How to break bad habits (and create positive ones)

Below is the method I used to get rid of bad habits and change my life. You can use it to build healthy habits and create a life you love by following these steps.

Before you read this article please watch the video above as it will help to explain the steps in more detail.

Many years ago I used to be a lazy, stupid, selfish, weak, unhealthy, contributing nothing to society type of individual with a shit ton of 'bad' habits.

Aristotle once said "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit."

Likewise, negative traits like selfishness and laziness are also not acts. They are habits.

So how do you break bad habits?

First you must understand what makes up a habit loop. A habit loop breaks down into three steps:

Cue: Moments that proceed the habit itself

Routine: The habit

Reward: The feeling after or during act.

All bad habits have cues - i.e something that causes the habit to occur. They also have rewards, which is what keeps us coming back to them again and again.

 

Let's use the example of my old junk food habit. I developed this habit a long time ago of having a pack of donuts from the bakery after work every day.

I tried to force myself to stop but every day, I finished work and I immediately started to crave donuts. This was the cue.

It felt good at first... (this was the reward)

... but once I had finished, I felt bad and I would promise myself that tomorrow I wouldn't do the same.

Then tomorrow came and the habit just took over again.

Can you relate to this?

How you can break this habit (or any habit) is by following these four steps:

Step 1: Identify the routine

This is the easiest part, it's the behaviour you want to change.

My routine would be... leaving work, walking to the bakery, buying the donuts and eating them while you sit on the bus ride home.

What's the cue for this routine. Is it hunger? Are you bored on the bus ride home? Do you want something sweet? Step 2 is how you find out.

Step 2: Experiment with rewards

What's the reward for this routine? The donut itself? Is it the energy boost from that sugar rush? Is it the small distraction from the bus ride?

To figure out what rewards satisfy your cravings you'll need to experiment with different rewards. It'll take a while ( a few days or even a couple of weeks) to do this and during this time don't put pressure on yourself to make a massive change. You are experimenting at this point and sometimes experiments go wrong.

First you'll want to adjust your routine so it triggers a different reward. For example my experiment looked like this:

On day 1 I tried walking a different way to the bus stop to avoid the bakery.

On day 2 I went into the bakery and ordered a cup of coffee instead of a donut.

On day 3 I bought a cookie instead of the donut.

The next day I ate an apple from the fruit and veg store instead.

The day after that I put on my trainers & went straight to the gym.

Another day I walked to a different bus stop to avoid the bakery and read a book or called a friend on the bus ride home.

You get it right? You've got to switch up the routine and experiment. If you're not testing you're guessing!

What you choose to do instead of eating the donuts isn't important. What is important is testing different hypotheses to figure out which cravings are driving your routine.

Is it a hunger craving for something sweet? If so then some fruit should do the trick.

Are you craving a distraction from the bus ride home? Then the book or the phone call should sort you out.

If you want a burst of energy? Then a cup of coffee should suffice.

Was it just because you always see the bakery on the way home. Then taking a different route might work.

Were you craving the a good feeling of satisfaction? When the run home could work just as well.

After each activity you'll want to write down the first 3 words that come to your mind then wait 15 minutes. You could write 3 emotions, or thoughts, reflections on how you feel, or just whatever words come to mind. Eg: Happy, excited, satisfied, relaxed, great chat, not hungry. Then you want to set an alarm for 15 mins on your phone. When it goes off ask yourself do you still want that donut?

By doing this it forces a moment to notice what you are feeling or thinking at the time. Studies show that by writing down 3 words it forces a moment of attention or awareness to recall what you were thinking at that time.

Have you ever said to yourself after going back to a old bad habit "What was I thinking"?? By writing these 3 words down you will know! Even if they are meaningless they will trigger a wave of relocation. And you can also use them to get closer to working out the reward you are truly craving, for example:

If after 15 minutes of eating the cookie you still crave the donuts your habit isn't motivated by a sugar craving.

If after your phone call you still crave a donut your need for a distraction isn't driving you behaviour.

If however after 15mins at the gym/working out you don't feel the need for a donut you've found the reward. A feeling of satisfaction and an endorphin rush.

That's what your donut habit wanted to satisfy. By experimenting with different rewards you can isolate what you are actually craving. This is key to redesigning your habit.

Now for the third step...

Step 3: Isolate the Cue

The moments before your routine are the cues. What triggers the habit? It is difficult to isolate a cue normally because there is too much information coming at us at once as our old behaviours unfold.

So to do this we have to focus on a few categories that we can analyse ahead of time:

Locations

Time

Emotional state

Other people

Immediate preceding action

Example for our donut habit. Where are you? Outside your work.

What time is it? 5pm

What your emotional state? Bored & tired.

Who else is around? No one

What action proceed the urge? Signing out of work.

After you do this for a least 7-14 days you be able figure out a pattern.

Is it every day at the same time, or any time you're bored, or is it every time you're alone after work you head straight to the bakery?

My habit loop was every time I was bored I ate a donut for a feeling of satisfaction. So now you can...

Step 4: Create a plan

Using the frame work above I knew my habit was triggered (the cue) by boredom and the reward was a feeling of satisfaction.

So to break this I created a plan.

At 5pm every day I'd leave work and head straight to the gym and take a fitness class, or cycle home really fast instead of catching the bus. Every day I'd set an alarm to remind me to do so.

It didn't always work. Somedays I fell off the wagon. Some days I didn't have the energy to go to the gym so somedays I ate a donut instead

But the days I stuck to my plan I felt great.

Over time this became automatic. I didn't need to set an alarm, I didn't really think about it too much. After about 6-7 months of going to the gym or doing some form of exercise it accrued without me even thinking about it. It had become a habit.

Now some habits are harder to create/break than others. They can take months or even years to change and multiple experiments and failures but the above frame work is a great place to start!

I hope this helps you.

Mark.

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