WARNING – This guide is very in-depth, and very long. It’s about ~77 pages, or 1/3 of an average book. Remember to navigate using the table of contents, and bookmark to return later by clicking Ctrl-D or ⌘-D.
If you would rather read this post in book format, the Kindle version is available at Amazon here:
Reading Time: ~55-78 minutes
Table Of Contents
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Why You Have Bad Habits & Why They’re So Hard to Break
- 2.1 First, you can’t stop a bad habit by trying to avoid it.
- 2.2 The number 1 reason bad habits develop is to deal with stress, discomfort, tiredness, or boredom.
- 2.3 Bad habits can be small, so they often go ‘under the radar’.
- 2.4 Habits are useful on an evolutionary scale.
- 2.5 Willpower is not as important as you think.
- 2.6 Consequences often don’t matter.
- 2.7 Habits can change drastically when ‘identity’ changes, but not before.
- 3 The 6 Steps That Will Allow You To Break Any Bad Habit
- 4 Step 1: Choose The Habit To Break, And Identify The Reason You Want To Break It
- 5 Step 2: Identify Causes & Triggers
- 6 Step 3: Put Prevention In Place
- 7 Step 4: Replace The Bad Habit With A Good Habit
- 7.1 Experiment with substitutes for your bad habit
- 7.2 Attach a new routine to the old cue, or things you already do without fail
- 7.3 How to track your habits
- 7.4 Use the PARR method to track and improve new habits
- 7.5 Track habits using apps
- 7.6 Change identity to change habits
- 7.7 Summing up:
- 8 Step 5: Create Supporting Habits & Accountability
- 9 Step 6: Long-Term Strategy To Prevent The Habit From Returning
- 9.1 Maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and remove all activities that promote laziness
- 9.2 Use the 5 minute rule to get started and avoid frustration
- 9.3 Use Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” method
- 9.4 Cultivate mindfulness
- 9.5 Always celebrate victories
- 9.6 Surround yourself with people who already live the way you want to live
- 9.7 Use visualization to prepare yourself for the moment of truth
- 9.8 Remember: you’re constantly changing
- 9.9 Prove to yourself that you want to quit your bad habit by purposefully wasting energy or money
- 9.10 Summing up:
- 10 The End Of Your Bad Habit
A bad habit can be embarrassing, waste valuable time and energy, and hold you back from doing things that matter in your life. In extreme cases, it can even risk your mental and physical health.
You probably have at least a few bad habits you’d like to break. In this guide, you’ll learn a system you can use to break them one by one, and at the same time replace them with beneficial habits.
Here are just a few examples of bad habits you can break using this guide:
- Nail biting
- Sleeping in
- Too much fast food
- Wasting time on the Internet
- Picking your nose
- Watching reality television
- Too much time on Facebook
- Playing too many video games
- Eating too much sugar
- Cracking your knuckles
- Emotional shopping
- Habitual coughing
- Throat clearing
- Over snacking
- Biting your pen
- Using your cell phone too much
- Watching too much TV
- Eating too many donuts or cookies
- Licking your lips
- Picking scabs
- Fiddling and nervous twitches
- Thumb sucking
- Leaving the toilet seat up
- Too much coffee
- Twitter, Facebook
- Licking the spoon when baking
- Road rage
Almost any unhealthy ‘automatic’ behavior, or any behavior that follows a ‘craving’ can be fixed using what you’re about to learn.
Why put in effort to quit a bad habit?
I used to think that life is short and I deserve to take a break, have a drink, or eat some comfort food.
I’d feel good about my decision to give in to my craving for a minute or two… but soon after, I’d regret it.
Bad habits can give you short-term comfort, but ultimately, they make you unhappy. Bad habits can make it hard to trust yourself. And when you don’t trust yourself, your self-confidence and happiness plummet.Bad habits can give you short-term comfort, but ultimately, they make you unhappy. Click To Tweet
Getting those bad habits out of the way and finding something better to replace them with is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. When you break a bad habit you’re not only removing the detrimental effects of the habit, you’re also building self-discipline in all areas of life.
All you have to do is break one bad habit, and it will be much easier to break the second and the third and the fourth. And it will also be easier to form new, beneficial habits.
If you have a bad habit in mind that you want to break, the benefits of breaking it are probably obvious to you. First of all, you’ll stop wasting time and energy on something that’s hurting you. Secondly, you’ll stop being embarrassed of the way your nails look, you’ll lose weight, you’ll be less stressed, you’ll have a better social life, you’ll have more peace of mind etc.
A bad habit has a unique detrimental effect on your life. But for some reason you still stick with it. You almost always give in to cravings, and you continue to feel bad about it.
But why? Isn’t it amazing that you can continually do something that’s bad for you?
The truth is that bad habits are just a side effect of human nature.
And as you continue through this guide, I’ll show you why you have bad habits in the first place (as it turns out, there’s always a hidden benefit in every bad habit).
After that, we’ll go deep into the causes of your bad habit, and then I’ll take you through a simple step-by-step technique to eliminate it, no matter how long you’ve been doing it, or how much “a part of you” you think it is.
If you can form a bad habit, you can un-form it as well, as long as you use the right principles.
I’m going to show you a 6 step blueprint to eliminate any bad habit from your life. The 6 steps are:
- Identify Your Habit & Reason Why
- Identify Causes & Triggers
- Put Prevention In Place
- Replace The Bad Habit With A Good Habit
- Create Supporting Habits & Accountability
- Long-Term Strategy To Keep the Bad Habit From Coming Back
At each step, I’m going to give you a real-life example from a bad habit I successfully eliminated in my life. This will help to illustrate how each step works and to give you faith in the system.
I know what it’s like for bad habits to drag your life down until it’s a boring, joyless grind. They slow you down like pebble in your shoe. And they can sneak up on you because you might think they’re insignificant… until they become addictive, and you can’t stop.
So my goal for this guide is to give you a reliable method, that I’ve used myself, to get rid of bad habits and replace them with healthy ones. Using this system was life-changing for me, so I want to pass it on to you.
The example I’m going to document is kicking my cravings for fast food. A few years ago, I would go out and get a handful of hamburgers a few times per week. And not just while passing by on my way home from work – I would get a craving while I was already home at night, I would get in my car, drive 10 minutes, grab the food and come home to eat it.
This would be okay if it was only once in a while, but I started to feel like cravings were controlling me and interrupting my life. At that point, I decided to figure out how to eliminate the bad habit that was taking over my evenings.
Bad habits vs. addictions
I want to make something clear from the start.
Bad habits are different than addictions. Addictions are caused by chemical imbalances or disorders that cause obsession with an activity to the point where it destroys important parts of your life.
Addictions are not just mental. Certain addictions can alter the way your brain works over the long term, and cause physical withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop the habit. Genes and mental health can play a role in addiction.
Some risk factors for addiction are:
- Family history of addiction
- Traumatic experiences in childhood
- Depression, anxiety or other mental disorders
Examples are gambling addiction, alcoholism, drug addiction, and eating disorders. Though this guide outlines powerful methods to drop bad habits, I strongly recommend you consult with a health professional to get extra support if you’re trying to break an addiction. This guide is not a substitute for professional advice.
Here are some steps you can take:
- Consult your doctor, who can recommend other services or prescribe medications to alleviate cravings
- Consult your local addictions centre
- Seek the advice of a psychiatrist or psychologist who has experience with addiction
- Join a addictions / weight loss support group
However, if your bad habit is NOT a complex addiction like alcoholism, gambling, or drug abuse, this system will be effective for you.
All you need to do is follow the steps I’m going to outline. This guide should work even if you’ve already tried to eliminate habits and couldn’t. The only reason you failed before is because you didn’t have the right tools. Now, you’re about to learn what makes habits tick and how to dismantle them piece-by-piece.
NOTE: Remember that reading this guide alone will not magically cure your habits for you. You have to schedule a time to use each step, and take action on each step in your life. Breaking a bad habit takes time and energy, and the longer you’ve been doing the habit, the longer it will take to break it. Now, if you follow this guide you should see some immediate improvement in the right direction, but anybody who tells you there is a magical overnight ‘cure’ to every bad habit is not telling you the whole truth.
The point of this guide is to break habits faster, to make sure you follow through on breaking them, and to help prevent backsliding. After reading this guide and implementing the steps, you should start seeing improvement within just a few days, and significant improvement within a few weeks.
OK? With that in mind, let’s begin!
Why You Have Bad Habits & Why They’re So Hard to Break
Humans are capable of some amazing intellectual feats. We have the discipline to design and build planes, cars, and skyscrapers. We used mathematics and computers to land on the moon. And yet we still develop rather “primitive” bad habits like nose picking, nail biting, and overeating.
So why does this happen? And why are habits so hard to break?
Well, there are a number of reasons:
First, you can’t stop a bad habit by trying to avoid it.
Let me illustrate this with an example. When I say “try not to think of a purple elephant”, what are you thinking of? Of course, you’re thinking of a purple elephant. The brain can’t NOT think of something. It needs a focus to direct attention.
This is one reason you can’t get somebody to stop a bad habit by telling them “just stop it!”
When you try not to think of something, you’re still thinking of it. And since you can’t stop a habit by trying to avoid it, the stress becomes worse and worse as you worry about your inability to stop it… Which makes it even harder to avoid.
In addition to that, there’s a psychological problem called the hot-cold empathy gap (a term coined by Carnegie Mellon psychologist George Loewenstein) which explains that we can’t possibly plan how we’re going to act when we have a craving, because we will be in a very different state of mind.
For example, in the morning it’s easy to plan that you’ll go to the gym later in the day. You feel full of energy, and ready to take on anything. You can imagine yourself coming home from work, packing your gym stuff and heading out to the gym for a great workout. But after work, when you’re tired and burnt out, you feel much different. You sit down on the couch, and you don’t feel like doing much of anything.
In the morning, it’s also easy to say you’ll resist eating a bowl of ice cream in the evening. But once you’re tired at night, and you begin to have a craving for ice cream, the planning you did in the morning doesn’t matter.You can't stop a bad habit by trying to avoid it. Click To Tweet
So what’s the solution?
The best way to break bad habits to use a reliable system. To start, you have to identify your bad habit, then identify the causes behind your bad habit (your bad habit typically satisfies some primal need), identify the triggers of your bad habit, put prevention in place so you can avoid the old habit, replace your bad habit with a new beneficial habit that satisfies the same need, and take steps to make sure you stick to your new routine over the long-term.
This guide is based on those 6 steps. And don’t worry, it’ll seem much simpler once I break it down for you.
When I was trying to avoid eating fast food, at first I’d try to ignore the problem and give myself reasons avoid the craving. I would sit down and deliberate about it. I’d give myself seemingly-convincing reasons such as “but I just went two days ago” or “I never feel good after I eat it”. But eventually I’d come around and compromise with reasons to give in. I’d say to myself “I don’t really have anything else to do tonight, so energy isn’t a problem”, “I won’t eat fast food for the rest of the week if I satisfy my craving now”, “I worked out yesterday”, and on and on.
Getting into a logical argument with my emotional brain was impossible to win. Though I tried, I couldn’t argue against my cravings. It never made them go away, it only made them more intense.
And when I tried to make a plan, saying to myself “I won’t get fast food for the rest of the week, because I had some today”, I almost always caved in within a few days. This is due, of course, to the hot-cold empathy gap. When I made the plan, my craving was already satisfied, so at that moment I didn’t want any more fast food. But the moment my next craving came around in a day or two, I’d give in. And I’d probably justify it with another empty promise like: “since I’m going to eat fast food today, I won’t eat any for the next two weeks!”.
It’s important to understand the ‘you’ right now is different from the ‘you’ who will experience the craving.
The number 1 reason bad habits develop is to deal with stress, discomfort, tiredness, or boredom.
Skin picking might develop as a nervous twitch, sleeping in late as a way to delay the stressful day ahead, picking scabs as a way to occupy yourself during boring situations, and nose picking if you have an uncomfortable itch in your nose.
Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, outlined a simple Cue, Routine, Reward framework that all habits have in common.
The Cue is an environmental or mental factor that signals the start of the habit. The cue can be driving by a McDonalds, seeing a hangnail, or seeing a message on your cellphone. The routine is the habit itself – going into the McDonald’s to grab a burger, biting your nails, or checking your cellphone again. After the routine is performed, comes the reward. The reward might be the stimulating taste of fast food, an escape from a stressful situation for a few moments, or getting a message from a friend.
The taste of fast food, the escape from a stressful situation and getting a message from a friend are not harmful in themselves. What is harmful is the repetitive nature of the routine. When you eat fast food too much, when you chew your nails too much, or when you check your cell phone repetitively even when it’s not necessary, the problems are obvious. And when you do these things over and over, day after day, you become more likely to do it the next day. Then the negative consequences pile up. You gain weight and lose energy, the look of your nails is embarrassing, and you waste time and energy and become stressed when you check your cell phone every five minutes.
However, if the reward is taken away or satisfied by something else (a healthier habit), cravings for the habit can be weakened.The number 1 reason bad habits develop is to deal with stress, discomfort, tiredness, or boredom. Click To Tweet
I originally developed a fast food habit due to boredom and tiredness at night. At the time I had moved away from home, to the West Coast, away from most of my friends, so I had a bunch of nights during the week when I didn’t have anything to do. And I was usually rock climbing and mountain biking during the day, so when I got home I was very tired.
There were a few fast food restaurants near my house, so I felt like I deserved not to cook on many nights. I quickly got into the habit of going to get fast food because it was so easy and so delicious. The nature of the fast food habit is the more you eat it, the less you can taste regular food. Fast food is packed full of saturated fats and sugars which over stimulate your taste buds, so nothing else has much flavor anymore. You’re desensitized to other food. It’s like when you get used to a smell in your car, and you only know it’s there when a friend tells you about it.
Tiredness and boredom leave room for a bad habit to seep into your life. Tiredness especially is a problem because when you’re tired, you have less willpower to hold out against cravings. You might have noticed that it’s hard to resist a bowl of ice cream or cookies late at night when you’re tired, but it’s easy to resist them in the morning or afternoon.
Bad habits can be small, so they often go ‘under the radar’.
Sometimes bad habits don’t seem like a very big problem, so they are ignored. When this happens, the true damage they do to your life can go unnoticed.
The problem is that our minds cannot easily imagine the damage a bad habit does over the long term. Say a bad habit causes a 1% percent decline in your life quality per week. This is also counting the missed opportunities that come with bad habits (the energy that bad habits use up that could be put to constructive use). It doesn’t appear to be much. But over a year, 52 weeks, that’s a decline in 52% life quality (without compounding), which is significant.
Fortunately, good habits work in the same way. Just a small change of 1% per week increasing life quality can add up to a 52% life quality increase in just a year.Bad habits can be small, so they often go 'under the radar'. Click To Tweet
When I was craving fast food, I didn’t think of the negative consequences. I was only focused on the craving – the smell and taste of fast food. Until I started noticeably losing energy and gaining weight, I didn’t keep track of how much I was eating. And by that time, my bad habit was already in full force, and I was experiencing strong cravings.
Every time I went to get fast food the craving would interrupt constructive things I could be doing, and the food itself would steal my energy and ruin the rest of my night. Though I thought I was satisfying my craving, in reality I was just making it worse each time I gave in. The next night the craving would be worse than it would be if I were to resist the first craving.
In this case, giving in to the craving represented a 1% decline, while resisting the craving would represent a 1% percent increase in life quality.
Don’t think that “1% change” is significant? There’s an excellent real-life example of this 1% principle in action.
In 2010, Dave Brailsford received a new job as General Manager of Great Britain’s professional cycling team, Team Sky.
He had one primary management technique and he called it “aggregation of marginal gains”. By finding all the things related to cycling in the lives of his athletes and improving them each by just 1%, he believed he could make significant improvements over the old team.
He looked to improve the normal areas such as the training program and the technology of the bikes, but he also broke down other areas of potential improvement that other coaches overlooked. The things that affect the quality of the rider’s sleep down to the pillows they used, testing different type of massage gels, and better health education to keep riders in top shape.
Before implementing Brailsford’s techniques, no British rider had ever won the Tour de France. Just a few years after he started making his 1% changes, the Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour. And that same year, Team Sky took home 70% of the gold medals in cycling at the 2012 Olympic games in London.
That’s the concept behind all of my habit guides and my experiments in the pursuit of better habits in all areas of life. Each of my guides teaches you how to implement new, healthy habits in your life and saves you the guesswork.
Also keep in mind that drastic changes can happen over short periods of time, so your current habits or skill level don’t matter when breaking or forming habits. The only thing that matters is the direction of your improvement right now. Are you backsliding at 1% per day? Are you remaining stale, not moving in one direction or the other? Or are you improving at 1% per day?
Habits are useful on an evolutionary scale.
You might be wondering why we have habits in the first place. What’s beneficial about developing habits? And why is it so easy to develop bad habits?
The answer is that habits are useful on an evolutionary scale. When we perform a repeated action, many times over, there’s a good chance that the action is helping us to stay alive.
Those that stay alive are the ones that reproduce, so those who automate useful actions tend to stay alive more often. If we perform a useful behavior every day, the brain automates the behavior so we use less energy to continue to do it.
Our cavemen ancestors would learn the habits of the tribe from their parents, which were developed over a long period of time. These would be such things as when to sleep, when to eat, when to socialize. Each of the habits of the people in the tribe were developed to adapt to the environment. By learning these habits and making them automatic, it would help each tribe member to survive in the future.
The problem with this mechanism is that it does not discriminate between good habits and bad habits. After all, in some environments a good habit can be a bad habit and a bad habit can be a good habit. A good habit is simply something that helps you survive and flourish in your current environment, and a bad habit is something that prevents you from reaching your potential or your goals.
When I began to make trips for fast food, my body quickly realized that I had found a new source of stimulating, easy to reach food. I began to get cravings for it because my body assumed that it was the easiest way to get a good source of nutrition. Of course, fast food is not natural. It’s engineered to taste good without any of the nutrition that usually accompanies flavourful food in nature.
My body adapted to the new source of easy-to-get food, so I began to crave it. And the more I gave in to cravings, the stronger they became.
Now, it’s okay to give in to cravings sometimes. It’s when they start to control you that they become a problem. I started to waste time arguing with myself over a craving, which was a sure sign my craving was beginning to control me, and that’s when I decided to kick the habit.
Willpower is not as important as you think.
Nobody has superhuman willpower. Trying to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do might work for a few days… But then it usually backfires.
Say ‘James’ is out of shape and never spends any time at the gym. One day he realizes he’s out of shape, so he summons the motivation to go for 3 hrs. Problem is, that’s a pretty big shock to the system for somebody who never goes to the gym. Since there’s no habit in place, the motivation to go quickly wears off after day 1. The 3 hrs he spent at the gym leaves him with less motivation than ever before, and the next time he thinks about going to the gym there’s even more resistance.
The truth is that everybody has about the same willpower as James. Successful people and unsuccessful people just use their willpower differently.
Less successful people use all their willpower to resist the temptations of their bad habits.
More successful people invest their willpower to create habits and routines so that they can use their willpower for more important things, such as learning new things and personal growth (some do this naturally while others learn to do it through self-development).
When you focus on building automatic habits and breaking bad ones, you become more and more productive. When you struggle to resist bad habits every day, you’re just treading water.Willpower is not as important as you think. Click To Tweet
Consequences often don’t matter.
Gretchen Rubin, author of Better Than Before, notes: “One-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness—for serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, even leprosy.”
Gamblers lose all their money and give up their family and homes. They feel sorry for themselves… Yet they keep gambling. The consequences of smoking are well-known and well illustrated on every carton of cigarettes in America. Yet many people can’t be separated from their smokes for even a day.
For people with bad habits, it seems that consequences are irrelevant. All that matters is the feelings they have toward the habit. Willpower is powerless against powerful emotions.
The consequences of eating too much fast food are well-known by most people. Even though I knew that fast food drained my energy, had aftereffects that lasted for a few days, made me gain weight, and could even cause cancer, none of that really mattered when I had a craving.
Consequences don’t matter much when compared to the strength of a craving. My rational mind knew the risks involved, but my emotional mind was really in the driver’s seat. So what could I do? Eventually I found my solution: Instead of relying on reason and willpower to resist cravings directly, I had to focus my reason and willpower on the process of changing habits.
Habits can change drastically when ‘identity’ changes, but not before.
For some people, habits take months to change. But habits can also change in a flash.
Think of alcoholics or smokers who suddenly become pregnant. When a strong, emotionally charged reason to change enters the scene, bad habits that had lasted decades can be broken in an instant. This usually happens when the person experiences a drastic shift in mindset and they come to identify themselves as a different person. The smoker changes identities when she becomes a mother, and that new person is not a smoker because smoking while pregnant would go against her deep-seated beliefs and ethical values.
However, the person who identifies as somebody who always says ‘yes’ to fun will have a hard time cutting back on their drinking.
And the person who identifies as nervous will have a hard time cutting back on biting their nails.
Though it’s rare to come across an identity-shifting new perspective, if you can find a reason to stop your bad habit that changes your identity (eg. “I want to be the type of person who does THIS, and not the type of person who does THIS”), then habits are easy to break.
You must prove it to yourself with real-life actions, however (the mother had to become pregnant to change identities). More about how you can apply this principle to your habits in a later section.Habits can change drastically when 'identity' changes. Click To Tweet
I identified as somebody who thought he deserved some time to be lazy at the end of the day.
That belief gave me a license to have lazy nights where I didn’t have to do much of anything. And that led me to indulge in bad habits such as fast food.
I later realized the belief that I ‘deserved’ to have nights to do nothing wasn’t really improving my life.
Why not do something actively revitalizing & enjoyable, or something that improved my life? I could have much more satisfying evenings by spending time with people I love, playing sports, or learning something new.
As soon as I put in some effort to change my habits, I quickly realized I could spend nights doing more fulfilling activities and getting more out of life. The evening energy levels adjusted within a week. I only felt lazy at night because I had been doing it for so long. Laziness had simply become a habit, and it wasn’t really my identity, at all.
Luckily, habits are surprisingly malleable when you finally decide to change them.
The 6 Steps That Will Allow You To Break Any Bad Habit
Now we come to the techniques that will allow you to break any bad habit.
The core process to break any bad habit is:
First you become aware of your bad habit, then you replace it with something better, and then you put structure in place to prevent it in the future.
It seems simple, but when I tried to apply this process to breaking my own bad habits it was too abstract and therefore hard to apply in real life.
So I did a lot of research into specific techniques I could use to break my bad habits, and I came up with a 6-step system I now use to break any bad habit. As it turns out, the 6 steps still fall under the Awareness-Replacement-Prevention process, but there are now specific, easy to follow steps so it’s a no-brainer each time.
There are six basic steps, as I outlined before:
1 – Identify The Habit & Reason Why
In this section, you’ll learn the basics of habit breaking, identify the habit you want to break and prepare your first habit breaking ‘cycle’.
2 – Identify Causes & Triggers
Next, you’ll identify the triggers of your habit in everyday life, and you’ll uncover your ‘habit pattern’. This is the process of diagnosing the root causes of your bad habit, so that you can apply a treatment.
3 – Put Prevention In Place
Next you’ll put a plan in motion to make your habit more conscious, prevent habit triggers (or satisfy them in a healthy way) and break the patterns of old habits.
4 – Replace The Bad Habit With A New, Good Habit
The next step is to find a good habit that satisfies the same needs as your unhealthy habit, so that you can replace your bad habit with something constructive.
5 – Create Supporting Habits & Accountability
Then you can create supporting habits that make your new habit easier (such as getting your running gear ready the night before so it’s easy to go for a run in the morning), and you can also set up accountability to make sure you prevent your old habit and keep up your new habit.
6 – Create A Long-Term Plan To Keep the Bad Habit From Recurring
The last step is to have a plan in place to make sure you don’t fall back into your old habit. In this section you’ll learn powerful techniques to prevent and resist cravings, a mindfulness technique to strengthen awareness, and more.
As long as you apply what you learn, this proven framework should be all you need to break any bad habit permanently.
So let’s get to the first step!
Step 1: Choose The Habit To Break, And Identify The Reason You Want To Break It
The first thing you need to do is to clearly identify the habit(s) you want to break. You might already have a few in mind.
What habit do you want to break first?
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power Of Habit, there are three steps to any habit: The Cue (or Trigger, or Reminder), the Routine, and the Reward. Every habit has these three steps in common.
The Cue can be almost any state, or a combination of states, the body is in. It could be a time of day, an energy level, a feeling, or even a specific stressful memory (such as remembering that your next term paper is due).
This leads into the established neural pathway of the Routine. It’s a specific action that you take when you encounter a Cue in order to get a Reward.
The Reward is obtained when you perform the routine, which further engrains the habit. The Reward doesn’t have to be what you might normally think of as a reward (such as food), it could also be a relief or escape from stress or boredom. Biting your fingernails or constantly checking your watch might help to escape from the stress of a situation, for example. This is the ‘hidden reward’ behind your bad habit.
Here’s how the Cue, Routine, Reward looked for my fast food habit:
- The Cue: Laying on the couch at night, bored, energy level low.
- The Routine: Getting a craving for fast food, and getting my things and heading out to my car. I’d buy food at the drive through and take it home to eat in front of the TV.
- Reward: The taste of the food, relaxation of satisfying my craving & the comfort of ‘rewarding’ myself after a long day.
What is the Cue, Routine, Reward for your bad habit?
Write down every detail you can think about each step. What situation triggers your bad habit? What’s your bad habit routine? What’s the reward of your bad habit?
This is just a starting point, however. Since your habit is a subconscious action or craving, it’s difficult to remember the pattern.
In a later step you’ll log your habit over the course of a week to identify the Cue, Routine, and Reward in detail, but for now just outline your habit as well as you can remember.
Focus on one habit at a time
When you’re starting to break your bad habits, it’s important to focus on just one habit at a time.
I know it’s tempting to try to tackle them all at one time, but changing any habit takes willpower and energy. You have a limited supply of willpower to break each bad habit, so if you try to break more than one at a time, you risk spreading your energy too thin. Then you won’t be able to break any.
Because of this, the fastest way to break bad habits is to focus your energy on one habit at a time, like a to-do list.
It’s the nature of habits that once a habit is established, it doesn’t take much energy or conscious thought anymore. So once you break a bad habit, you won’t need to think about it anymore, and you can dedicate your energy toward breaking your next bad habit.
Over the coming months you can line up all your bad habits to be broken one at a time. Just use this system on your first habit, then rinse and repeat!
Before making a serious attempt at breaking my fast food habit, I was struggling with many bad habits at once. I also tend to crack my knuckles and pick my skin. Without focus on a single bad habit, I was only aware of bad habits when they affected my life in some way (eg. When I realized I was doing something embarrassing in public). Because I was only aware of them sometimes, I couldn’t stop any of them, and the habits became more deeply ingrained.
However, when trying to break my fast food habit I decided to ignore all my other bad habits. I focused my energy solely on quitting fast food.
By focusing my energy, I was more aware of what triggered my fast food cravings. Then it was easier to prevent cravings. After a few weeks of focusing on it and preventing the trigger, cravings stopped, and I didn’t have to waste energy thinking about it any more. After that, I was free to use my willpower to stop the next bad habit.
Establish a passionate reason why
The Reason Why is an important component to breaking any bad habit. As I said, some habits take months or years to break, while others can be broken in a single moment of decision. The smoker who becomes pregnant is a great example that a strong habit can be broken in an instant through a powerful Reason Why.
The practicing psychologist James Claiborn, PhD, suggests “Write out a list of the pros and cons of this behavior and keep a record of when you do it… Measurement of anything tends to change it and makes people much more aware in the first place.”Measurement of anything tends to change it and makes people much more aware in the first place. Click To Tweet
I’ve also found the best way to establish a strong reason why is to start with a simple list of pros and cons. It’s a classic because it works.
When it comes to bad habits, you’ll see that the cons far outweigh the pros and that contrast will make continuing the bad habit seem ridiculous.
The more you can keep this Reason Why on your mind, the less likely you’ll want to continue the habit. Every time a pregnant mother thinks about having a smoke, she remembers what it could do to her baby. You want the same level of alertness when it comes to your bad habit.
It’s usually more effective to keep your Reason Why in mind if you relate it to how it affects other people you care about. Imagine scenarios where your bad habit would hurt or embarrass people you love. What if that scenario happened? Would that be acceptable to you? Add these to your list of cons.
The pros in this list are important, as well. They are the Rewards that your habit gets you. As you’ll see later on, the most effective way to remove a bad habit is to replace it with a healthy habit that satisfies the same rewards.
Try to find the most immediate and urgent pros and cons, because those are the ones that affect your habit the most. The delicious taste of food is more motivating than the fear of weight gain in the future, for example.
I created a list of pros and cons for my fast food habit:
- Fast food is delicious.
- It’s easy to get.
- It’s a reward after a long day.
- It comes with good memories of enjoying a same food in my childhood.
- It provides (some) nutrition my body craves.
- It immediately drains my energy.
- It’s makes me gain weight.
- It causes a stomach ache.
- It causes a drop in athletic performance for the next few days.
- The habit controls my life.
- It’s expensive compared with healthy food I could prepare.
The cons show me the reasons I should stop the bad habit. Of course, I was already aware of most of them, and they never helped me to avoid my bad habit. As I already explained, people fail to stop gambling or fail to stop eating compulsively because the cons are irrelevant while they are experiencing a craving.
However, they will become useful as you continue with this system. And the pros are especially important for replacing your bad habit with something else. So for now, make sure you identify as many pros and cons as possible.
Commit to a ‘habit cycle’
A habit cycle is a period of time where you commit to stopping a bad habit or to forming a good habit.
I find that 15 Day cycles work well. It’s just long enough to keep your attention without feeling like too much of a commitment. And at the end of the cycle you can reward yourself, and you can choose to re-commit to breaking your bad habit or not.
Keep in mind that you can choose to fall back into the bad habit if you want, after the 15 days are up. Giving yourself the choice to go back is important psychologically. You never want to feel like you’re being coerced into doing something (even if you are coercing yourself). That’s one reason habits are so hard to break – people push themselves too far and their body forces them to relapse. Also, it’s possible that during the course of your habit cycle you find that it actually isn’t harmful to you, and the benefits outweigh the negatives. In that case, it might be better to keep your habit.
The ’30-Day Habit Challenge’ has been popularized a lot recently. It’s easy to believe that if you push yourself to do something for 30 days, it should become a habit. But if you look at your 30-Day challenge as a ‘goal’, there is one big problem, and it’s called “the danger of the finish line”. When an athlete pushes himself to train for a marathon, it’s common that he quits the new habit completely after he reaches the goal. And when a new author pushes herself to write a book, it’s common for her to quit after she finishes.
Even though the runner had been training every day for months, and the writer had been getting up every morning to write 3000 words, they stopped when the goal was accomplished. They figure they need a break, they take some time off, and then they fall out of the habit right away. The feeling of completion makes them slide into complacency.
It didn’t become habit because they were reaching for a goal, and not a lifestyle change.
That, or they never learned to enjoy the process of their habit in the first place, and they couldn’t wait to give it up and move on to something else.
The real solution is to focus on changing your every day life. You shouldn’t be challenging yourself to change a habit for just a short period of time. The point of habits is change behavior over the long term.It didn't become habit because they were reaching for a goal, and not a lifestyle change. Click To Tweet
That’s why I find the idea of cycles to be more effective than a ‘challenge’. With cycles, there’s no end point where you ‘finish’. There’s just a decision point where you find out if the new habit you’ve established is good for you, or not. The idea is that with each successful cycle, your bad habit will be weakened more and more.
And you can reward yourself after each cycle if you want to continue (like alcoholics reward themselves with token that symbolizes “X days sober”).
I committed to two cycles with no fast food, with a reward at the end of two cycles.
The mindset of committing to ‘cycles’ freed me up from the danger of the finish line, because I knew that I was going after a lifestyle change and not just a monthly challenge. The idea that I could go back to my old habits if I wanted also took the pressure off. It felt more like an ‘experiment’ than a permanent commitment.
Of course, after the first 15 days were up, my habit was weakened. Once the cravings were gone, there was no good reason to continue to eat fast food. So as it turned out, this was an effective approach to break my habit.
- Focus on one habit at a time
- Write down a list of pros and cons to establish a reason why you want to quit your habit.
- Commit to a ‘Habit Cycle’ experiment of 15-30 days where you commit to weakening your habit.
Step 2: Identify Causes & Triggers
The next step is to make a log of the triggers of your bad habit.
Log the cues
Janet L. Wolfe, a clinical psychologist in New York suggests: “Put down the antecedents, the emotions surrounding the [bad habit] and what goes through your head when you [do it]. That will make your bad habit more conscious.”
It’s hard to know exactly what is causing your bad habit until you start logging it for at least a week. When you begin to do this, you’ll probably find some hidden reasons why you do it, or you’ll uncover more patterns in your routine.
You’ll see how similar you act each time the Cue comes up. Identifying the causes is a gateway to replacing the bad habit.
Whenever you experience a craving for a bad habit, log these 5 possible Cue characteristics:
- Time of day
- Other people around?
- Action(s) you just did that could lead in to the Routine
- Emotions you’re feeling
One of these characteristics is the Cue that triggers your habit Routine. After a week or so of logging your habits, you should be able to see that one or more of them are exactly the same each time you feel a craving.
When I first tried to stop eating fast food I didn’t really know where to start. I knew that fast food cravings came up when I was hungry and too lazy to make myself something to eat, but otherwise I thought they came up at random during the day.
After recording my fast food habit for a few weeks, I realized that I almost always had cravings at night when I was feeling lazy on the couch. When I was bored and stressed out after a long day of work, I’d have stronger cravings, especially if the day didn’t go so well. And I usually had cravings when I was alone at night. If I was around other people, the cravings were less powerful.
Identify your habit routine
The Routine is the process that happens after the Cue in order to get the reward. This is the part of the habit that makes the habit ‘bad’. It’s usually some unhealthy action. Some bad habit Routines are simple, like biting your nails, and some are more complex, like gambling. Once you identify what it is, you’ll be able to modify your response to the Cue more easily.
If the Routine is complex, you can use it to break your bad habit. For habits with a very simple Routine, you’ll have to target the Cue or the Rewards of the habit. You’ll see what I mean by that soon, but for now, just write down the Routine of your bad habit.
What exactly do you do during your habit? Write down the entire process from Cue to Reward.
I wrote down the entire process of my bad habit from the craving until the reward. Once I became a bit more addicted to fast food, I would think about fast food at different times of the day as well, but the most reliable pattern I experienced, which hooked me on fast food in the first place, went something like this:
- Get a craving for fast food when tired and bored sitting on the couch at home after work.
- Debate whether to go and grab fast food, and eventually decide to go out and get some.
- Get jacket to go outside, and get in the car.
- Drive the car to the drive through, buy favorite foods.
- Drive home without eating the food, in anticipation of sitting down on the couch to eat.
- Turn on the TV and indulge in the meal.
The mental process of my Routine was about the same every time I got a craving. I would reliably make the same decisions. I would debate with myself for a while, but I’d usually find some kind of compromise that allowed me to get fast food (like “I won’t have it for the rest of the week”, or “I don’t have to do anything tomorrow, anyway”).
Writing down the process allowed me to identify the pattern and admit it had become an automatic habit. When I realized that, I knew that I didn’t want it to control my life any longer.
Later on, you’ll see how identifying the full Routine not only helped me to be more aware of my habit, but it also helped me to break it.
Identify the reward
The last step is to identify what the true rewards are. Every time you follow through on your Routine, try to figure out how the habit is rewarding you. Some rewards might be hidden.
Below is a list of rewards that will help you identify what is rewarding about your bad habit.
Many of them are derived from Henry Murray’s Psychogenic Needs, which is a list of universal psychological human needs. These needs function on a subconscious level, but they play an important role in forming personality.
In this case, the list is useful for figuring out what needs your bad habit is satisfying.
To use this list, simply read through the Needs and compare them to your own experience. Which needs are your bad habits satisfying?
- Escape From Nervousness
- Escape From Boredom
- Escape To A Good Memory
- Feeling of Safety
- An Addictive Sense (taste, smell, feeling, sight, sound)
- Emotional Outlet (anger, fear)
- Social Approval (checking facebook, twitter)
- Relief From A Bad Feeling (licking your lips)
- An Easy Way Out, or Conservation of Energy (eg fast food is an easy way to get nutrition)
- Loyalty To Another
- Counteraction (making up for failure)
- Abasement (enjoying pain and misfortune)
- Defence Against Attack Or Blame
- Exhibition (showing off, impressing others)
- Nurturance (to help those that appear helpless)
- Order (the need to make things tidy and organized)
- Play (the love of play & relaxation)
- Rejection (the need to reject others)
- Sentience (the need to seek out sensual experiences)
Over the next week, record the needs your bad habit could be filling to identify Rewards you’re getting. It’s helpful to refer to this list every morning while you’re keeping your log.
While I was recording my fast food habit, I recorded what needs my fast food cravings were fulfilling while referring to the list above.
The first reason, which I already knew, was that I loved the taste of fast food. It’s different than any food I would prepare myself. It’s also the easy way to get dinner. I wouldn’t have to waste any mental energy thinking about what to prepare.
I also realized I thought of fast food as a reward I ‘deserved’ after a long day of work (at least that’s how I justified it), and I found out that some of the appeal of fast food was re-living childhood memories of eating the same food.
Rooting out the deeper causes of my cravings eventually led me to reward myself in a healthier way.
- When you experience a craving, log the possible Cue characteristics in 5 categories: Time of day, Location, Other people around, Actions you just did, Emotions you’re feeling.
- Log your habit routine in detail. It’s usually very similar each time, or at least follows the same ‘mental roadmap’
- Identify the habit Rewards. Use the list provided to identify the needs your bad habit fulfills.
Step 3: Put Prevention In Place
Now that you’ve identified the Cue, Routine, and Reward of your habit, it will be easy to implement techniques to eliminate it. The next step is to bring the bad habit to conscious attention.
Habits are triggered subconsciously, so much of the time, they go unnoticed. You don’t realize you’re biting your nails until somebody else reminds you, and you don’t realize you’re picking your scabs until you start bleeding.
So you must make sure you’re conscious of your habit every time. Just identifying the Cue, Routine and Reward goes a long way to promote awareness, but if that’s not enough, there are more steps you can take.
You can connect the Cue or the Routine with something that will get your attention whenever you perform your habit. This is different for every habit, but here are a few examples:
- To stop biting nails: paint your fingernails with special polish that tastes bitter (such as these bitter-tasting products to help you stop biting your nails), or put bandages on your fingertips
- To stop cracking knuckles: put a bit of vaseline on your knuckles at the start of the day. When you go to crack your knuckles, the unusual slippery feeling will make you aware of your bad habit.
- Behavioural conditioning for any bad habit: put a rubber band around your wrist and whenever you catch yourself doing the habit, snap it hard. This will make you more and more aware of your bad habit as you start to associate it with the feeling of the snap. The next time you’re tempted by a craving you’ll think ‘Oh oh. If it do it I’ll have to snap the band…’
Ensure awareness using ‘Implementation Intentions’
Implementation intentions are a way to remind yourself to do something at a certain time or place. They link a specific situation to an action you want to perform. They are very simple, but can be very powerful when used regularly.
They are future plans in this form: “If X, then Y”. For example “If I bite my nails, I’ll kiss my hand instead”, or “If I have a fast food craving, I’ll do 20 pushups instead”.
They can be used for anything, though: “When I walk out the front door, I’ll always remember to double-check that I have my keys.”
The trick is to visualize the scenario as clearly as possible in your head. To remember your keys, clearly visualize yourself walking through the door and remembering to double-check for your keys, so that the next time you experience that situation, you’ll automatically remember what you intended to do.Ensure awareness using 'Implementation Intentions' Click To Tweet
To stop fast food cravings, I first documented the Cue, Routine and Reward. That was important to ensure I was aware I was having a craving so I could replace it with something else. I also used a few implementation intentions. Here are a few of them:
“When I get a craving, I’ll just have patience. I’ll start looking for a healthy recipe online, and realize that the craving will pass in just a few minutes.”
“Whenever I’m driving to the fast food restaurant, I will go to the grocery store instead to buy healthy food I can prepare. That way, I’ll have leftovers for the next few days too.”
“Whenever I’ve bought fast food and I’m on my way back to the house, I will throw it away before I get inside.”
When it comes to food cravings, I found that I was usually consciously aware of the craving. But I rarely tried to redirect my attention to something else (like healthy food or another activity) while I waited for the craving to pass.
Instead, I debated with myself, and that just made the craving worse. That was the real problem.
When I became aware I was debating with myself, I eventually learned to redirect my attention somewhere else.
That prevented me from getting stuck in a debate about going to grab fast food. Thinking about fast food would make my craving even stronger, so replacement of the Routine was key for me.
The implementation intentions also helped a lot. Whenever I would get into a situation where I was going to get fast food, the Implementation Intentions created checkpoints where I could ‘eject’ from the habit routine. If I missed the first checkpoint (patience during a craving), I could go to the grocery store to buy healthy, cheaper food. If I missed that checkpoint, I could throw the food away.
Realizing that each time you follow through on the habit makes it worse, and each time you stop the habit makes it better, goes a long way to helping you break the habit, too. Even if I’d already bought the food, throwing it away prevented me from getting more severe cravings next time.
Prevent cues in the first place
The next step is to cut down on the Cues that trigger your bad habit.
There’s a few ways to do this. You can change your daily schedule (so you avoid the place or time where you have your trigger), or you can satisfy your triggers in another way.
The way you do this depends on the details you recorded about your Cue. If you found you begin your Routine at a certain place, time of day, or when you’re in a certain mood, you can re-arrange your day so that you’re never in that situation anymore. Schedule other tasks during the time you usually perform your Routine.
If you manage to eliminate the Cue from your life, you’ve just cut off the head of the snake.
You can also plan to satisfy triggers in another way. More about that in the next section on how to replace a bad habit with a good habit.
To cut the Cue out of my life, I first made sure I was always occupied with something at night. I made more plans with friends, I would plan on a book to read, or I would meditate. Because it was the evening and I came home low on energy, I scheduled things that didn’t take much willpower to do, but were still healthy habits.
When I could successfully remove the habit Cues, I noticed that there was less chance of having a craving in the first place. Though this wasn’t a total solution (if I wasn’t 100% distracted, the cravings still came around at the same time of day when I was low on energy), it helped tremendously.
- Ensure awareness by connecting the Cue or Routine with something that gets your attention (eg. Bitter-tasting fingernail polish to remind you that you’re biting your nails)
- Set up Implementation Intentions to remind yourself exactly what to do when you get a craving
- Prevent or avoid Cues in the first place by changing your schedule.
Step 4: Replace The Bad Habit With A Good Habit
The second way to remove habit Cues is to satisfy the needs your bad habit satisfies by replacing it with a good habit. When the need is satisfied by something else, you’ll find cravings will become weaker and weaker.
It’s often tricky to know what need your bad habit is satisfying, however. To figure out what works, you’ll have to experiment with various new habits.
Experiment with substitutes for your bad habit
To find substitutes, first examine the rewards your bad habit gave you. Hopefully, you’ve already identified them.
Next, come up with a list of good habits you can potentially implement in place of your bad habit. You will need to experiment with these to see which works best.
There are two types of substitutes you can use for your bad habit:
- Similar Reward
- Negative Reward
A similar reward would be substituting a healthier food in place of a fast food cravings. A negative reward would be substituting some kind of healthy distraction in place of a fast food craving – like going out for a jog each time you experience a craving. You will want to experiment with both kinds.
If the craving is caused by stress or pain, the similar reward will probably work better (your body is looking for nourishment or comfort).
If the craving is caused by boredom, the negative reward (a healthy distraction) may work better (your body is looking for some kind of diversion from what it’s experiencing).
But again, it’s hard to tell until you experiment. Use the system in this section to implement the first new habit, and if your cravings don’t dissipate after a week or so, experiment with another.
Once you implement a new reward and your cravings begin to disappear, you’ve found the right one!
If you remember back to my list of pros and cons, the pros my bad habit gave me were:
- Fast food is delicious.
- It’s easy to get.
- It’s a reward after a long day.
- It comes with good memories of enjoying a same food in my childhood.
- It provides (some) nutrition my body craves.
The primary rewards were 1. Delicious food, 2. Almost no effort to prepare, 3. Reward after a long day.
Now, to come up with new rewards that could cover these bases for me and relieve my fast food cravings.
The primary habit I used to replace this bad habit was cooking big batches of healthy foods one or two times per week. I started by finding two healthy, delicious recipes I liked. One for lentil & vegetable soup and the other for chickpea soup. The idea was that I could prepare big batches I could eat for the next few days instead of fast food. I had to experiment with the recipe until I found something I liked (which could serve as a ‘reward’).
This habit made it easy to get food quickly so that eating lentils in the fridge was actually easier than going out to get fast food. Lentils also happen to be filling and very nutritious, so by eating them I get less food cravings in general.
To satisfy the ‘reward’ part of the craving, I stocked my house with some kind of healthy dessert, like dark chocolate or berries. When I felt I deserved a reward, I’d eat that after dinner.
When it comes to memories of food from my childhood, I found that I didn’t have to replace that one with a new habit. It wasn’t the driving force behind the cravings – it was just an auxiliary reward that reinforced the habit. So once I removed the primary trigger (delicious, easy to get food), the cravings started to go away.
Attach a new routine to the old cue, or things you already do without fail
The easiest way to implement any new Routine is to attach it to something you are ready do every day without fail. You can use the old Cue to attach a new Routine, or you can attach new habits to other things you do consistently each day.
Make a list of the things you do every single day along with the time you do them. Some of these might be:
- Showering in the morning
- Nap after work
- Dinner at 6 o’clock
- Wake up at 7am
- Head out the door at 820am
- Brushing your teeth
Since you do these every single day, you can plan an Implementation Intention around them to plan a new habit.
By doing this, your old habits act as cues for new habits.
For example, if you shower every morning at 7:30am, and your new habit is to have a morning protein shake, simply set up the Implementation Intention:
“When I get out of the shower in the morning, I’ll go right into the kitchen and prepare a protein shake with strawberries, milk and protein powder.”
Imagine yourself getting out of the shower, and imagine exactly how you’ll prepare the shake. Try to think of all the details so you don’t run into a problem. You might need to include getting dressed or putting on a towel etc.
From now on that will be hard to forget.
Of course your cues may be different for different days of the week. An August 2011 study by Lally in the Journal of Psychology, Health & Medicine found that effective cues were important in forming any new habit. When cues were not present on weekends, habits were not easily performed, but when the cues were present again on weekdays, the habits returned.
You might have completely different schedule on the weekends when compared to weekdays, but you may still want to implement this new habit everyday. In that case, you’ll need to find another established Cue on the weekends to attach your new habit, and set a new Implementation Intention.
Use this format to establish your new plan:
When (Cue), I will do (new Routine) because it gives me (Reward).
I wrote out the formula above to establish my new routines:
When I am tired, lazy and hungry at night, I will warm up my lentil stew because it’s healthy, easy to prepare and tastes great.
When it’s Sunday and I’m out of lentil stew, I will make a new batch because it allows me to eat well during the week without any hassle.
This worked really well because when I was tired at night it was easier for me heat up some stew than to go out and get fast food.
And on Sunday I had enough time and energy to prepare the food, so that was no problem.
Soon after doing this I didn’t have so many cravings for fast food, so I knew I was on the right track. And when I was tired of eating lentil stew, I switched it out for chickpeas instead, which have a similar nutrient profile.
How to track your habits
What is measured can be improved. If you don’t track your habit, you won’t be able to know where to make improvements, and you’ll remain stale or even start backsliding.
But it can be tricky to track your habits. Do you have to track how many times you did your bad habit every day? Do you have to measure the time between cravings?
My advice when it comes to tracking is to keep it simple. Set a series of goals, and use a Yes or No for each one.
When breaking a bad habit, you have two types of goals – breaking the bad habit, and forming a new one in it’s place.
The habit-breaking goals might be “no nail biting in the morning”, “no nail biting in the afternoon”, and “no nail biting in the evening”. Then track it with a simple yes or no.
The habit-forming goal might be “putting on the special nail polish that tastes bad every morning” and “whenever I realize I’m biting my nails, snap the rubber band on my wrist”.
Each time you succeed counts as one checkmark. It’s either a Yes or a No.
When it comes to forming a new habit, you don’t get extra points on a day when you go beyond your goal. For example, if you put the nail polish on in the morning but do it again at night, you still get only 1 checkmark. And if you remember to snap the rubber band only once in a day, you still get a checkmark.
There’s a good reason for this. You don’t get extra credit because if you get lots of checkmarks one day, but only one the next, it feels like your progress is stalled. Since you’re trying to condition a long term habit, a small improvement over the day before is enough.
It encourages you to continue for the next day, and shows you’re doing something right. If you miss one day, then it’s easy to analyze what happened, but figuring out the difference between a day where you got 10 checkmarks and only 3 the next is more complicated. So make it easy on yourself and stick to yes or no answers.
If you want to scale up and do more, you can set higher goals. The first goal might be ‘I want to go to the gym once per day for 30 minutes’, then you might want to raise the bar to ‘I want to go to the gym two times per day, 30 minutes each’. Either way, it’s still a Yes / No answer when you record it in your log.
Don’t record ’35 minutes Monday, 2 hours Tuesday, 10 minutes Wednesday, missed Thursday, 20 minutes Friday’. Just record ‘Yes Monday, Yes Tuesday, No Wednesday, No Thursday, No Friday’.
The goal is to foster a long term habit and not to encourage explosive bursts of energy that may come and go.
The metric you use to track your habits is different for each habit, of course. Here are a few metrics you can use to track your new habit or your bad habit:
- Number of times (eg. I want to perform the new habit 2 times per day – track with Yes or No)
- The total amount of time (eg. Run for 10 minutes per day – track with Yes or No)
- A distance (eg. I want to run 2km per day – track with Yes or No)
- An amount (eg. I want to write 4000 words per day)
- Focus quality (eg. Was I 100% focused during X time period – track with Yes or No)
Use the PARR method to track and improve new habits
In some cases, new habits are a challenge to implement. The first week is the hardest, so during this time it’s important to track how well you’re staying on top of your new habit. That way you can adjust your plan if things aren’t going well.
The best method to implement any new habit is the PARR method to tracking habits established by Martin Grunburg, author of The Habit Factor. Though the Cue, Routine, Reward model is effective to analyze habits, it doesn’t include critical steps to implement a new habit, analyze how ‘automatic’ it has become, and tweak your plan.
PARR is simple. It stands for: Plan, Act, Record, Review.
Plan – The plan for the new habit. Use Implementation Intentions to schedule your new habit, preferably attaching it to an old, established habit. Eg. When I come home from work, I will immediately sit down at the piano and practice my scales for 15 minutes.
Act – Do the new habit when it was planned.
Record – Make a note of how easy it was to perform your habit. Did you remember to perform it when you were supposed to (Yes or No) and what went through your head while you did it (did you enjoy it, or was it a grind)? Remember, it’s hard to be perfect with a new habit. Forgive yourself for slip ups. Just stick with your new habit and they will become easy soon enough.
Review – Set up a time for review at the end of the day. Review what you’ve recorded over the last few weeks, and see where you can improve and what you can change about your current habits. How can you make it easier to follow through on your habit? This is also a useful time to review material to remind yourself of useful techniques. You can reference this guide, for example, or read stories about how other people establish their habits (if you’re learning piano, reading the autobiography of a professional piano player would be helpful).Use the PARR method to track and improve new habits Click To Tweet
Track habits using apps
The easiest way to track any habit, these days, is with a tracking app. You can use a paper journal, of course, but it’s convenient to do the tracking on your phone or computer and have stats and pie charts available anywhere you go.
Here are some of the best habit tracking apps you can try:
Coach.me (ability to track many types of habits and activities, as well as access to inexpensive personal coaches)
HabitRPG (your life as a video game – track to-dos, daily activities, daily habits with this app to win points and do quests. Great community and a fun way to ‘level up’ in real life)
HabitBull (simple yes/no habit tracker)
21 Habit (create a 21 day challenge to make or break a habit. You can use this for your habit cycle, just be careful that you’re not approaching it with the attitude that you’re done once you reach 21 days.)
42 Goals (track your daily goals, keep a log of your daily activities, and visualize your achievements)
Beeminder (set a goal and pledge money to stay on track – if you don’t stay on track, Beeminder charges you! You can hook it up to other applications to monitor your online habits, or you can enter details of your habit manually)
Chains.cc (uses the ‘don’t break the chain’ method to track your habits. Encourages you to repeat your habit every single day, no matter what. Very effective for some habits, such as writing)
Daytum (can be used to track any every day statistic. You can record anything you do with this app and visualize it)
iRunuRun (popular app to improve focus and accountability of recurring behaviors)
Change identity to change habits
A change in identity can drastically shift every day behavior and habits. When a change in identity occurs, behavior and habits automatically follow.
The example I used earlier of a strong change in identity was a woman becoming pregnant. Though she might have smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day, she now identifies as a mother, and her deep-seated ethics don’t allow her to smoke during pregnancy.
Under normal circumstances, the discomfort of withdrawal and cravings would make it impossible for her to quit smoking. But none of that matters when identity is changed.
A 2010 study in the Journal of Counseling Psychology by Oyserman and Destin revealed that when we encounter difficulties that are not congruent with our identity, we frame them as ‘not for me’. But when we encounter difficulties that ARE congruent with out identity, we tend to frame them as a ‘worthy challenge’. In the first case, it’s easy to give up. In the second, we don’t give up because we want to remain consistent with our identity. This is called identity-based motivation.
So when the woman identified as a smoker, quitting ‘wasn’t for her’. But when she became a mother, the difficulty of quitting was simply a happy challenge, and it became easy.
Here are other examples of identity beliefs. I’m sure it’s obvious how they could affect behavior:
- “I’m the type of person who never misses a workout”
- “I’m the type of person who only eats healthy food”
- “I’m the type of person who reads every night”
If you held these strong beliefs about yourself, I’m sure you can imagine how easy it would be to workout everyday, to eat healthy food, and to read every night.
There’s just one problem. You have to prove these beliefs to yourself first. You can’t just wake up and decide that you’re now the ‘healthy type’ today. You have to take some action to show yourself that you are.
So how do you do that?
There are two ways to do it. The slow, piece-by-piece way, or the fast way.
For the ‘slow’ way:
There are two basic steps to take.
- First, you have to make a decision of what type of person you want to be.
- Second, perform an action or a series of small actions, that prove to yourself you’re that type of person.
The decision is the easy part, as long as you are serious about it.
For the second step, ask yourself:
“What do people who are already that type of person DO?”
For example, if you want to be the type of person who goes to the gym every day, start acting like somebody who goes to the gym every day. Find out the daily habits of somebody who goes to the gym every day, and implement them in your own life one at a time.
Don’t just guess at how they act, though. Do some real-world research. Give yourself proof.
The best way to do that is to find somebody who identifies as the ‘workout type’, and ask them what their specific habits are. When do they go to the gym? How do they prepare for the gym? How do they eat? What do they think about at the gym? What are they doing for the rest of the day?
Offer to buy somebody lunch so you can pick their brain. Or find a personal trainer.
When you find out the actions these people take on a daily basis, slowly start to implement each one. When you do that, you will slowly prove to yourself that you are ALSO the type of person who goes to the gym every day.
Each tiny change you make is like putting in a vote for a new identity.Each tiny change you make is like putting in a vote for a new identity. Click To Tweet
This way is usually the easiest and the best way to change identity, because smaller steps take less risk.
Then comes the ‘fast’ way to change identity:
There are some situations where you can change identity very quickly. It is not always possible to do this, and it can be jarring, but it can also be effective.
It’s more like throwing yourself into the deep end instead of wading in to your new identity gracefully. Burn the bridges to your old identity, and you’ll have no choice but to go ahead on a new route.
To do it, you have to make a strong commitment to a new lifestyle.
Becoming pregnant is one example of this. Here are a few more examples that might be easier to use:
- Publicly committing to a bodybuilding competition in 6 months from now (though you’re now 20 lbs overweight)
- Buy a new, expensive instrument and hang it up on your wall for visitors to see (to commit to learning the guitar – people with expensive guitars are expected to be able to play them well, right?)
- Buy a puppy (to turn you into the type of person who gets up early)
- Buy a new, expensive road bike, find people to start riding with, tell them why you bought such an expensive bike and commit to riding a race in 6 months
Each of these things commits you to a new lifestyle change. What new lifestyle can you commit to that will allow you to break a new habit or form a new one?
What actions would fundamentally change the type of person you think you are?
When you have a new identity as ‘somebody who competes in bodybuilding competitions’, you’ll start to see that your mind seeks out resources and information that are consistent with the new identity. For example, you’ll look for new workout routines, and you’ll spend a lot more time on bodybuilding.com with the other bodybuilders.
Maybe you think you can’t change that drastically. But how much change have you really gone through in the past 20 years? The past 10? The past 5? How much different were you back then? What were your habits like at another time in your life, while you were in a different environment? Ask older people who know you well. I’m willing to bet your habits were much different at younger stages in your life, though it might be hard to remember.
Since you’re going to keep on changing, why not control the direction of change?Since you're going to keep on changing, why not control the direction of change? Click To Tweet
I noticed that lazy nights at home were the primary Cue for my fast food habit, so I decided to change that about my lifestyle. I no longer wanted to be a lazy person at night, but somebody who had lots of energy for interesting, fulfilling things during all of my waking hours.
So I simply started to plan new things in the evenings. I would schedule what I was going to do a few days in advance (planning to visit friends or family, or even just planning to read an interesting book). I tried to plan my life just like a ‘high energy’ person would.
By planning my nights like this and filling them with activities, I slowly became the type of person who was active for the entire day.
At first, it was difficult. I didn’t have much energy in the evenings, and I craved lazy nights at home. But I had faith that my body would adapt. And in surprisingly little time, I became comfortable filling my nights with new activities such as learning new languages, reading, playing guitar, working out, and spending more time with people I love. My identity changed from somebody who couldn’t wait to get home to sit on the couch, to somebody who had full, fulfilling nights.
There were also a few added benefits. One was that it gave me something to look forward to at the end of the day, so work became less of a grind. And the other was that since I was more active during the day, my sleep improved. This ended up giving me even more energy in the evenings.
- Experiment with substitutes for your bad habit. First try a habit with a Similar Reward, and then try a habit with a Negative Reward.
- Attach your new habit to an old Cue or a habit you already do every day
- Track your habits in a Journal using a simple Yes or No.
- Use the PARR method to track habits. Remember, PARR stands or Plan, Act, Record, Review.
- Use a habit tracking app to conveniently record and review your habits.
- Attempt to change identity for permanent habit change. Experiment with new habits that force you to identify yourself as a different type of person.
Step 5: Create Supporting Habits & Accountability
The next step is to create supporting habits and accountability to give yourself a better chance at eliminating bad habits, and continuing your good habits effortlessly.
How to create supporting habits
Supporting habits are good habits that help you to commit to your new habits.
They’re usually tiny habits that you perform at different times of the day. They make it easier to choose one behavior over another.
They do not replace your bad habits. Rather, they make it harder to do them, or easier to follow through with good habits.
You can use these to commit to a new behavior beforehand, when your self-control is strong, so that self-control is easier when cravings set in.
To give you a better idea what a supporting habit is, here are some examples:
- buying only healthy food at the grocery store, so there’s nothing unhealthy to eat at home
- making a protein shake every morning, so you remember to drink it when you get home from work
- turning off your Internet router at certain times of the day so that you’re forced to do something else other than surf Facebook
- setting your alarm clock in another room every night, so it’s impossible to hit the snooze button and you’re forced to get up out of bed
- putting your cellphone in a lockbox when you get home from work so that you’re not tempted to use it in the evenings
One of the supporting habits I used to get rid of my cravings for fast food was to buy healthy desserts that satisfied my cravings for delicious food. I would stock up my house with fruit and dark chocolate.
Another example of a supporting habit was to take time on Sunday to prepare food for the week, and to prepare activities for my weeknights.
Taking this time to schedule constructive things to do allowed me to get out of my usual lazy funk and do something better, which removed the primary Cue for my fast food habit.
Supporting habits lower the resistance to good habits (eating healthy, in this case) or they can increase the resistance to perform bad habits (taking evening trips out of town, somewhere far from any fast food restaurant would make getting it impossible – though I didn’t use this tactic). They can be very effective to help you to stick to the plan.
How to set up accountability
Accountability is important when forming any new habit or breaking an old one. To create accountability, you set up external rules with consequences for not sticking to plan.
When you’re low on willpower and you’re tempted by a craving, accountability can give you the motivation to resist. For most bad habits, it’s critical to set up some kind of accountability, or else you’re bound to give in to cravings.
Setting up accountability also helps you to form a new identity. Just the act of setting up accountability makes you believe “I’m the type of person who changes his/her habits”.
Here are some examples of accountability you can put in place today:
- Declare your intention to family and friends. The embarrassment of admitting you haven’t been sticking to your goals is often enough to motivate you to continue.
- Find a partner to eliminate the habit together. When two people commit to something together they can give each other advice and prevent each other from backsliding. Gym goers often work out with a buddy because it works. Committing to help a friend work out makes it hard to let them down.
- Set up your own reminders to stay on track. Use a prominent wall calendar and review it every day, or use a calendar app (such as Google Calendar) to send you reminders when you need to do something. You can set up email or text message reminders during the time when you usually have a craving.
- Use a habit tracking app. Habit tracking apps are powerful for holding yourself accountable. Just the act of recording success can become rewarding, and the thought of having to label a day a failure becomes strong motivation. I suggest starting with HabitRPG, which turns habit tracking into a video game, or Beeminder, which charges your credit card whenever you don’t stick to your goals.
- Hire a coach. Ideally, a coach who has solved the same problem you’re looking to solve instead of a generalized ‘life coach’. A coach not only helps to keep you on track, but can also provide a valuable new perspective on your bad habits or the good habits you’re trying to form.
- Seek out a medical professional if your habit has become severe and is affecting your life in a serious way. A medical professional such as a psychologist has had experience with others with the same problem you have, so they’ll have an effective plan ready for you to follow. And by seeking help you won’t have to tackle your problem alone.
For my fast food habit, there were two types of accountability I set in place:
- Admitting to friends and family that I ate too much fast food, and saying that I wanted to stop.
- Tracking my habit using a journal.
Though I didn’t set up very strong accountability, just the act of tracking the patterns of my bad habit and telling people I wanted to quit eating fast food was enough to help me to quit.
I remember it had just the right effect: when I was having a craving, I thought about how embarrassed I would be if I had to tell people I was still eating fast food. I also knew I never wanted to write in my journal that I gave into cravings. Most of the time this added enough motivation to prevent me from going out to grab fast food.
Each type of accountability you put into place adds up and makes it less likely that you’ll give in to cravings, so add as many as you can. More can only help!
Having trouble? Create incremental goals
If you implement these techniques but you’re still struggling with a bad habit, the problem could be that you’re attempting to change too rapidly.
Instead of shooting for rapid change, create incremental goals that move you closer to eliminating your bad habit bit by bit.
For example, if you are having a really hard time with biting your nails, you can try to stop biting one nail at a time. First, choose one finger to ‘protect’. Then the next week, protect another finger, and on and on until you’re down to biting only one nail. At this point, you’ve built up confidence that you can stop biting 9 nails, so it should be much easier to stop altogether from there.
Or if you tend to drink too much when you go out to the bar, set incremental goals over a number of weeks:
- 6 drinks
- 5 drinks
- 4 drinks
- 3 drinks
- 2 drinks
- 1 drink
- 0-1 drink.
When I first started eliminating my fast food habit, I decided that I would schedule time for fast food instead of cutting myself off cold turkey (cold turkey seemed to create intense cravings and never worked).
Every month, after two cycles, I planned a trip to a fast food restaurant as a reward. Each time I went, I would plan to buy less and less food, however. The last time I went, I only bought one burger and nothing else.
This method helped to wean me off the food without going cold turkey, and eventually, cravings became less strong and less frequent, and finally, disappeared.
- Create a set of supporting habits that make it easy to avoid your bad habit or to implement new beneficial habits
- Set up accountability as a safety net from temptation. The thought of consequences while you’re having a craving is often enough motivation to resist.
- If you are still giving in to your bad habits, don’t worry. That just means you’re trying to bite off more than you can chew at one time. Rethink your strategy for eliminating the bad habit by creating smaller incremental goals that will be easier to reach.
Step 6: Long-Term Strategy To Prevent The Habit From Returning
Habit change is lifestyle and identity change. In some ways, you’re becoming a different person, but at the same time you have the same memories and same old mental pathways. That makes it easy to fall back into old habits.
That’s why alcoholics always consider themselves to be alcoholics, even after 20 years sober – they know it could only take one drink to fall back into the same old habit.
So in this section I’m going to provide you with a toolbox of skills to prevent you from falling back into your old habit. They’ll help you to maintain new habits no matter what life throws at you.
Maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle, and remove all activities that promote laziness
Tiredness and weakness can trigger the habitual part of your mind, which will make it easier to continue bad habits.
The reason this happens on a neurological level is because the rational mind (which sits in the prefrontal cortex) takes more energy to use than the subconscious.
The rational mind is the seat of willpower, which is your ability to override automatic & habitual thought processes. When there’s enough energy, you can use willpower to change habits. When there isn’t enough energy, you will tend to give into cravings and bad habits.
So when you’re trying to change your habits, always make sure you’re getting enough sleep and exercise. It will make the work required to change habits much easier.
Also remember that certain activities seem ‘restful’, but do not actually provide much rest. A good example of this is watching TV. You feel relaxed watching TV, but it doesn’t provide more energy for constructive activities. It only makes you lazier.
If you want to stay active after work, instead of relaxing in front of the TV for 2 hrs at 5pm, try to lay down and rest completely for 20 minutes. You don’t need to fall asleep to get the benefit of rest. Right afterward, get moving. Go for a 5 minute walk or run, or do some pushups.
You’ll find that this 25-minute routine provides more motivation and energy than 2 hours relaxing in front of the TV. You’ll feel like you have a brand new day every evening.
Use the 5 minute rule to get started and avoid frustration
The five minute rule is a psychological tactic that can be used for breaking bad habits or creating new ones.
When you use the five minute rule, you are either forcing yourself to do something for five minutes (when creating a new habit), or you are stopping yourself from doing something for five minutes (when breaking a bad habit).
How to create a new habit with the 5 minute rule:
When creating a new habit, it’s usually hard to motivate yourself. For example, if you’re trying to get into the habit of reading more, your mind probably wanders after the first few minutes of reading. Same goes for learning something new, such as learning to play a new instrument, or practicing a new sport. If it takes much effort, your mind is going to put up a lot of resistance.
In this case you can use the five minute rule to commit to the activity for just five minutes. That makes starting easy. Just set a timer for 5 minutes and start. You don’t have to do the activity for more than five minutes. You can if you want to, but it’s optional.
The great thing about this trick is it gets you over the biggest barrier to doing any activity – starting. When you’re already doing an activity for a few minutes, it’s easy to get wrapped up in it, so continuing is easy.
If you feel like stopping after 5 minutes, don’t worry. You can stop after the five minutes is up and try again tomorrow. This is still a victory because you’ll be more likely to want to do the activity the next day! No matter what, you win when you use the five minute rule.
NOTE: If you think you have a problem with chronic procrastination, however, this probably won’t work. There are underlying causes you need to deal with, as well. In some cases, procrastination can be like an addiction or a sickness. To fix that problem, check out the Start Your Work Now video series to diagnose why you procrastinate so you can apply the right treatment to stop procrastinating altogether.How to create a new habit with the 5 minute rule Click To Tweet
To break a bad habit with the 5 Minute Rule:
You can also use the five minute rule to prevent yourself from giving in to a craving. When you’re experiencing a craving, just set a timer, and say to yourself you just have to resist for the next five minutes. If the five minutes are up and you still want to get into the craving, that’s ok.
You can give in and go ahead with your bad habit as usual. But chances are that after waiting five minutes, one of two things will happen: the craving will be gone, or you’ll want to see how much longer you can wait before giving in.
This helps you to lengthen the time between the Cue and your Routine. And the more you lengthen this time, the easier it will be for you to resist any bad habit.
Victor Frankl, the psychologist, holocaust survivor and writer of the classic self-help book Man’s Search For Meaning, called this “the time between stimulus and response”. He said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Self-discipline is not the ability to force yourself to do something you don’t want to do. It’s actually closer to patience.Self-discipline is not the ability to force yourself to do something you don't want to do. It's… Click To Tweet
Use Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” method
A simple method that’s getting more and more popular is Jerry Seinfeld’s “don’t break the chain” method. It works better for some habits than others, but it can be very effective. Seinfeld, of course, used it for writing.
He credits this productivity method, in large part, for his career. He knew the best way to become a better comedian was to write better jokes, and the way to write better jokes was to write more jokes. And the best way to write more jokes was to write every day.
In order to get himself to write every single day, he would keep a big wall calendar, with every day of the year on it, in a prominent place in his house.
For every day you complete your task you can put a fat X over the day with a big magic marker. Continue to do that for every day you successfully complete your task. Do not put an X for days you fail to do your task.
Seinfeld says: “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”
Skipping one day makes it easy to skip the next, so this technique works best when you never skip a day. If you skip weekends, for example, it will be hard to start again on Monday. But if you want to take the weekends off, you can still do it – just perform a shorter version of the task on weekends, to make sure you don’t break your chain.
Of course, you can also use this method in reverse, to break bad habits. Every day you resist your bad habit, mark your calendar with a big X. And remember that as your chain gets longer, the easier it will be to maintain into the future.
But if you let your guard down and give into a craving, it will become more difficult to resist the next time. Every time you give in, you’ll be making more work for yourself.
As I said, awareness is the first step to breaking any bad habit. I’ve taken you through several methods to be more aware of bad habits, but there is one important method I’ve left out so far. That method is practicing mindfulness.
You can think of mindfulness as heavy weight training for your concentration and awareness.
There are many ways to cultivate mindfulness in everyday life, including formal meditation, but you don’t have to start there. If you’re just looking to increase your concentration and awareness of the present moment, you can use a simplified mediation method that can be done in 10 minutes per day.
I first learned this from the writer John Carlton. He suggests a short meditation before work where you then rotate through the feelings that are coming in through each of your senses. You can set a timer for 5-10 minutes to do this.
First, sit still and observe what you can smell. Take some time to feel the air coming in and out of your nose. Don’t try to put words to the sensations, just feel how they change. Next, examine your sight. What do you see in your immediate field of view? Notice how your perception shifts and changes and is never exactly the same. Examine the subtle colors and textures your eyes pick up on.
Next, examine what you can feel through touch. Feel the chair against your back and the floor on your feet. How much pressure is there? What textures can you feel? Also take some time to examine how the air coming in and out of your nostrils feels.
After you take a minute to examine touch, move on to what you can taste. Chances are it isn’t much unless you’re eating, but try to feel taste anyway. There are probably some very subtle tastes you can pick up on if you are patient, and focus only on taste.
Lastly, examine what you can hear. Go through each pitch, one at a time. Start at what you can pick up at very low pitches. Low pitches are often the hardest to pay attention to, but if you take some time to be mindful of them you’ll find many ambient noises you’d never otherwise pick up on. What can you hear at very low pitches? At mid-range pitch? At high pitches? Go through each of them, one at a time. Again, don’t try to describe what you hear with words, just observe the sensation.
Over time, this exercise increases your sensitivity to awareness in the present moment. It’s easy to think we’re aware of everything that goes on around us, but the truth is our conscious mind is filtering out most of it.
We’re often so unaware of the present moment that we don’t know we aren’t aware. When I started meditating, I was surprised at how much information I was missing out on.
The present moment is the only place you can make changes in your life, of course. It’s the only place you can make decisions and take actions. So it’s important you’re aware of it as much as possible, and limit how much you worry about the future or the past. That way, you can make the best possible decisions right now.
The beauty of meditation is that it can be used dogma-free and religion free. It’s compatible with your beliefs, no matter what you believe in. Think of it as an invitation to ‘come and see what’s there for yourself’.
If you are new to meditation I strongly suggest you pick up the following recommended books.
- Mindfulness In Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana
- The 4 Foundations of Mindfulness In Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield
Always celebrate victories
It’s common for people who enjoy personal development and improving their habits to get caught up in the pursuit of constant improvement. They push themselves to get better and better without stopping to enjoy the process of improvement.
Though it’s admirable to push yourself to get better, if you don’t stop and rest long enough to celebrate your victories, you’ll burn out.
I know because it’s happened to me. I spent my time constantly thinking “How can I get better?” and “What’s the next step?”, while ignoring improvement I’d made so far. Without any warning, I got stuck. I couldn’t read any more, I couldn’t push myself anymore, and I could barely work. There was no explanation, just a strong ‘mental block’ to putting in any effort. It was inconvenient timing, because I had a lot of work to do at the time.
These were the first signs of burn out. Only after I totally detached from learning and put off all work projects for a few weeks could I get the motivation to do anything again.
However, I’ve since learned that it’s simple to prevent this problem. Just take breaks to celebrate (on your terms).
Whenever you reach a milestone toward your goals, remember to take some time to celebrate. Go out and indulge yourself in something you enjoy, celebrate with friends, or just write about your victory in your journal.
If it was a major victory, reward yourself with something major like a holiday. If it was a minor victory, something like a chocolate bar will be enough.
This provides motivation to continue, and taking some time out will recharge your batteries and prevent burn out. Not to mention, it will give you valuable time to enjoy and appreciate life.
This is another reason to keep a detailed journal of your progress. Once a month, look back at goals you set and see how far you’ve come.
I use Evernote so I can search through my journal and find goals I’ve set for myself. When I realize I’ve reached a goal I set, I always take the time to throw a little party for myself. This adds to motivation for more improvement and I don’t burn out as often as I used to.
Surround yourself with people who already live the way you want to live
They say you become the average of your five closest friends. If you spend time with motivated people who have good habits, you’ll probably develop better habits. If you spend time with negative people who have bad habits you’ll probably become negative and your bad habits will get worse.
Now I’m not saying you have to ditch all your old friends, but you can start spending more time with new friends who have healthier habits.
If you don’t have many successful friends, seek out a motivated coach or mentor. Take them out to lunch and grill them with questions, or hire them for personal training. If you can’t afford a personal trainer or simply don’t want to hire one, you can turn to books or courses.
There are many successful coaches and mentors who write series how-to books in many different fields. Read their books, and expose yourself to their way of thinking.
To help me to eat better and eliminate my fast food cravings, I started spending more time with friends who had healthy food habits, as well as reading healthy food blogs and books about healthy foods.
Exposing myself to the mindset of people with healthier food habits shifted my mindset from laziness to a mindset where I was pro-active about food I ate. The more I read on the subject, the more I started to ‘live in the world’ of healthy eating, if you know what I mean.
Use visualization to prepare yourself for the moment of truth
Visualization can be a powerful tool when used correctly. By imagining how you’ll react in future scenarios, you can teach yourself a better way to react. The brain becomes a powerful real-life simulator.
That’s why boxers ‘shadowbox’ their opponents before the real match. They watch videos of their opponents (to get an idea of how their opponents behave) and then imagine themselves boxing. By gathering information and then using the power of the mind to simulate the real thing, they can train themselves to react to their opponent.
A study conducted at the University of Chicago compared three groups of basketball players. The first group practiced foul line shots every day for thirty days. The second group was instructed to take the same amount of time and imagine shooting perfect foul shots every day for thirty days. The third group was instructed to do nothing, as a control.
At the end of the experiment, all three groups were tested. The third group, as expected, showed no improvement. The first group improved their foul percentage by 24 percent. And the ‘imagination’ group? Though none of them touched a basketball for 30 days, they had improved their foul shot percentage by 23 percent… almost the same as the group who practiced foul shots with real basketballs every day!
How can you use this to break bad habits?
Use visualization to teach yourself a better reaction to your cravings. Simply imagine yourself in the situation when you have a craving, and imagine what you’ll do. Instead of reacting the way you normally do, imagine yourself doing something else. For example, if you have cravings for junk food, imagine exactly what you’ll do when you have a craving. See yourself going to the kitchen to prepare a healthy meal or grabbing a piece of fruit. Imagine yourself preparing the meal and how much you enjoy eating it.
Try it for yourself. You might be surprised how well it works. It helps prepare your mind for what it should be feeling and doing when you’re in the heat of the moment.
Remember: you’re constantly changing
Here’s a helpful bit of ‘habit change philosophy’.
Your habits are never static. They are always changing, for better or for worse.
In fact, every moment you’re a ‘new person’. Though you might feel the same and you have the same memories, your cells are constantly rearranging and regrowing. The oxygen you’re breathing right now and the food you’ve eaten in the past week incorporates itself into your body. Many of your organs totally regenerate all of their cells within months. Your skin is completely new every few weeks.
Now, this might not be 100% true. Many things about you remain the same. But I’ve always thought it was a useful idea because you can think of breaking a bad habit as simply becoming a new person who leaves a bad habit behind.
The person you’ll be tomorrow will be made of something different, and will have different likes and dislikes, and different habits.
Instead of forcing yourself to change your habits, you just need to break the habit pattern for a little while and allow this natural change to take place.
After all, you once existed as a person who did not have this bad habit. You were able to exist without it once before, and you can do it again.Remember: you're constantly changing Click To Tweet
Prove to yourself that you want to quit your bad habit by purposefully wasting energy or money
This is another method that helps change identity. If you can prove to yourself you don’t want this bad habit anymore, it will be simple to break. To do this, you can find something that will interrupt your Routine in a dramatic way.
Here are a few examples:
- To Stop Emotional Shopping: Go shopping for clothes, but forget to bring your wallet. Try on clothes and go to the counter, but since you don’t have money you’ll be forced to leave all your clothes behind.
- To Stop Nail Biting: Wear bandages over your fingers in public. Having to explain why you’re wearing bandages on your fingers might be enough embarrassment to drive the point home.
This method might take a bit of bravery, but if getting rid of your bad habit is important to you, it might be worth a try.
I used this technique to stop eating fast food. I started by breaking down my habit Routine. The routine was the ritual of getting a craving, usually in the evening on weeknights when I was tired, deciding to give into the craving, getting in my car, driving to the restaurant, and buying a few hamburgers and an ice cream. To break habit routine, I started at the end of the habit and removed the last action – eating the food. I went through the entire habit routine, then stopped before I ate. I would throw it out.
I also could have broken the routine before buying the food. For example, getting in the car, going to the restaurant, looking at the menu, then heading back home without buying anything.
This was a strong decision to prove to myself I didn’t want to do this anymore. The first time I did this was the beginning of the end of my fast food habit.
First of all, I proved to myself that I had the will to give up the habit. And second of all, breaking the cycle of eating the food itself helped a lot. One reason fast food leads to strong cravings is because it overloads your taste buds and makes other foods, that contain less saturated fats and sugars, less appealing. So when you’re looking for something good to eat, all your brain can think about is fast food.
- Focus on maintaining a healthy, active, balanced lifestyle and remove all activities that promote laziness. That way, you’ll have more energy to resist temptations, and there will be less extra time for them to bubble up.
- Use the 5 minute rule to create a new habit or resist temptation. Self-discipline is equivalent to patience.
- Use Seinfeld’s ‘don’t break the chain’ method to string together weeks of success and provide extra motivation.
- Cultivate mindfulness. It’s like heavy weight training for your focus and awareness. You can use the simple technique I provided in this section, or you can consult the mindfulness literature I mentioned to start your own meditation practice.
- Always remember to celebrate your victories, no matter how small. It will help you avoid burnout.
- Seek out people who already live the way you want to live. Speak with them or read their teaching material.
- Use visualization to prepare yourself for cravings and for new habits.
- Remember that you’re constantly changing. You only need to break the bad habit cycle for a short while to provide a window of opportunity for natural change to take place.
- Break your habit by purposefully wasting energy or money you spend doing it. Interrupt your Routine in a dramatic, irreversible way, and you’ll prove to yourself that you don’t want to be doing that bad habit anymore.
The End Of Your Bad Habit
If you follow this 6-step process, you should be able to break any bad habit for good.
Depending on the habit you’re trying to break, it may take only a few days to break, or it might take weeks or months. Bad habits are like a knotted rope. Over time, they seem to form by themselves when you’re not looking. Then, they take time to unravel… but there’s always a way to straighten out the rope again.
When you start applying the steps in this guide, you should start to see small results right away. You will probably falter and backslide, but that’s just a natural part of the process. The most important thing is to be able to pick yourself back up and start again. In some cases, it’s the only way to succeed.
The most dangerous thing you can encounter when breaking a bad habit is frustration, regret and loss of confidence. The moment you hit a bump in the road and think “maybe I can’t do this…” or “I caved in to my bad habit yesterday, so I might as well cave in today, too” is when you risk giving up.
Just remember that everybody makes mistakes. You’re going to experience some backsliding when you’re trying to form new habits or eliminate old ones. You’re only human, like everyone else.
Forgiving yourself for mistakes not only feels good, but it’s also the best way to start making progress again. So don’t hold it against yourself if you give in a craving one day.
Other than that, the best way to prevent backsliding is to prepare for it. Have a plan B when you miss your target or give in to a craving.
In my experience, the best Plan B is to know you can always start small again. If you miss going to the gym, the next day you can plan to work out for half as long. It’s less daunting to know that you don’t have to workout for as long, and it feels good to forgive yourself while still sticking to your routine.
If for some reason you can’t stick to your schedule one day (ie. If you’re too busy with other plans), plan a very small routine instead of a longer routine. If you normally work out for an hour and a half, but you can’t fit it in, create a short routine with just some push-ups and pull-ups and sit ups. Just the intention of continuing your routine keeps you on track for the next day.
And create smaller, incremental goals of you can’t seem to reach a big one yet.
I know it’s a cliché, but remember to take it one day at a time when you’re trying to break a habit. Whenever you’re trying to make progress, don’t worry about intimidating goals or bigger implications of your bad habit. Only worry about the next step in front of you, and you’ll continually make progress.
So, what’s going to be your first step? Which bad habit are you going to break first? All that’s left to do now is review the 6 steps and apply them.
While breaking your bad habit, I suggest you review this guide often. It’s easy to forget important steps in the process, or the reason behind them. After you break your first few habits, it will become second nature, and you won’t need to review this guide anymore.
And remember, a marginal gain of 1% each week can add up to incredible remarkable over time.
As Jim Rohn says, “Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.”
You might not be able to apply the 1% principle to win the Tour de France like cycling coach Dave Brailsford, but I’m sure you can apply it to your own goals.Remember, a marginal gain of 1% each week can add up to remarkable improvement over time. Click To Tweet
That’s it for now, so don’t waste any time – start planning your new habits now.
P.S. I love to hear stories about how people are using this material, comments, case studies and suggestions. For example, what techniques do you plan to use at first to break your bad habits? What bad habits are you trying to break? How are you progressing?
Please leave a comment below! You can also reach my by private email at richard(-at-)innergenius.org. I guarantee I read everything that’s sent to that box, but I can’t guarantee I’ll respond to everything. Looking forward to hearing from you!