5 Insights That Have Helped Me Break Bad Habits Repeatedly

Why Do We Get Into Bad Habits?

A paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006, says Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power of Habits, found that 40% of the decisions that we take every day are not decisions at all — they’re habits.

Not all of those habits are bad of course — like taking a habitual decision to turn right on your way to work. It’s the correct thing to do and you’ve done it a hundred times.

But we can’t say that for all habits. I’m talking about every habit that affects your well-being (physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual) adversely. But we continue doing them. Why?

Two reasons (mostly) — stress and boredom.

That the answer to something so crucial would be so simple, seems odd. But you can reflect and find it for yourself. Choose a bad habit that you want to quit and ask yourself why you do it. I’ll go first.

One of my bad habits is if I have lunch in front of the TV, I’ll keep sitting there even after my lunch is done. Why is that? Because going to my room to resume work isn’t as “exciting” (aka dopamine-producing) as watching the next episode of a show I like.

That’s boredom at play. Other times, I may be tempted to watch TV just because I’ve had a long stressful day and wish to relax.

While watching TV moderately may not strike you as harmful, consider that even people who have bad habits like smoking, also smoke because they’re either stressed or bored.

This knowledge will help you be more mindful of your actions. More importantly, it will help you realize that you can quit even if it feels otherwise.

That said, here are some ways to quit a bad habit that actually works.

Replace The “Must”

What we think of actions that we can’t change, are only a set of programs that we’ve ingrained over a period of time. For instance, you may think that you “need” a cup of coffee at 3 pm, you really don’t.

This feeling of “must” makes us feel that change isn’t possible, thus making us not try at all. The first step, then, is to realize that this “must” is negotiable and malleable.

You do that by knowing the Habit Loop.

Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, says that habits have three parts — a cue, a routine, and a reward.

Cues are the context in which you engage in the bad habit. So if you usually smoke when you’re having coffee, every cup of coffee will push you to a relapse.

Routine is simply what you do. In the above case, the routine is lighting up a cigarette.

Now comes the tough part — the reward. In some cases, the reward seems apparent but is not. For instance, smoking may give you satisfaction in itself but you might be using it to accomplish something deeper — like hanging out with friends, taking a break during a stressful workday, etc.

As another example, if you’re someone who checks email compulsively, your reward may be the feeling of control you get after reaching inbox zero.

It’s crucial to identify the right reward. Because when it’s time to change the habit, you will need to find another way of getting the same reward. This brings me to the next point.

The Most Important Truth About Habits

“We are action-oriented creatures,” says Elliot Berkman, director of the University of Oregon’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab. We can’t just hope to quit smoking by sitting at our desks trying to fight that urge. You’ll eventually cave in because it takes too much willpower to break a habit by simply not doing it.

A 2008 study in Appetite, found that those who suppressed their thoughts about eating chocolate exhibited a behavioral rebound effect, where they consumed significantly more chocolate than those who didn’t.

Suppression doesn’t work. You need to transcend it (even the Bhagavad Gita says that). And the way to do that is to replace the habit. This is why “just stop doing it” isn’t great advice.

In our smoking example, if you feel the urge to smoke at a specific time, resolve to chew gum and go for a walk instead.

Similarly, if you want to check your email every morning and want to feel in control, you can ask your team to message you any critical updates or tell you specifically if they want you to check your email.

That way, you’re assured that nothing will be missed and you can wait a couple of hours before glancing at your inbox.

Change Your Environment

When you’re battling your bad habits, you need to attack them from all fronts. While replacing your habit with another one is great, it’s not enough. You can also make those behaviors impossible or hard to do.

Coming back to my TV-watching example, I can create hurdles in my way of switching on the TV:

  • Giving the remote to someone else and letting them take it out of the house
  • Removing the batteries from it and keeping them in different rooms.
  • Keeping the TV itself in another room — so I have to lift and bring it over when I need it.
  • Blocking websites on your laptop to avoid watching your favorite shows
  • Selling the TV itself and canceling all subscriptions.

There are always ways to stop a bad habit if you’re creative about it. The more hurdles you create, the less likely you are to indulge in the habit again.

Surround Yourself with Like-Minded People

Being in the company of people who have the same goals is a grossly underrated strategy for habit change — not only for quitting bad habits but also for forming new ones.

I’ve been living in my meditation center now for a couple of days and it’s amazing to me how it’s almost impossible to not meditate. The environment and people around are so inspiring that one wouldn’t do justice to this place if they left it without meditating.

To be with like-minded people, you don’t need to ditch your current circle. You can simply add new people who’re willing to go where you want to. To quit smoking, for instance, you can join forces with someone else.

You may think you can do it alone — but that’s just your ego talking. How many times have you tried to go on a diet alone or quit smoking alone? We all do this because we don’t want anyone to see us fail.

But you can make things much more fun and easy by having an accountability partner to celebrate your victories and cheer you up in times of temporary failures.

Develop Healthy Ways to Deal with Stress and Boredom

Since all bad habits are nothing but manifestations to relieve stress and boredom, have healthy stress relievers in your life.

Most bad habits like eating excessive sugar or smoking induce the dopamine spike in the brain. Once you do it, the brain asks for it again in moments of stress. If you repeat that behavior enough times, it becomes a habit.

Quitting then becomes difficult since your brain links neurons in such a way that they lead you to enact the same thing again.

To remedy this, you can do a pre-emptive strike! That is, have healthy ways to deal with stress and you’ll prevent bad habits from forming in the first place. Sleep well, exercise, meditate, read and do all the things you already know.

When your stress levels are low, you’ll be happier and much less tempted to slip into bad habits.

Final Thoughts

To recap here are some of the best ways to break a habit:

  • Realize that there’s no “must” in our lives. All actions are only habits that can be broken and changed.
  • Seek to break a habit by replacing it rather than just avoiding it.
  • Change your environment to support your goals.
  • Surround yourself with like-minded people.
  • Develop healthy ways to deal with stress and boredom.

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Written on August 5, 2021