Lately, I’ve talked a lot about how to form habits and instil positive behaviour.
In today’s post, I’m going to look at the opposite end of the spectrum and discuss how to break bad habits and remove negative behaviour.
Forming a good habit is hard, I’m not going to downplay that, but breaking a bad one is sooo much harder. And you know what the worst part is?
They are super easy to form.
Especially when you have a personality like I do.
I have what’s called an addictive personality. Meaning, when I like something, I’m all in. There’s no middle ground for me. This is an issue, because if it’s something that isn’t good for me, it can quickly get out of hand.
It’s for this reason I’m trying to eliminate one specific habit from my daily life (if you know me personally, you probably know what this is). I hinted at it in my last blog post, and while I’m not quite ready to reveal exactly what that habit is, I’ll say this: the battle is going well.
It’s been a challenge, I won’t lie, but I’m determined.
Determination is one of the key elements of breaking a bad habit, too, but it takes so much more than just willpower alone.
That’s why today’s post is a little different.
Five go-to resources for breaking bad habits
I’m not an expert in human behaviour, and I don’t know nearly enough about how to break habits to offer you valuable advice (I’m still learning).
So, I’ve provided a curated list of content from experts in the field to lend a helping hand.
- I’ve mentioned James Clear a few times now, and that’s because he offers a wealth of information when it comes to building (and breaking) habits.
In the blog post How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One, James argues that forming bad habits boils down to two things: stress and boredom. He then goes on to explain one of the key methods of breaking negative behaviour: replacing it with something else (preferably something positive).
An example of this comes from one of my uncles.
When he quit smoking, he began eating sunflower seeds; whenever the craving to spark a butt struck, he would pop a mouthful of seeds instead. The act of deshelling each seed occupied his mind, mouth, and hands long enough for the craving to pass – he hasn’t smoked in over 30 years.
- Nick Wignall, a psychologist and therapist, wrote an incredibly insightful post in June 2020 titled Self-Sabotage: Why You Do It and How to Stop for Good.
In the post, Nick offers a five-step plan on how to correct self-destructive behaviour. Similar to James Clear’s advice, part of the process is replacing bad habits, negative self-talk, and other sabotaging elements of your life with positive ones.
He also dives into the deep-seated reasons of why we so often fall victim to self-sabotage and where this behaviour stems from.
Want the TLDR version of the plan? Here it is:
- understand the need your self-sabotage fills;
- identify alternative healthy behaviors that fill that need;
- anticipate and plan for obstacles;
- boost your tolerance for uncomfortable feelings; and
- clarify your values.
- Building better habits and breaking bad ones requires an understanding of how our wonderfully weird brains work.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff, creator of Ness Labs and author of the Maker Mind newsletter, delivers “neuroscience-based strategies to cultivate your curiosity and maximize your productivity.”
Aside from just doing the f***ing work, habits, systems, and processes are the core elements of productivity. Without the proper methods and mindset in place, breaking negative behaviour is much more difficult – and our productivity suffers as a result.
- Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and addiction expert, offers a short nine-minute TED presentation on A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit. Judson breaks down the role our brain plays in forming habits.
He describes the process in three simple steps: trigger, behaviour, reward. We’re hungry (trigger), we eat (behaviour), and we become satisfied (reward). Now, consider how sugar tricks our brains into making us feel good: we’re sad (trigger), we eat a tub of ice cream (behaviour), and we feel happier (reward).
Do this enough times, and it becomes a habit – one that has all sorts of unhealthy outcomes.
Judson and his team designed what he calls mindfulness training, where he encourages participants to be curious about their bad habits rather than fighting them. The exercise helps each individual become disenchanted with negative behaviour, which results in them being less interested in acting upon bad habits.
- Mayo, from The Smarter Brain, offers 3 Scientifically Proven Ways to (Permanently) Break a Bad Habit in an article from 2017.
Much of what’s covered above is featured in this article, with the addition of the “I don’t” versus “I can’t” method of eliminating negative behaviour. For example, instead of telling yourself “I can’t smoke anymore,” reframing it to “I don’t smoke anymore” has a fascinating effect.
In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, participants were split into two different groups to test the likelihood of defying a specific temptation (eating chocolate). Each group was asked a series of unrelated questions, with one half being told to answer with “I can’t” and the other half with “I don’t.”
After completing the exercise, everybody was offered a complimentary snack: a healthy granola bar or a chocolatey treat. The “I can’t” group chose the chocolate bar 61% of the time, while the “I don’t” group selected the unhealthy snack only 36% of the time.
Beyond all that, my blue-collar advice is to be patient with yourself.
Things are rarely perfect the first time around, and beating yourself up does far more harm than good. Accept the slip ups; we all fall down.
It’s how we get back up and dust ourselves off that matters most.
That’s all for now, folks. I hope you found something that resonated.
Thanks for reading!
Need another dose of Davis? Sign up for the Diary of Davis newsletter: 🗞 a monthly chronicle of content curated for self-improvement.