Do you find yourself struggling to break bad habits?
Bad habits are an indispensable part of our lives. Every day, we wake up and tell ourselves that things are going to be different.
We vow to stop doing the things that we know are stopping us from reaching our goals. Through sheer willpower, we try to battle our natural urges to fall victim to self-sabotaging behavior, but most of the time we lose, and our old habits win.
Life is a never-ending battle between the easy and the challenging. We’re motivated to take on challenging tasks and become the best versions of ourselves, but the allure of the path of least resistance is sometimes so strong that we can’t help but choose it.
Luckily, this is a battle that you can win. In this article, we’ll cover a handful of techniques that will show you how to break bad habits and start living up to your full potential.
How Are Bad Habits Formed?
Before we talk about how to break bad habits, it’s important to understand how they’re formed in the first place.
There’s one thing that you need to understand about your brain – it’s a heat-seeking missile that has been programmed to seek rewards. It’s always scanning your environment for potential rewards so that it can feel pleasure and avoid pain, which are the two primary drivers of almost all human behavior.
In prehistoric times, the brains of our ancestors were constantly scanning for rewards revolving around basic needs like food, water, and sex.
Today, our brains serve the same purpose. However, we now live in a modern society that’s far more complex, which means our brains are often looking for secondary rewards too (fame, money, status, etc.)
Anytime we receive a reward, our brain makes a mental note of the events that preceded it.
Why? Because rewards make us feel good, and our brain wants us to feel good. By remembering the particular set of circumstances in which a reward was received, this allows the brain to suggest the same actions in the future.
Each time we perform the same behavior that leads to the same reward, connections start to form inside of our brain so that it can automate the behavior and turn it into a habit.
This sequence of events creates a four step neurological feedback loop known as the habit loop. This pattern forms the backbone of every habit that you currently have in your day to day life.
photo taken from jamesclear.com
First up, we have the cue. The cue is what triggers your brain to initiate a specific behavior. As previously mentioned, our brain is constantly looking for specific cues that indicate we are close to receiving rewards. Whenever we recognize a specific cue, that leads to a craving.
The craving is the second step in the habit loop. Think of a craving as a desire to change your internal state. In reality, you don’t crave performing a particular habit, you crave the change in state that it delivers.
You don’t want to play video games, you want to be stimulated and free from boredom. You don’t really want to smoke a cigarette, you want to put a temporary band-aid on the stress that you’re feeling.
The craving is not about the action itself, it’s about the reward that the action delivers.
The third step in the habit loop is the response, which refers to the specific action that you perform in response to the craving.
Whether it’s playing video games, watching Netflix, or hitting the snooze button, all of these actions serve one purpose – to acquire a reward that changes how you feel in the present moment
Whether a response occurs or not depends on how much energy it takes to perform. If you are motivated to do something, and it’s easy to do, it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll perform the action.
However, if you aren’t motivated to do something, and it takes a significant amount of physical/mental energy to accomplish, then it’s almost a guarantee you won’t do it.
The final step in the habit loop is the reward. The response is what ultimately delivers the reward. Every aspect of the habit loop circulates back to the reward.
- The cue is about noticing the reward
- The craving is about seeking the reward
- The response is about receiving the reward
When you receive a reward, two things happen. First off, you satisfy your craving, whatever it happened to be.
- Playing video games satisfies your craving to feel stimulated
- Eating satisfies your craving to stop feeling hungry
- Drinking water satisfies your craving to feel hydrated.
Second, rewards teach us what behaviors we should repeat in the future. Remember, there are two main drivers of human behavior – the desire to experience pleasure and avoid pain.
Whenever a behavior helps us accomplish either of these goals, our brain remembers the specific events that preceded it and forms a habit using the 4-step process above.
What Causes Bad Habits?
There are many different answers to this question, but most of these answers revolve around two key emotions that we feel on a daily basis.
Stress and boredom.
These emotions act as internal cues that we need to do something, and oftentimes the actions that we choose are in direct conflict with our goals.
We feel stressed about our weight so we reach for that extra chocolate chip cookie which acts a temporary band-aid on our feelings.
We’re sitting on the couch with nothing to do and want to feel stimulated, so we proceed to turn on Netflix and binge-watch a show that we’ve already seen three times.
These are natural responses that deliver a reward. And in most cases, the reward is freeing ourselves from the stress and boredom of our day to day lives. We fall victim to bad habits because we sense a shift in our internal state and want to get back to equilibrium as fast as possible.
Our rational mind might be whispering to us that it’s a good idea to skip out on that chocolate chip cookie, or turn off Netflix, but the voice of our rational mind gets really quiet when our emotions are involved.
I used to work in sales, and one of tidbits I quickly picked up is that people don’t buy based on logic. In truth, they buy based on emotion and then use logic to justify the purchase afterwards.
Your habits work the same way. Let’s be real here, how many times have you told yourself, “Just one cookie won’t hurt,” and then end up having three.
How many times have you hit the snooze button once and told yourself, “I just need five more minutes of sleep and then I’ll be good to go,” only to find yourself drudging out of bed an hour later.
We all make these in-the-moment justifications for our actions. We think that we’re acting out of logic when really we just want to feel good right now.
That’s the crucial dilemma we all face when it comes to how to break bad habits. It makes logical sense to exert some self-discipline, but it’s a lot easier said than done once our emotions come into play.
Why Are Bad Habits So Hard to Break?
There’s one neurotransmitter that the fight against bad habits centers around – dopamine.
Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” chemical. Whenever we engage in activity that is pleasing in some way, the brain releases dopamine and we feel a temporary surge of positive emotion.
The problem with bad habits is that they are inherently rewarding. They provide a temporary escape from whatever emotions we are feeling in the present moment, and that escape can become seriously addicting due to dopamine.
Take smoking a cigarette for example. The brain and body identify nicotine as a rewarding substance because it provides instant stress-relief and provides a nice head-buzz that smokers often talk about.
If you feel stressed after a long day at work and reach for a cigarette, it’s like opening Pandora’s box. Dopamine gets released into the brain and this activates our pleasure center. Once that happens, our brain starts forming neural pathways immediately.
Your brain goes, “Wait, that felt good, how can we automate this behavior?”
Neural pathways start forming in the brain because your brain is actively recognizing this behavior as one that provides a reward. It will go to work and start taking note of the situation where you attained the reward, so that it can suggest the same action in the future.
So what happens then? Well, whenever you find yourself feeling stressed, your brain will remember the fact that nicotine provided temporary relief last time, and recommend that behavior to you.
“Hmm…last time we felt stressed we smoked a cigarette and it felt good, let’s try that again.”
So you’ll do it again, and again, and again. With each repetition, you’re strengthening the neural pathways in your brain and automating the behavior. And soon, smoking a cigarette becomes a default response to feeling stressed.
Now, you won’t just smoke when you get home from work, you’ll smoke anytime you feel stress. One cigarette per day turns into five, or maybe even a whole pack.
Once these neural pathways have been solidified, they’re incredibly hard to re-wire.
That’s why so many of us fail to break bad habits. We think that our own self-discipline can overcome the chains of habit. And in some rare cases, they can, but it’s a recipe for losing much more often than you win.
When a behavior that you want to stop doing is rewarding, you’re fooling yourself if you think you can just quit it cold-turkey. Yet, that’s the route that most of us decide to take.
How Long Does It Take to Break A Bad Habit?
Before we talk about how to break bad habits, I want to briefly cover this question because it’s one that gets asked a lot.
One common misconception that people have about breaking bad habits is that there’s a certain time frame in which their habit will be expelled from their lives forever.
This is simply not true. Just like forming good habits, the answer to the question of how long it takes to break a bad habit is simple:
Once you open Pandora’s box, you don’t get to close it. The moment that your brain learns a behavior is rewarding, that information will stay with you forever.
You see this all the time with people who are alcoholics. They stay sober for decades and then relapse because they were exposed to the old cues that precipitated their habit.
And even if they don’t relapse, any former alcoholic will tell you that the urge to drink is always lingering in the back of their mind.
You may be able to break a bad habit, but it’s impossible to wipe your memory of the internal or external cues that precipitate it.
Now of course, that urge dwindles down with each day, week, month and year that you resist the temptation. After prolonged periods of self-discipline, it becomes far easier to resist the habit than to engage in it.
Just remember that the urge will always be there lingering.
How to Break Bad Habits: 3 Simple Strategies
Okay, now let’s get practical and talk about how to break bad habits using three simple strategies that don’t require you to rely on sheer willpower and self-discipline.
Instead of fighting your brain’s motivational system, you need to leverage it. The key to lasting behavior change is not about developing a ridiculous level of self-control. Relying solely on self-control to break a bad habit almost always results in disappointment.
As a matter of fact, the people who have the most self-control are often the people who have to use it the least.
If you want to start getting rid of toxic behaviors that are holding you back from reaching your full potential, you need a framework for change that makes bad behaviors harder to do.
At the heart of breaking bad habits is one simple idea – put more steps in between you and the behavior that you want to stop.
The habit loop is a powerful neurological process, but it’s also quite easy to manipulate. That’s because in order for a behavior to become a habit, all four aspects of the habit loop need to be present.
If you can remove the cue, the habit doesn’t occur. If you make the reward unsatisfying, the behavior doesn’t occur. Each of these components act as a lever that you can pull to tilt the odds in your favor.
Strategy #1: Hard Commitment Devices
If you want to learn how to break bad habits, commitment devices can be an incredibly powerful tool.
Commitment devices are essentially present actions that lock in future behaviors. They are about the You Of Today imposing a constraint upon the You Of Tomorrow.
We actually use commitment devices pretty frequently in our day to day lives. Taking a shopping list to the grocery store is a commitment device, because it tells you exactly what to buy once you’re there.
Joining a gym is a commitment device, because it assumes that you’re going to actually use your membership. Otherwise, why would you be joining?
Setting an alarm is a commitment device, as that’s a cue that you have a specific time that you’re trying to start your day.
However, these commitment devices are what I like to refer to as “soft commitment devices,” because they still offer a way out.
After all, you can still buy a bag of cookies even if they aren’t on your shopping list. You can still skip workouts if you join a gym. You can still press the snooze button on your alarm when it goes off at 6 a.m.
Using commitment devices effectively means implementing hard commitments, not soft ones. How do you do this? Well, there are a couple ways.
In my opinion, the most powerful strategies involve financial penalties and public embarrassment.
Commitment devices are about manipulating the fourth part of the habit loop – the reward. It doesn’t take a doctorate in psychology to understand then when a bad habit becomes inherently unrewarding, you’re less likely to repeat it.
You’re essentially hijacking the reward centers of your brain and disrupting the neural pathways that see your bad habit as a pleasurable experience.
One of the best ways to reduce the pleasure associated with bad habits is to impose financial penalties on yourself. Here’s a perfect example from my own life:
For most of my life, I struggled with social anxiety. I was terrified of talking to strangers, especially women, and felt incapable of building the kind of social life that I wanted to.
Eventually, I decided to stop playing the victim and get out there and start talking to people. I started slow by simply walking outside and saying hello to people. This eventually progressed into giving out compliments to strangers.
Once that felt like a piece of cake, I began to actually strike up conversations with people. When that felt comfortable, it was time for me to face down my biggest demon – talking to girls that I was attracted to.
This is where my progress stalled. After months of building up my social muscle, the idea of chatting up girls who walked by me was still absolutely terrifying.
After weeks of letting girls walk by me, enough was enough. I told my best friend what I was trying to do, and vowed to pay him $20 each time I let a cute girl walk by without having a conversation.
And I kept my word. The first day implementing this strategy, I lost $60 because I let three girls walk right past me without saying a word. I saw the writing on the wall and decided to swiftly head home before things really spiraled out of control.
Before I knew it, my bank account had grown $60 lighter because I wasn’t willing to display five seconds of courage. Keep in mind too that $60 wasn’t a drop in the bucket for me, so it was pretty scary to think about what would happen if this trend continued.
The next day, I let a cute blonde girl walk by me without saying a word and immediately sent my friend $20 via Paypal. After that, I’m convinced that the two girls I spoke to next had the most awkward interaction with another guy that they’ve ever had.
But guess what? I had faced my fear. By bringing the future consequences of my actions into the present moment, I had finally pulled a motivational lever that forced me into doing something I had been avoiding for 10+ years.
As the weeks and months progressed, I sent my friend $20 here and there until he stopped receiving money from me altogether. Why? Because the pain of approaching and facing my fear was finally less powerful than the pain of not doing it.
If you’re going to follow in my footsteps and go the financial route in order to break a bad habit, my advice is to choose a dollar amount that will make you feel the pain, but not put you in financial turmoil.
For me, that amount was $20, but for you it might be $5, $10, or even $50-100. The only catch here is that you have to keep your word to yourself. You gotta pay up. If you don’t, you won’t feel any pain.
In my experience, the financial route is the most powerful way to go for commitment devices. However, you can also penalize yourself through public embarrassment.
For example, if you skip a workout, force yourself to post on social media that you skipped a workout so that all of your friends see it.
If you hit the snooze button and don’t wake up at your desired time, make an Instagram post that says, “I lost the day today because I hit the snooze button.”
As humans, we don’t like being judged negatively by the people around us. Use this to your advantage and you’ll be far less likely to skip a workout or hit the snooze button when you know that everyone is going to hear about it.
Suddenly, your losses won’t be so private. If you’re looking for a less intense version of this, feel free to keep the circle small and only keep in contact with your best friend about this challenge.
Behaviors that are immediately unsatisfying are avoided, while behaviors that are immediately satisfying are repeated. Commitment devices allow you to flip the habit loop on its head and make falling victim to your bad habits an unpleasant experience.
No reward, no habit.
Strategy #2: Environment Design
Environment is the invisible hand that shapes human behavior.
If you hang out with people who workout, you’re much more likely to develop better fitness habits. If you hang out with people who have a negative view of the world, you’ll unconsciously start to adopt their beliefs.
These are all things that we know, yet we still attempt to break our bad habits without addressing the fact that our external environment isn’t setting us up for success. Every habit starts with a cue, and environment design is about reducing your exposure to the cues that precipitate your bad habits.
The beauty of environment design is that you can make small changes that put far more steps in between you and your bad behaviors. Most of the time, the reason you do things is because they’re easy. It’s not that you want to engage in bad habits, it’s just that they offer the most convenient path.
Let’s look at a couple real-life examples that will give you a better idea of how to break bad habits using various environment design strategies.
Let’s say that you have a bad habit of checking your phone while you’re working, which is one of the most destructive habits when it comes to your productivity. What’s the solution? How can you design your environment so that this behavior becomes less convenient.
Well, you could turn your phone off when you start working. Now, instead of pressing one button to check your notifications, you have to press a button and wait a minute before your phone turns on.
You could also put your phone in another room, so that in order to check your notifications you have to get up out of your chair and walk into a different part of your house. These adjustments turn laziness into an asset instead of a liability, and your brain will likely decide that it’s simply not worth it and continue working.
What about if you have a habit of overeating? Well, you could buy smaller plates so that your meals need to be a certain size in order to fit on the plate.
Want to stop eating candy, or chocolate? Put all of your candy and chocolate outside in the garage so that you don’t see it every time you look into your pantry or fridge.
Want to stop hitting the snooze button? Place your alarm clock in a different room as opposed to right next to your bed. That way, you can’t shut off your alarm while you’re laying in your bed.
Want to stop watching hours of TV every day? Unplug your television after each use and place the remote in another room.
Want to make it less likely that you’ll skip your morning workout? Lay out your workout clothes right next to your bed before you go to sleep. This will ensure that when you wake up, you’re flooded with cues that it’s time to get after it when you wake up.
These subtle environment design tricks are simply about making bad habits harder. It’s important to remember that our environment directly influences our habits, both good and bad.
So think about a bad habit that you want to stop and ask yourself this question, “How can I alter my environment so that this behavior is harder to do?”
Strategy #3: Substitution
Substitution is another strategy that will help you break bad habits.
Essentially what you’re doing here is swapping out a bad habit for another habit. This technique focuses on the response part of the habit loop. Instead of tackling the cues that are leading to your bad habits, you’re trying to alter your response to the cues.
Substitution is about planning ahead for the inevitable trigger that prompts your habit. All bad habits address certain problems in your life, and the beauty of substitution is that you can implement a new habit that solves the same problem.
For example, if you get the urge to smoke when you’re stressed, what’s another habit that solves the same problem?
Well, you could immediately take three deep breaths. Or, you could start doing squats, pushups, or crunches to get your blood flowing a little bit.
What if you get the urge to procrastinate while you’re working? Well, you could spend 30 seconds getting yourself back on track. writing 10 words, or editing one paragraph, or making one sales call.
If you repeat this new habit enough, eventually it will become your default response to the cue. Here’s how the habit loop is altered when you apply substitution to your habits.
Bad Habit – Smoking
- Cue – You feel stressed
- Craving – You want to relive the feeling of stress
- Response – You reach for a cigarette
- Reward – You feel a temporary relief from stress
Substitution – Smoking
- Cue – You feel stressed
- Craving – You want to relive the feeling of stress
- Response – You do five pushups
- Reward – You feel a temporary relief from stress
The cue is the same. The craving is the same. The reward is the same. But the response that delivers the reward is different.
Think about some of the bad habits that you currently have and then think about some positive habits that you could put in its place. With enough repetitions, this positive habit will become an automated response to the cues that previously lead to your self-sabotaging behaviors.
Final Note on How to Break Bad Habits
I hope you enjoyed this about how to break bad habits using these three simple but effective strategies – hard commitment devices, environment design, and substitution.
Think about a habit that you’ve been wanting to eliminate for a while. Deep down, you probably already have an idea of which one you want to pick, because it’s the one that tortures your consciousness on a daily basis.
Once you’ve chosen one, start brainstorming ways in which you can make these habits harder to do using one of these three methods.
You’ll be amazed at how much control you have over your bad habits when you stop relying on sheer willpower to break them.