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Published on March 4, 2019

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

11 Important Things to Remember When Changing Habits How to Break Bad Habits (The Only Effective Way) How to Build a Good Bedtime Routine That Makes Your Morning Easier 12 Changes to Make When You Feel a Lack of Energy and Motivation How to Break a Bad Habit and Retrain Your Brain

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Last Updated on May 22, 2019

The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?

The Pomodoro Technique: Is It Right for You to Boost Productivity?

If you spend any time at all researching life hacks, you’ve probably heard of the famous Pomodoro Technique.

Created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is one of the more popular time management life hacks used today. But this method isn’t for everyone, and for every person who is a passionate adherent of the system, there is another person who is critical of the results.

Is the Pomodoro Technique right for you? It’s a matter of personal preference. But if you are curious about the benefits of using the technique, this article will break down the basic information you will need to decide if this technique is worth trying out.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management philosophy that aims to provide the user with maximum focus and creative freshness, thereby allowing them to complete projects faster with less mental fatigue.

The process is simple:

For every project throughout the day, you budget your time into short increments and take breaks periodically.

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You work for 25 minutes, then take break for five minutes.

Each 25-minute work period is called a “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for tomato. Francesco Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato as his personal timer, and thus the method’s name.

After four “pomodoros” have passed, (100 minutes of work time with 15 minutes of break time) you then take a 15-20 minute break.

Every time you finish a pomodoro, you mark your progress with an “X”, and note the number of times you had the impulse to procrastinate or switch gears to work on another task for each 25-minute chunk of time.

How the Pomodoro Technique boosts your productivity

Frequent breaks keep your mind fresh and focused. According to the official Pomodoro website, the system is easy to use and you will see results very quickly:

“You will probably begin to notice a difference in your work or study process within a day or two. True mastery of the technique takes from seven to twenty days of constant use.”

If you have a large and varied to-do list, using the Pomodoro Technique can help you crank through projects faster by forcing you to adhere to strict timing.

Watching the timer wind down can spur you to wrap up your current task more quickly, and spreading a task over two or three pomodoros can keep you from getting frustrated.

The constant timing of your activities makes you more accountable for your tasks and minimizes the time you spend procrastinating.

You’ll grow to “respect the tomato”, and that can help you to better handle your workload.

Successful people who love it

Steven Sande of The Unofficial Apple Weblog is a fan of the system, and has compiled a great list of Apple-compatible Pomodoro tools.

Before he started using the technique, he said,

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“Sometimes I couldn’t figure out how to organize a single day in my calendar, simply because I would jump around to all sorts of projects and never get even one of them accomplished.”

Another proponent of the Pomodoro Technique is Sue Shellenbarger of the Wall Street Journal. Shellenbarger tried out this system along with several other similar methods for time management, and said,

“It eased my anxiety over the passing of time and also made me more efficient; refreshed by breaks, for example, I halved the total time required to fact-check a column.”

Any cons for the Pomodoro Technique?

Despite the number of Pomodoro-heads out there, the system isn’t without its critics. Colin T. Miller, a Yahoo! employee and blogger, tried using the Pomodoro Technique and had some issues:[1]

“Pomodoros are an all or nothing affair. Either you work for 25 minutes straight to mark your X or you don’t complete a pomodoro. Since marking that X is the measurable sign of progress, you start to shy away from engaging in an activity if it won’t result in an X. For instance…meetings get in the way of pomodoros. Say I have a meeting set for 4:30pm. It is currently 4:10pm, meaning I only have 20 minutes between now and the meeting…In these instances I tend to not start a pomodoro because I won’t have enough time to complete it anyway.”

Another critic is Mario Fusco, who argues that the Pomodoro Technique is…well…sort of ridiculous:[2]

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“Aren’t we really able to keep ourselves concentrated without a timer ticketing on our desk?… Have you ever seen a civil engineer using a timer to keep his concentration while working on his projects?… I think that, like any other serious professional, I can stay concentrated on what I am doing for hours… Bring back your timer to your kitchen and start working in a more professional and effective way.”

Conclusion

One of the best things about the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s free. Yeah, you can fork over some bills to get a tomato-shaped timer if you want… or you can use any timer program on your computer or phone. So even if you try it and hate it, you haven’t lost any cash.

The process isn’t ideal for every person, or in any line of work. But if you need a systematic way to tackle your daily to-do list, the Pomodoro Technique may fit your needs.

If you want to learn more about the Pomodoro Technique, check out this article: How to Make the Pomodoro Technique More Productive

Reference

[1] Aspirations of a Software Developer: A Month of the Pomodoro Technique
[2] InfoQ: A Critique of the Pomodoro Technique

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