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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

What Is a Routine? 9 Ways Routines Make Your Life Easier 13 Things to Put on Your Daily Checklist for Increased Productivity 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

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

More About Goals Setting

Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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