bad habit.

If you eat cookies at night, stop buying them in the groceries. Same applies to alcohol or soda beverages.

If you can eliminate the environment which pushes you into the habit that you don’t want, you have already done half of the work.

But then, there are times when you will fail at this. It will happen for sure and when it does, this is how you need to respond.

2. Start Small, As Small As Possible

It’s unreasonable to think that you will shut down your bad habit immediately and that you won’t fail even once. That’s just a recipe for disaster.

It’s more about how you manage yourself after you fall down.

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The one night where you had the ice cream is bad, but what’s worse is if you drop the attempt to stop eating ice cream altogether just because you had it once.

I set myself a daily habit of reading 20 pages of a book a day and yes, there were days when I didn’t read at all. But did that stop me from continuing to perform the daily habit?

Nope.

And even though I haven’t managed to read every single day, the total book count at the end of the year was still above 40 books.

The steps that you take when shutting down the bad habit need to be small and you need to be as consistent as possible.

If you’re smoking 30 cigars a day, it’s unreasonable to think that tomorrow you will smoke none. Or even if you manage not to smoke for a day or two, the third day you will go haywire and smoke 30 cigars, getting back into the same bad habit.

To be feasible, you need to start slow and work your way “down.” Start slowly lowering the dose of whatever bad habit you’re having.

If you bite your nails, then designate one finger which will be “bite free”. You will still go ham at 9 fingers, but one will be left alone. Soon enough, you will move this to 8, then to 7, then to 6. Then, you will stop biting the nails on one of your hands. You will slowly progress at this until you finally stop the habit from occurring altogether.

But keeping all of this just in your head is a major problem. Our brains are fallible, easily forget, and have biases which cloud our perception and judgment.

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To prevent it from meddling in the process, we need to put all of this on paper (or digital format). We do that by tracking and measuring our progress.

3. Track and Measure

This is the golden rule when it comes to anything regarding habits. You need to track and measure your progress. Period.

Because you do what you track and you improve what you measure. The tracker doesn’t have to be anything complicated. I use a simple excel sheet where I write down the number of pages of a book I read.

This is important because of two reasons:

  • It stops you from breaking the chain. If you rack up enough days where you don’t do the bad habit, you will be motivated by the good streak that you’re having. You will have a bigger perspective on the actions and behaviors you did or didn’t do.
  • KanBan boards came into life to exchange the sticky notes because they provided one category a simple to-do list doesn’t have — previously done work.

A typical kanban board today is Trello — a simple management tool where you have the tasks that you have already done, those which are in progress, and the ones you will do in the future.

When you have a tracker, you can look back and feel proud of the progress and work that you managed to in the past. This will make you motivated to keep making the same decisions over and over again, effectively shutting down the bad habit.

But there is one more thing that I left for the end. One thing that will make all of the above multiple times easier. The one thing which is the bane of all bad habits and that’s an identity that gives life to the habit.

4. Change Your Identity

When you smoke, you don’t simply perform the action of smoking. You have an identity behind that action — you are a smoker.

When you eat excessively, you don’t simply perform that action. You have an identity behind that action — you are obese.

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This is why it’s so hard to make changes when it comes to habits. We are literally losing (transforming) a part of ourselves when we change. We lose a part of our identity, something which we are by not doing that action anymore.

The way that we change this is by removing our identity from the action that we are doing.[1] We are no longer smokers, we are people who smoke cigars. We are no longer obese, we are people who eat excessively. We are no longer lazy, we are people who are indulging in unproductive behavior.

When you remove your identity from the action that you’re doing, then losing the habits becomes easy. Because you longer identify with that behavior, it becomes just something that you do.

An even better way to break bad habits would be to change instill positive identity-based habits in our mind.

An example would be that we are no longer identifying as an obese person. We are now identifying ourselves as a healthy person. And a healthy person doesn’t overeat, does s/he? S/he doesn’t. So we start behaving like a healthy person and by fixing the cause, the effect takes care of itself.

The Bottom Line

Breaking bad habits doesn’t have to feel like drudgery. It can be really uplifting and satisfying if you implement the four above-mentioned strategies to it:

  • Environmental design which removes the cue for habit from your surroundings.
  • Do small actions one at a time for maximum effect. It’s about doing less today to more in a year.
  • What gets tracked, gets done. What gets measured, gets improved.
  • And changing the identity behind the habit.

These four will help you break the bad habit. So go out there and make it happen, one small step at a time.

More Resources About Building & Breaking Habits

Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Bruno Boksic

An expert in habit building

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Last Updated on April 19, 2021

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

The Art of Taking a Break So You Will Be Productive Again

Think of yourself as a cup. Each day, you wake up full. But as you go about your day—getting tasks done and interacting with people—the amount in your cup gradually gets lower. And as such, you get less and less effective at whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing. You’re running out of steam.

The solution is obvious: if you don’t have anything left to pour out, then you need to find a way to fill yourself up again. In work terms, that means you should take a break—an essential form of revitalizing your motivation and focus.

Taking a break may get a bad rap in hustle culture, but it’s an essential, science-based way to ensure you have the capacity to live your life the way you want to live it.

In the 1980s, when scientists began researching burnout, they described this inner capacity as “resources.” We all need to replenish our resources to cope with stress, work effectively, and avoid burnout.[1]

When the goal is to get things done, it may sound counterproductive to stop what you’re doing. But if you embrace the art of taking a break, you can be more efficient and effective at work.

Here are five ways on how you can take a break and boost your productivity.

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1. Break for the Right Amount of Time, at the Right Time

When I started my first job out of college, I was bent on pleasing my boss as most entry-level employees do. So, every day, I punched in at 9 AM on the dot, took a 60-minute lunch break at noon, and left no earlier than 5 PM.

As I’ve logged more hours in my career, I’ve realized the average, eight-hour workday with an hour lunch break simply isn’t realistic—especially if your goal is to put your best foot forward at work.

That’s why popular productivity techniques like the Pomodoro advocate for the “sprint” principle. Basically, you work for a short burst, then stop for a short, five-minute break. While the Pomodoro technique is a step forward, more recent research shows a shorter burst of working followed by a longer pause from work might actually be a more effective way to get the most out of stepping away from your desk.

The team at DeskTime analyzed more than 5 million records of how workers used their computers on the job. They found that the most productive people worked an average of 52 minutes, then took a 17-minute break afterward.[2]

What’s so special about those numbers? Leave it to neuroscience. According to researchers, the human brain naturally works in spurts of activity that last an hour. Then, it toggles to “low-activity mode.”[3]

Even so, keep in mind that whatever motivates you is the most effective method. It’s more about the premise—when you know you have a “finish line” approaching, you can stay focused on the task or project at hand.

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There are many applications and tools that can help you block distracting websites and apps (such as social media) for specific periods of the day. Similarly, you can also use some mailing apps like Mailbrew to receive all the social media content or newsletters you don’t want to miss in your inbox at a time you decide.

So, no matter how long you work, take a break when you sense you’re losing steam or getting bored with the task. Generally, a 10-15 minute break should reinvigorate you for whatever’s coming next.

2. Get a Change of Scenery—Ideally, Outdoors

When it comes to increasing a person’s overall mental health, there’s no better balm than nature. Research has found that simply being outside can restore a person’s mind from mental fatigue related to work or studying, ultimately contributing to improved work performance (and even improved work satisfaction).[4]

No lush forest around? Urban nature can be just as effective to get the most out of your break-taking. Scientists Stephen R. Kellert and Edward O. Wilson, in their book The Biophilia Hypothesis, claimed that even parks, outdoor paths, and building designs that embrace “urban nature” can lend a sense of calm and inspiration, encouraging learning and alertness for workers.

3. Move Your Body

A change of scenery can do wonders for your attention span and ability to focus, but it’s even more beneficial if you pair it with physical movement to pump up that adrenaline of yours. Simply put, your body wasn’t designed to be seated the entire day. In fact, scientists now believe that extended periods of sitting are just as dangerous to health as smoking.[5]

It’s not always feasible to enjoy the benefits of a 30-minute brisk walk during your workday, especially since you’ll most likely have less energy during workdays. But the good news is, for productivity purposes, you don’t have to. Researchers found that just 10 minutes of exercise can boost your memory and attention span throughout the entire day.[6]

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So, instead of using your break to sit and read the news or scroll your social media account, get out of your chair and move your body. Take a quick walk around the block. Do some jumping jacks in your home office. Whatever you choose, you’ll likely find yourself with a sharper focus—and more drive to get things done.

4. Connect With Another Person

Social connection is one of the most important factors for resilience. When we’re in a relationship with other people, it’s easier to cope with stress—and in my experience, getting social can also help to improve focus after a work break.

One of my favorite ways to break after a 30-or-so minute sprint is to hang out with my family. And once a week, I carve out time to Skype my relatives back in Turkey. It’s amazing how a bit of levity and emotional connection can rev me up for the next work sprint.

Now that most of us are working from home, getting some face-to-face time with a loved one isn’t as hard as it once was. So, take the time to chat with your partner. Take your kids outside to run around the backyard. If you live alone, call a friend or relative. Either way, coming up for air to chat with someone who knows and cares about you will leave you feeling invigorated and inspired.

5. Use Your Imagination

When you’re working with your head down, your brain has an ongoing agenda: get things done, and do it well. That can be an effective method for productivity, but it only lasts so long—especially because checking things off your to-do list isn’t the only ingredient to success at work. You also need innovation.

That’s why I prioritize a “brain break” every day. When I feel my “cup” getting empty, I usually choose another creative activity to exercise my brain, like a Crossword puzzle, Sudoku, or an unrelated, creative project in my house.

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And when I’m really struggling to focus, I don’t do anything at all. Instead, I let my brain roam free for a bit, following my thoughts down whatever trail they lead me. As it turns out, there’s a scientific benefit to daydreaming. It reinforces creativity and helps you feel more engaged with the world, which will only benefit you in your work.[7]

Whether you help your kids with their distance learning homework, read an inspiring book, or just sit quietly to enjoy some fresh air, your brain will benefit from an opportunity to think and feel without an agenda. And, if you’re anything like me, you might just come up with your next great idea when you aren’t even trying.

Final Thoughts

Most of us have to work hard for our families and ourselves. And the current world we live in demands the highest level of productivity that we can offer. However, we also have to take a break once in a while. We are humans, after all.

Learning the art of properly taking a break will not only give you the rest you need but also increase your productivity in the long run.

More on the Importance of Taking a Break

Featured photo credit: Helena Lopes via unsplash.com

Reference

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