How to Program Your Mind to Kick Against the Bad Habit
By Brian Lee Brian Lee is Chief of Product Management at Lifehack and also resident communications and coaching guru
As you’re reading this, you may be checking your phone or Facebook, slouching in your chair, or snacking without thinking. Perhaps you’re reading this right before bedtime even though you know that the light from your electronics can negatively impact your sleep pattern.1
We are all guilty of some of these things from time to time.
The Love-Hate Relationship With Bad Habits
Having bad habits doesn’t make someone a bad person— even if you are aware that your behavior could have a negative impact on your health or well-being. If you are having trouble making a change, you’re likely telling yourself one of two things:
- I’ve been [insert your habit here] for such a long time, and it doesn’t seem to be affecting my life that much. It would take too much effort to quit, and I don’t think it’s necessary.
- I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t know any other way to function. I don’t think that I can quit.
Bad habits have become so ingrained in everyday behaviors that it is bound to be tough to change them. These routines are such a part of life that even knowing the potential negative impacts might not be enough to change them.2
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For example, a stressful phone call at work could be a trigger for you. The stress might make you want to eat an entire bag of chips. That bag of chips gave you some level of satisfaction. The reward is happening on a chemical and hormonal level in your body. Even though you know that snacking excessively is unhealthy, your body may crave junk food whenever you are under stress.3 Before you know it, for good or for ill, you’ve initiated the process of habit-formation.4 Oftentimes, this version of autopilot is a form of escape.
Maybe you smoke because you feel that it helps to relieve your stress. Perhaps you slouch chronically because you are fatigued, and it seems easier to slump over than sit up straight. Bad habits provide with some form of comfort which can make them tough to break.
Imagine I had two offers for you, the first offer was giving you 100 dollars today, and the second offer was giving you 1000 dollars but only 7 years later. Which offer would you take? Even though you know that you can get more money if you wait, you’re likely to take the first offer because you don’t like to delay the reward.
Instant gratification has always been the greatest enemy when it comes to breaking bad habits. Knowing something can have a negative effect is never enough to make someone quit. Bad habits exist because they are actually making people feel good.
How to Break up With Bad Habits
Here are three proven steps to get over bad habits once and for all.
1. Take your mind away.
After you’ve made up your mind to quit, and you’ve found your alternative, commit to quitting your bad habits by going mindless every time a bad habit trigger appears.5 Committing to change means that you can’t make excuses and you can’t give yourself any room to convince yourself why you can just skip it once. Don’t think whether you should do the bad habit or not, just don’t do it no matter what.
For example, if you want to eliminate your incessant slouching at work, you have to tell yourself that you aren’t going to slouch while you’re working no matter what. Just stick to sitting up straight, no excuses on why you can slouch for a while.
2. Be super aware whether you have done the bad habit every day.
Write down how things are going with your commitment.6 It’s easy to lose track of progress if you don’t make a note of your behaviors.
You are bound to slip up when you are turning over a new leaf. Writing down your behaviors might reveal patterns related to these moments of weakness. If you can spot the pattern, you may be able to disrupt it.
3. Have a strict reward and punishment system.
Reward yourself when you stick with your commitment. Maybe you will allow yourself to take a five-minute dance break or eat a cookie with your lunch in exchange for not mindlessly chomping on snacks at your desk. Your reward doesn’t have to be costly, but it should be valuable to you. The only stipulation is that you can’t reward your good behavior with the bad habit.
Designate a consequence for engaging in the negative habit. The consequence doesn’t need to be emotionally damaging. It just needs to cause enough discomfort or inconvenience to make you think twice about falling into old patterns.
People have been doing this for decades with the “swear jar.”7 Every time they say a bad word, they have to sacrifice money to the jar. You could come up with your own version of the swear jar or find some other consequence that will motivate you to stay on the proper path. Maybe every day that you snack on candy at your desk, you have to take your friend out to a healthy lunch. Having to incur this extra cost and effort will keep you accountable.
Your system of rewards and consequences are transactions that can help you eliminate your bad habits and automate the good ones.
Train Yourself Like a Dog (for a Good Cause)
Ultimately, you’ll want to train yourself to do the right things the way that Pavlov’s dogs salivated automatically when they heard a bell ring.8 The dogs salivated (their routine) without thinking because they had been classically conditioned to associate the sound of the bell ringing (a trigger) with food (their reward).
Don’t let a fear of failure stand in your way. Even if you have been engaged in a bad habit for years, it is still possible to eliminate the unhealthy behavior. Know that it may not be easy at first, but eventually the good habit will become your natural response to the trigger. The commitment to break bad habits could lead you to a healthier and more successful future. The change can start today.
Share to those who love instant pleasure too much, there is actually a way out.