The 3 Key Steps to Breaking a Bad Habit
We’ve all battled a bad habit at some point over the course of our lives. Whether it’s come in the form of addictive eating, smoking, compulsively checking social media, or something else altogether, we can each relate to the feeling of repeatedly doing something that meets our needs or desires in the short-term, but perhaps doesn’t serve us in the long-term.
Which begs the question, why are we so prone to developing negative habits?
The short answer is this: It’s our own biological hardwiring fucking us over. Our brains are actually set up for habit formation. Because in many ways, especially from an evolutionary perspective, habits can be beneficial to us - even advantageous.
In our hunting and gathering days, the hardwiring of our brains enabled us to form habits around things such as learning how and where to find food to eat. Our ability to develop and leverage advantageous habits such as these helped us to survive.
Unfortunately, however, sometimes the same mechanism that allows for the creation of good habits can get applied to a behavior that we don’t want as a habit - like smoking cigarettes. And despite our best intentions, our bad habits can take over at times, leaving us feeling out of control, weak, helpless, or defeated.
The good news is, there’s a way we can work toward achieving greater self-control and quashing our bad habits. But before diving into the details, we first need to take a step back and look at how we go about developing habits in the first place.
Our mind learns and operates using a rewards-based system that can be either positive or negative in nature.
Here’s generally how it works: First, our brain receives a cue, a trigger of sorts, that we experience to be pleasant or unpleasant. Then, we engage in some behavior in response to that trigger - usually with the goal of keeping or increasing any pleasant feelings and getting rid of or decreasing any unpleasant feelings. And finally, if that behavior seems to “work” (in so much as it succeeds in keeping our positive feelings going or in making our negative feelings go away), it gets positively reinforced in our minds and may go on to become ingrained as a habit.
To get a better sense of this process, consider the following example: You come home after having a really tough and stressful day at work.
You’re feeling anxious and unhappy => the trigger
So you decide to eat something sweet, or have an alcoholic drink, or smoke a cigarette, or obsessively worry, etc. => the behavior you engage in as a response to the trigger
Finally, if engaging in that behavior makes you feel a bit better, giving you some temporary relief from your trigger, it’s likely to get reinforced and become something you return to in the future => the reward or positive outcome
This is how reward-based learning works. Before long, a positively-reinforcing feedback loop gets created that makes you want to continually engage in that behavior to keep receiving the positive reward.
(Interestingly, you may even find that you engage in the same “end behavior” - such as eating something sweet or having an alcoholic drink - in response to either a negative or positive trigger, like having a really bad day or having a really good day. In the former case, you might engage in the behavior to try and improve how you’re feeling, and in the latter case, you’d more likely engage in the behavior to try to keep the good feelings going).
Indeed, our brains enable us to develop habits fairly easily - which can be a bit of a curse if those habits prove to be unhealthy for us.
Fortunately, it’s possible to free ourselves from our bad habits. And doing so involves figuring out how to tap into our mind’s natural reward-based learning system and leverage it for our own benefit.
If you’re interested in breaking a bad habit, there are three main steps you need to take:
I. Develop awareness of when you’re getting caught up in a habit loop (i.e., note when your mind is holding you captive).
You can’t easily change what you don’t notice. And sometimes we aren’t even aware that we have a bad habit that needs breaking. We frequently fall into behavioral patterns and don’t always consciously notice how we’re spending our time and energy in each waking moment - much less whether our choices are truly serving us.
Let’s consider our use of social media, for example. How many times per day do you check your Facebook or Twitter account, or your Instagram feed? How often do you find yourself picking up your smartphone?
(You probably engage in this behavior more often than you realize...perhaps even to an extent that might freak you out if the concrete numbers were put in front of you. But - ironically - there’s an app for that. There are actually a handful of smartphone apps out there that can help you to gain a better sense of your social media use and even institute some changes, if desired. I’ll dive into some more concrete tips and recommendations below).
There’s a very real feedback loop that exists around our social media use. The more that we use and contribute to social media, and the more likes/comments/messages/feedback we receive from others, the more we get drawn in to checking our notifications.
Studies have shown that we’re vulnerable to developing addictions around receiving “likes” on our social media feeds. Each time we see we’ve gotten a new “like,” dopamine gets released in our brains and thereby creates a reward-based cycle in which our behavior of checking our social media account gets positively reinforced. (This probably sounds familiar, because it’s a description of the very same feedback loop that gets activated when we imbibe alcohol, take drugs, smoke cigarettes, etc).
So, over time, we begin to check our social media feeds in an effort to cheer ourselves up - and a habit gets formed.
A similar mechanism is at work when we seek to soothe ourselves by eating something sugary like some ice cream or indulge in an alcoholic drink at the end of the day. Consuming that sugar or alcohol causes our brain to release dopamine, temporarily elevating our mood a bit, and can thus trigger a positive feedback loop - potentially catalyzing a habit.
Of course, there’s a problem with all of this. And it lies in the negative impact that the behavior we habitually engage in has on us. With some things, like regular sugar or alcohol consumption, the consequences can be pretty apparent - consuming too much sugar or alcohol can have real, detrimental impacts on our physical health and well-being.
But with other activities, like spending time on social media, the negative impact of our addictive behavior can be more subtle and pernicious in its effect. Research has found that the more we use social media, the higher likelihood we have of becoming depressed - despite the fact that we usually perceive our time on social media to be cheering us up.
To the extent that you’re able to gain awareness around and begin to identify your own habit loops and their components (the trigger, behavior, and reward), you’ll have started down the path to breaking your bad habits.
II. Explore what you’re getting from your negative habit or behavior.
One of the most important things to realize when you want to break a bad habit is that you are currently getting something out of repeating that action or behavior.
As I described above, habits are created as a byproduct of our brain’s reward-based learning process. So if we’ve formed a habit around a given activity, we know that we must be receiving a “reward” of some kind from taking part in that activity. The behavior is making you feel better in one way or another (at least in the short-term when you’re partaking in it), and so it’s gotten positively reinforced and become a habit.
So now take a moment to analyze and consider: What is it that you’re getting from engaging in your own bad habit? -How is it rewarding you? -How does it make you feel better in the moment?
As a test, try partaking in that behavior - your bad habit. But do so consciously and mindfully. Pay attention. Make an effort to note what you are getting out of the activity.
Does engaging in that habit give you something positive (such as physical or psychological pleasure)? Or does it help to remove something negative from your life (perhaps temporarily relieving your stress or abating your feelings of unhappiness or loneliness)?
In some cases, you will find you actually don’t enjoy engaging in the behavior all that much in and of itself. You might just do it as a distraction or outlet from something else that you want to avoid. That behavior may just represent a more appealing alternative to sitting with whatever it is that triggered you under the circumstances.
Without the reward attached, you might even discover that the behavior isn’t all that appealing to you on its own.
If you’re able to recognize what it is that you’re getting from engaging in your habitual behavior, next ask yourself if it’s working. Question the value of the reward you’re receiving.
Is it constructive? Is it worth it? Does it last? -or is it ultimately just adding another problem or negative result into the mix for you (such as weight gain or other undesirable side-effects)?
As you dive deeper into analyzing the benefits that you get from engaging in your habit, you will likely start to grow disenchanted with them and start seeing them for what they actually are - fleeting, transient, and not that helpful or rewarding in the long-term.
By going through this exercise, you can begin to rewire your brain and hack its reward-based learning system, teaching it that the behavior you’ve been engaging in really isn’t all that rewarding to you after all.
Learn to see what rewards are providing you with a temporary a relief or fix and are thereby tricking you into engaging in a behavior that will serve to hurt you over the long-term. By doing so, you can start to recalibrate your brain to recognize what behaviors are truly rewarding versus not.
III. Change your behavior (i.e., your bad habit) and replace it with a new, more constructive one.
You will only be successful in changing your behavior if you can begin to perceive a different behavior as being in some way “better” than engaging in the old bad-habit behavior you’ve turned to in the past.
Our mind gets locked up repeating the patterns it’s honed through its reward-based learning system. But by bringing awareness to the true value (or the lack thereof) that we are receiving from a given reward, we can unlock our brain and prime it for change.
Once you’ve reached this step, look for healthier behaviors that you could begin to substitute in response to your trigger. For example, instead of having a drink or something sugary after a stressful day, try meditating, exercising, or taking a hot shower or bath.
Importantly, the new behavior will need to be more rewarding (i.e., more beneficial to you) than the previous behavior was in order for the substitution to truly stick.
With respect to smartphone use in particular, I’d recommend the following:
Go into your phone Settings and turn off your notifications for social media apps such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You will still be able to see all of your notifications upon opening each app, but the difference is you’ll stop receiving the “trigger” to open one of those apps in the form of the phone notification and can instead more mindfully choose when to open and check your social media accounts on your own terms. I did this for myself several months ago and found that I’m now much less compulsive and more purposeful when it comes to checking my social media accounts.
If you’d like to better understand your current habits around your smartphone use or try setting stricter boundaries for yourself, test out one or more of the following apps:
--Social Fever (Android only)
--Moment (iOS only)
And the next time you get a craving to engage in your habit, try to embrace it as an opportunity to run the following experiment:
Recognize that you want to engage in the behavior, and allow the craving to be there - accept it.
Then go a step further and really investigate your craving. Get curious about it. Why are you feeling this way?
Note what sensations are manifesting in your body (i.e., tension or tightness in your stomach or chest, restlessness, etc.), and take note of how long they last.
Finally, realize that you don’t have to act on that craving. Allow greater awareness to develop within the gap that exists between your urge to act and engagement in the act itself. The craving is just a momentary feeling, and you can learn to ride it out.
Above all else, be patient with yourself. The mind’s a tricky beast, and the more that you’re able to approach the process of breaking a bad habit with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to experiment, the more likely you’ll be to succeed.
If you work through these 3 steps or try out any of the tools I’ve suggested above, I would love to hear from you. What did you find particularly helpful or successful? What parts of the process were more of a struggle for you? Have you found any other techniques to be especially effective when it comes to tackling bad habits?
I believe that we all have the power to rid ourselves of even our most addictive negative behaviors. Both the lock and the key lie within us. And once we’ve learned how to successfully unlock and rewire our brains to break our bad habits, the resulting sense of freedom that we can experience as that door finally opens can be intensely gratifying - perhaps even worth all the struggle.