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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 July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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