Do you find yourself struggling to break bad habits and replace them with good habits that will have a positive impact on your life?
If you’re like most people, fighting off your had habits and removing toxic behaviors from your life is a constant struggle. Every day, you wake up and tell yourself that today is going to be different, and then you get to the end of your day having engaged in the same daily routines you’ve been repeating for the past 247 days.
This doesn’t have to become your identity. There’s a helpful framework grounded in proven research that will allow you to tactically remove bad habits from your life and facilitate any change you’ve been waiting months or years to make.
Let’s discuss that framework now…
How Habits Are Formed
Before we get into the strategies for changing your bad habits, it’s helpful to understand how we form habits in the first place.
See, your brain is like a heat-seeking missile that has been programmed to seek rewards. Every waking moment of every day, your brain is scanning your environment for potential rewards so that you can feel pleasure and avoid pain, which are the two primary factors that drive almost all human behavior. In prehistoric times, the brains of our ancestors were constantly scanning for rewards like food, water, and sex. Today, our brains serve the same purpose. However, due to the rapid societal changes that have taken place since there were people walking around barefoot with spears in their hand, our brains are often looking for secondary rewards as well. (fame, money, status, etc.)
Anytime we receive a reward of any kind, our brains make a mental note of the events that preceded the reward, so that it can use this information to predict future rewards. This sequence of events creates a four step neurological feedback loop known as the “habit loop”, which is a concept that was first introduced in Charles Duhigg’s classic book, The Power of Habit. This pattern forms the backbone of every habit that you currently have in your day to day life.
Photo taken from jamesclear.com
First, there is the cue. The cue is what triggers your brain to initiate a specific behavior. Since our brain is constantly scanning our environment for where rewards are located, that means what it’s really doing is looking for specific cues that indicate we are close to receiving rewards. Whenever we spot 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. As odd as this might sound, you don’t actually crave performing a particular habit, you do the habit because 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 want to watch Netflix, you want to feel entertained. The craving is not about the action itself, it’s about the change in state that the action delivers.
Next up is the response. The response refers to the specific behavior that you perform in response to the craving. Whether it’s playing video games, watching Netflix, eating, or hitting the snooze button, all of these actions serve one purpose, which is to acquire a reward that changes how you feel in the present moment. Whether or not the response occurs depends on how much energy the behavior takes to perform. If a behavior is easy to do, and you’re motivated to act, then you’ll likely perform that specific behavior. Just think about how easy it is to walk over to your pantry and crack open a bag of potato chips. On the contrary, if you aren’t motivated to perform a specific behavior, 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, (the habit you perform) 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. The first is that you satisfy whatever craving you initially felt. 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. This is the direct cause and effect relationships of cravings to rewards.
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 an activity gives us either of these two rewards, our brain remembers the specific events that preceded the reward and forms this neurological feedback loop that drives our day to day actions. This is how all habits, positive or negative, are formed.
Manipulating the Habit Loop
Luckily, although the habit loop is a powerful process that plays a huge role in shaping our day to day decisions, it’s also fairly easy to exploit. Getting rid of bad habits doesn’t have to be difficult if you know to use the flaws in this neurological feedback loop in order to remove toxic behaviors from your life.
The key to breaking bad habits is not about employing a ridiculous level of self-control. Due to the fact that we have limited willpower, relying solely on self-control to break a bad habit almost always results in disappointment. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that 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 bad habits that are holding you back from reaching your full potential, you need a framework for change that puts friction in front of your bad behaviors.
Now, I mention the book Atomic Habits, by James Clear, fairly often on this blog. That’s because it’s without a doubt the single best book on habits I’ve ever read. The concept I’m about to explain to you guys was pulled right from this book, I didn’t invent it myself. So without further ado, here’s the two-minute version of Clear’s explanation for how to remove bad habits from your life.
How to Eliminate Bad Habits From Your Life
When you ask yourself the right questions, you often get some powerful answers. Clear suggets that whenever you want to remove a negative habit from your life, you ask yourself these four questions:
- How can I make it invisible? – (Remove the Cue)
- How can I make it unattractive? (Remove the Craving)
- How can I make it difficult? (Remove the Response)
- How can I make it unsatisfying? (Remove the Reward)
You might notice that each of these questions refers to a specific step in the habit loop. As powerful as the habit loop is, all four elements must be present for an action to occur. This means that if you can disrupt your environment enough so that one of these factors isn’t present, you can remove the behavior altogether.
Let’s look at an example of how this plays out in real life. Let’s say that you have a bad habit of checking your phone while you are trying to get work done, and it’s sabotaging your productivity. Here’s what the habit loop looks like for that particular behavior:
- Cue – Your phone dings with a notification
- Craving – You want to know what the notification is
- Response – You stop working and check your phone
- Reward – You satisfy your craving to know the contents of the notification
Now, let’s explore a couple of these questions to see if you could remove this behavior from your life, or at least reduce the frequency with which it occurs.
Could you make it invisible?
Absolutely. You could turn off your phone so that it can’t receive any notifications, therefore you won’t hear the notifications and get distracted. No cue, no habit.
Could you make it unattractive?
Making a behavior unattractive is another way of saying you want to increase the energy required to perform the behavior. There are plenty of ways to accomplish this. You could put your phone in a different room, or stuff it in your pillow case.
Better yet, you could turn your phone off and also stick it in another room. Doing this removes the cue and the craving at the same time. Turning your phone off removes the cue, which is your phone buzzing. Placing your phone in another room removes the craving by making the process of checking your phone slightly harder.
In my experience, simply placing my phone in another room is enough to compulsive checking. It’s pretty amazing how low-priority your notifications become when you have to get up from your chair and walk into a separate room to check them.
Here are a few additional examples of ways you can increase the friction required to perform bad habits:
- Place your alarm clock on the other side of the room so that you have to physically get out of bed to hit the snooze button.
- Block certain time-wasting websites on your computer so that you can’t access them while you’re working.
- Whenever you get done playing video games, unplug your video game console and put it in your closet so that you have to physically drag it out and set everything back up whenever you want to play.
Where to Go From Here
I strongly encourage you to make a list of all of the bad habits that you currently have in your life right now and pick one or two that you want to eliminate.
Once you’ve done that, start to brainstorm ways in which you can make these habits harder to do by manipulating one of the 4 aspects of the habit loop.
Ask yourself each of the following questions listed above and come up with a strategy for putting some friction between you and your bad habits. Once you stop relying on will power and self-control, and start creating an environment that sets you up for success, I think you’ll be shocked at how easy it is to remove toxic behaviors from your life.