When we think of bad habits, certain well-known concepts come to mind: procrastination, general laziness, zoning out in front of your phone, inhaling smog, mixing your coffee with whiskey… And while a person possessing one of these “skills” – or all of them – is often aware that they harm him. He is, for some mystical reason, unable to suspend doing them.
If you want to know how to break bad habits.
You first need to understand that you need to change them.
Breaking bad habits is changing bad habits with good ones.
“Isn’t this the same?” you might ask.
And to confuse the scene a bit further. I’ll add that bad habits themselves are not that important. The core thing is understanding what type of benefits you gain from practicing bad habits.
Let me elaborate…
You’re convinced that you can’t quit smoking because nicotine is designed to be addictive. That all the resident toxins inside your body are gathering and performing rituals so you can light a cigarette. And while surely tobacco is, indeed, considered highly addictive. The nicotine inside cigarettes is not the sole reason for making the habit hard to break. It’s your reliance on nicotine to block certain negative thoughts. And desire to “escape” the dreadful reality – even for a brief moment – so you can go to a more idyllic place.
Therefore, breaking a bad habit is more a game of switching. It involves replacing. Changing the activity harming you with another activity. Action that can substitute the current gains you consider liberatory coming from the negative behavior patterns.
To start the process of change. Let’s first find out how bad habits are formed…
How Bad Habits Are Formed?
Bad habits are our instinctive response to the cruel world. We form them, so we can cope with the daily demands and later nurture them because they turn into small pleasure islands away from the mad everyday life.
Some people rely on substances like alcohol or nicotine to get them through the day. Others, depend on activities that are easy on the body but still quite harmful: shopping, checking Twitter all day long, or mind-wandering.
It’s all because of how our brains are wired to work.
From a biological perspective, the brain is mainly focused on the following four concepts:
- Save energy
- Feel good
Bad habits neatly tick (almost) all the boxes.
To prove this to you, consider for a moment a person who drinks too much.
Drinking, for a vodka drinker, is a tool that helps the person survive. Survive the day filled with demands, obstacles, difficulties, and all other sorts of hurdles that require effort.
Every time there is a challenge. The person turns to alcohol for salvation.
Since drinking provides a far easier way to surf through the daily obstacles than not drinking. This activity becomes habitual. It’s triggered every time there is some sort of challenge.
But if we think about it, we can spot that drinking in the above situation can be seamlessly replaced with procrastinating, or doom scrolling, or eating sugary things.
Whenever we are facing a challenge. We evade the scene by descending into our bad habits. Seeking to experience momentary pleasure and avoid the “pain” attached to the incoming worthy tasks.
Meaning that these activities are like allies that make the day suck a bit less.
All of this, makes breaking bad habits an impossible feat.
And the trick here is that we don’t consider bad habits… bad. We think more of them as friendly companions that help us successfully deal with the daily hardships.
Why Bad Habits are Hard to Break?
The scientific reason is the first reason I want to present.
In short, breaking a bad habit is hard because your brain creates internal pathways. These paths become well known. Like internal highways. You rely on these paths to function and perform tasks without having to think about every little detail.
For instance, your brain created a certain flow of activities when you learned to ride a bike. Every time you hop on your bike, these pathways get activated. That’s why you don’t need to re-learn riding a bike every time you want to ride one.
Similarly, bad habits create their own internal paths. The difference is that the brain considers them reward pathways.
Reward pathways are areas in the brain that control memory and behavior. You see something familiar that previously caused positive sensations, and you are tempted to repeat the behavior. Obviously, because it previously made you feel good. And when you do the activity, dopamine is released. Further cementing the path and ensuring that you’ll repeat this again in the future.1
This is needed for survival reasons. When you know what type of activities will lead to food and water, you want to remember them and repeat them.
Our brain makes connections to certain cues and attaches behavior to them. That’s why every time you see food, you want to eat it – even if you’ve just had dinner.
Plainly, habits – which also include bad habits – help us survive.
These behaviors are always in relation to supporting the so-called Primary Rewards in our brain.
These rewards are the main components we humans pursue. As noted above, these are satisfying stimuli that facilitate the survival of one’s self and offspring – food, water, sex, care, feel good.
While the science behind bad habits is good to know. What really happens in real life is, I think, more beneficial.
Bad habits are more like self-created guardians that help us avoid entering a pit of despair.
When there is a challenge, we engage in an activity that helps us handle it. But a lot of times, handling it simply means avoiding it.
After all, avoiding obstacles is 1) easier and 2) feels a lot better. And as I mentioned, we usually optimize our lives around feeling good.
What better way to feel good than to place a bowl of ice cream stuffed with chocolate cookies inside while watching Netflix, right?
In a sense, we want to maximize our time on the pleasure island while minimizing our time in the dreadful territory of everyday life.
That’s why some might enter certain situations half-focused. Or, even drugged.
For example, if you are a smoker, and if you’re presented with a difficult decision. You’ll most probably light a cigarette before you do anything. This is your personal routine for reducing stress.
But at its core, what you really want is not exactly the cigarette. Not exactly the drink. What you want is to feel different.
A situation is making you feel unpleasant. To battle it, you turn to a well-known activity that will lead to pleasant sensations right now.
Some use alcohol. Others nail-biting. Third might be workaholics.
For this reason, bad habits are hard to break.
You don’t want to destroy your visa for the pleasure island. Especially when you are a regular visitor and everyone knows you. Why on earth you’ll want to do that! Divorce the only thing that brings you pleasure?
Bad habits are hard to break because they become part of our lives and part of our identities.2
You probably don’t call yourself an alcoholic. Or workaholic.
But you build certain connections to this activity. You visit a bar where people know you. Your drink buddies are, well, your buddies.
Since breaking the bad drinking habit will require you to stop doing these things. To stop being you. You don’t do it. After all, it means that you should change your identity. Something not a lot of people want to engage with.
Still, there is a way out.
And it starts with asking ourselves some questions…
What Bad Habits Do You Want to Break?
The quest for changing bad habits with good ones begins with identifying what type of behaviors you want to retire.
What are the bad habits that are sabotaging your life but are appearing as helpful?
As noted, bad habits can cleverly hide behind a statue of joy.
If you drink too much, smoke too much, spend too much, eat too much, lie around too much. You think too little about how these are negatively affecting you.
Usually, it’s the opposite. Since you are regularly doing an unhelpful activity. You think it’s good for you, not bad. Hence, you keep doing it.
A person who systematically spends money on things he doesn’t need is doing this to feel good. He resents even the slightest signal of hardship and blocks such feelings with his credit card as a shield – by shopping more.
But the worst of all of this is that when questioned about his behavior. Such a person will typically create a neat story intended to avoid the blame. An alibi.
“No, I don’t shop that often. I do it to reward myself when I accomplish a project.” Or, “Yes, I tend to purchase a lot of clothes, but I no longer visit bars. So, it’s OK.”
All of this means that there is a chance that you won’t see the habits that are sabotaging you – financially or physically, for example. As said, you don’t think that these bad habits are bad for you – or bad enough to require a change.
That’s why outside help might be required. A person who you can ask. Someone who can provide an outside perspective. Feedback on what are your bad traits.
Once you have a list of the activities that are slowly corrupting your body and mind. Say that you hold the following bad habits:
It’s time to think about how and when these activities are triggered and what benefits they bring.
Smoking and overeating can be performed to provide quick wins during the day.
Say that you are working on a long-term project. Since it will take time to finish the project. And therefore feel good about the finished project, you need some sort of positive sensations along the way. So, you use smoking to instill positive emotions in your daily life.
But not only that. These activities are performed on a daily basis because:
- They usually give us a chance to socialize.
- They require almost no effort.
- They come with immediate results.
Now, we know what we are up against. What we actually need to address.
It’s not only smoking or drinking. It’s about finding activities that can substitute the pleasures coming from smoking or drinking.
What Is The Easiest Way To Change Bad Habits?
I can’t say that there is a simple way to break a bad habit.
Since breaking the habit involves changing your current lifestyle. Things you’ve done for probably years. It’s quite normal to face resistance from the body.
Basically, when attempting to change your bad habits, you attempt to change you.
This is never an easy feat. But it’s surely possible.
And the proper way to start is by understanding how habits are formed and triggered.
There are two main doctrines in relation to habit formation:
- The 3 R’s of Habit Formation
- The 4 Stages of Habit Formation
Let’s look at them one by one:
The 3 R’s of Habit Formation
The 3 R’s of habit formation was first introduced in the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The concept offers a good way to understand how habits are executed.
The 3 R’s stand for:
- Reminder: The cue that triggers the habit. You see your phone or you smell something.
- Routine: The routine is the actions you take based on the reminder. For example, when you see your phone, you unlock it and go to your favorite social media. Or, when you smell something delicious you quickly open the fridge.
- Reward: The reward is the benefit you get from the routine. You see the comments under your posts. The likes. So, you feel good and connected with others. Or, you eat a cake which gives you positive sensations.
While the 3 R’s provides a good way to understand the habit loop.
The 4 Stages of Habit Formation offers a more complete view.
The Four Stages of Habit Formation
While the above gives a good overview of the habit loop. A better structure was provided by James Clear in his best-selling book Atomic Habits.
He reuses the idea provided by Charles Duhigg, but adds an important extra component – craving. This leads to a more elaborate, and better – at least base on my opinion – understanding of how habits are performed and where we need to focus so we can make a lasting change.
Here’s a presentation of the four stages of habit formation:
- Cue: You hear your phone making a sound.
- Craving: The sound creates a sensation of want. You start to crave to see the context of the message. But your goal is not so much the message itself. But the change it can potentially deliver. “What if the message is from my boss? Telling me that I’m getting a promotion?” If that’s the story you form in your head, it will surely feel more pleasurable than filling spreadsheets. So, you grab your phone and…
- Response: This step is the actual habit. Or in our case, the act of checking your phone.
- Reward: The reward you receive when you perform the habit.
Craving is where we have to work most.
Sure, you can hide your phone. Or, throw away your pack of cigarettes and remove the cue. But this doesn’t mean that you’ll completely remove the desire to smoke.
Quitting a bad habit is quitting an activity that provides you with support. And not only that…
Since destroying the habit of smoking will probably require changing your environment – you will stop being part of a group of people that smoke – it’s hard to do.
The habit is attractive to you for several reasons, probably. So to change this bad habit with a good one. You need to find an analog activity that gives you similar benefits.
- Provide you with quick wins.
- Opportunity to socialize.
- It’s easy to execute.
Based on the requirements, calling a friend when you feel like smoking is the simplest harmless activity you can do. You socialize, it’s easy, and it provides a quick win because you get to distract your mind from the current projects.
However bizarrely useful it might sound. Obviously, calling a friend is not a sustainable activity. If you previously smoked 10 cigarettes a day this will mean that you’ll have to call 10 people during that day – or 1 person 10 times. Not that it’s not possible, but your friends will probably get sick of you after a day or two.
So, a lot of times, a couple of extra activities need to be added to your daily life to successfully replace just a single bad habit.
But the most important thing is to make good habits more attractive.
Let’s see how:
How to Make Changing Bad Habits Sustainable
In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear provides additional information regarding the four stages of habit change.
Basically, the first two components are the problem phase while the second two are the solution phase.
The Problem Phase:
- Cue: You receive a notification.
- Craving: You want to see who is messaging you – probably something exciting is happening.
The Solution Phase:
- Response: You unlock your phone and you read the message.
- Reward: You scratch your own itch by reading the message.
To make breaking bad habits sustainable. You need to work in the following directions.
Eliminate the Problem Phase
This happens by removing cues that lead to unproductive cravings. For instance, you can do simple things like stopping your notifications, quitting social media, refrain from buying cigarettes, and stop going to bars if you drink.
Sadly, eliminating cues doesn’t guarantee that you will stop craving these activities. You can be sitting comfortably on your sofa, and suddenly get hit with a wave of desire to smoke or drink. This happens for two main reasons: 1) You’ve done the bad traits for so long that they’re now part of your lifestyle; 2) You desire to change your current state of being. Probably you are bored. Or probably you don’t have a long-term goal in your life.
That’s where the solution phase enters for discussion:
Enhance the Solution Phase
To change bad habits, you need to change how you respond to cues and temptations.
While you work, when you see your phone or when your phone is buzzing. Instead of responding by unlocking it and mindlessly scrolling online, you can write down on a piece of paper – to check my phone. (Using a habit tracking journal might help here.)
You neatly acknowledge the sudden desire. But instead of interrupting your work. You add it to your task list. The reward will be postponed till you are done with your current task.
And if you smoke. Besides firmly declaring that you’ll no longer smoke. You need to find an unharmful activity to give you small pleasures.
But most importantly, realize what triggers this desire.
Note down what is happening in your life, right now, that creates the desire to change how you feel.
As discussed, bad habits are a form of escapism.
We engage in stimulating, distracting activities to cope with the sometimes unpleasant reality.
For instance, if you work in a highly stressful environment. It’s no wonder you’re engaged in the habit of smoking.
But once you realize what creates a craving for a change. You can work in the right direction.
You can work towards removing the stressor which in turn will allow you to more easily change the bad habits.
How to Change Bad Habits
Before we part ways. Let me give you a quick cheat sheet that, hopefully, will come handy when you’re ready to change your bad habits.
6 Steps to Changing Bad Habits
- Identify the cues: What type of objects or situations trigger a desire to indulge in harmful activities? Write down what exactly happens that makes you want to smoke, drink, or something else.
- Learn to pause: A lot of times we simply act on autopilot. We see something and our brain immediately immobilizes the muscles to perform the usual behavior pattern based on the cue. The brain does this to save energy. But to prevent bad habits from ruing your life, learn to pause. Don’t respond with what first comes to mind. Pause. Write down your initial thought and give yourself space to act differently.
- Identify the feelings you want to change: The core want is not smoking. Is, as noted, the desire to feel different. What type of feelings you are trying to evade? Are you scared? Anxious? For instance, a lot of people drink to loosen up. To gain confidence. But instead of using alcohol to gain confidence, you can get it by using alternative methods – lifting weights, which will help you gain muscles.
- Get outside perspective: We are victims of confirmation bias. In particular, this is our tendency to interpret events in a way that confirms and supports our actions. We don’t change because we don’t think we need to change. We convince ourselves that smoking is good for us – that’s why we keep doing it. Getting feedback from others, or entering a state of deep self-reflection. Will help you spot what habits you need to alter.
- Find replacement activity: Bad habits are full of benefits. Drinking feels good. Smoking feels amazing. Smoking and drinking? The perfect combo when you’re feeling gloomy. To remove the bad habits, you need to find a replacement activity – or a set of activities – that should appeal to the mind. It should be easy to start and also bring value. For instance, place a bowl of fruits in a central position in your house. Set your workout equipment before you go to bed. Talk with your partner so he/she can keep you accountable.
- Find (additional) outside support: It’s hard to go against you. After all, that’s what you’re doing when you’re attempting to change your bad habits with another set of routines. You are trying to shift your identity. Undoubtedly, entering a group where people are cheering you will come in handy. But finding outside support shouldn’t mean only joining a running club if you want to exercise more often. It should also mean finding support in reading materials. Consuming content related to your desired new identity. Read books on habits. Books related to the person you want to become. All of these will help you endure the resistance of your body and mind.
I didn’t arrive at the above steps by accident. I’ve formed them based on my prior research, and writings, on the topic of habits.3
Also, I’m fully aware that all of this seems like a lot of work – because it is, in fact, a lot of work. And yet, it’s work that will surely pay off.
Habits are our daily systems. The engine that moves us. Choose the wrong ones, and you’ll always walk backward. Embed good ones, and you’ll go to bed feeling delighted with your daily progress.
Some Closing Thoughts
The reason you can’t break bad habits, change them with good ones, is often not that we don’t desire to make a change.
It’s something else.
We are simply too tired to make a change.
Yes, instead of resting and watching TV, a better alternative will be to exercise. To visit the gym. Or to read a book.
But how can you do it if you have two jobs and two kids running around the house and screaming?
Just because you want to change your bad habits doesn’t mean you have the physical and mental stamina to change them.
Even with one job and one kid, it’s still challenging to finish a book. Not to mention regularly visit the gym.
As a parent and as a person who has to work. Although I’ve read all sorts of self-help books. I’m regularly having difficulties executing on the list of good habits I’ve formed for myself.
Or to rephrase – and this is the part where everything above might seem useless – what I’ve shared in this post might sound good in written form, but for most, it will be almost impossible to practice in the physical world. Because, you know, we have some obligations like work, families, body needs, etc.
Besides having a strategy to change, you also need a strategy to boost your self-discipline.
That’s exactly what I’ll cover in my next post.
You can read it here: Self-Regulation Strategies for Adults
By learning how to control yourself. You will increase your chances to change your habits and permanently embed them in your life.
Do yourself a favor:
Join Going Further: A 13-day email series on how to keep progressing in a world tirelessly pushing toward regression. Great for people who feel stuck in the endless loop of not doing.
- Here’s a short video that neatly explains the reward pathway in the brain: Reward pathway in the brain.
- That’s why understanding the concepts of identity-based habits is so important.
- If you are really inspired to make a lasting change in relation to your habits. Reading the following concepts will surely come in handy: temptation bundling, systems vs goals, and the Plateau of Latent Potential.