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Cover image for Stopping Bad Habits Before They Stop You

Stopping Bad Habits Before They Stop You

taillogs profile image Ryland G Originally published at cdevn.com ・4 min read

A few days ago, I published a post about building positive habits. Since then, I've had quite a few people reach out asking questions such as

Anything about breaking bad habits? I understand it depends of a lot of factors too (smoking for 10 years x 1 year) and the habit itself, but do they talk about a similar timeline to make this bad habit weaker and eventually vanish?

I'm a person who's prone to developing habits in general, so I've have/had my fair share of unwanted habits. My stance on the subject is semi-unique, so I figured I would summarize it in a post.

MASSIVE DISCLAIMER: If you're struggling with a habit/addiction that has life threatening implications (heavy alcoholism, hard drugs, etc...) please get appropriate medical care. I can only offer words, not life saving medical intervention.

It's Not a War

The biggest mistake people make when they go to break their bad habits is to treat it like a war. At a fundamental level, there is no such thing as a bad habit or a good habit, there are just habits. Your brain makes no distinction and you shouldn't either. Your tendency to procrastinate developed just like your gym routine did, reinforcement.

There is a useful categorization for habits, intentional or unintentional.

Procrastination is an unintentional habit (for most at least), because you never consciously sat down and decided to start doing things at the last minute. The procrastination developed, when at some point in the past you put things off and you didn't get punished for it. This forms a habit because "lack of punishment" is a reward in itself.

Going to the gym is an intentional habit. It's intentional because you made a conscious decision that going to the gym was important for your health. It's almost always easy to break intentional habits. For example, most people who routinely go to the gym could stop immediately with no repercussions.

Unintentional Habits

Unintentional habits form when your brain perceives a deficiency, and pushes you towards a behavior that fixes it. Take excessive drinking, very few alcoholics are drinking purely for the experience of being drunk. Instead, their brain has been trained to see alcohol as a solution for some underlying issue. This creates a positive feedback cycle, where drinking eventually becomes your brains goto solution for that underlying issue. An analogy might make things clearer,

Unintentional habits are like a sinking boat. You're on the boat frantically using a bucket to dump excess water, but it's clear to you that you're still going to sink. All of a sudden, you notice that the boat is sinking because the plug was pulled out of the bottom (your boats don't have plugs?).

At this point, the problem is solvable if you simply put the plug back in the hole. Yes, you'll still have to use your bucket to dump the excess water, but because the leak is plugged, you're no longer wasting time/energy.

If what I just said makes sense, it should be quite obvious why people fail at breaking bad habits. Instead of plugging the leak, most just keep trying to use their bucket to dump water over the side.

Using Habits to Break Habits

The best way to break an unintentional habit is by forming a ton of healthy intentional habits. Instead of taking on the unintentional habit head on, search for the "plug" that caused it to develop in the first place. Don't be discouraged if it takes a few intentional habits before you start noticing a difference.

I strongly believe that if you form enough healthy intentional habits it's actually guaranteed to fix your unintentional habits. Not only will your brain be preoccupied with the intentional habits, those habits themselves can massively boost your mood, decision making etc. Habits such as, sleeping enough, exercising every day, eating right, and meditating will each have a positive effect on your overall decision making and level-headedness. This in turn, will make it much easier to overwrite the unintentional habits you've developed.

You can also try using your unintentional habit as a reward mechanism for your intentional habits. For example, you can only smoke 1 cigarette after doing 20 pushups. Over time, slowly lower the reward size of the unintentional habit while continuing the intentional one.
This allows you to hijack the unintentional habit and use it to your advantage. And because it's done slowly over time, the risk of long term success is much higher.

In all honesty, the specific strategy you use isn't too important. What's absolutely critical is realizing that unintentional habits are just your brain trying to fill a hole. If that hole still exists when you try and quit the habit, you'll either fail, or develop a different unintentional habit to fill it.

Conclusion

Instead of trying to "get rid" of an unintentional habit, try and find a new healthy habit that fixes the underlying problem.

I'd love to hear about other ways people deal with their habits.

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taillogs profile

Ryland G

@taillogs

Head of Product Experience at Temporal. previously lead architect and low-level systems programmer for scale out SaaS offering. Game engine developer, ML engineering expert. DMs open on Twitter.

Discussion

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Good post! Very astute in your observation about how unintentional habits will fill the void. I believe it Charles Duhigg that suggests the best way to eliminate a bad habit is by replacing it with a good habit. Nature abhors a vacuum so your brain will fill that space with something, better that you pick it then letting it default to something else.

For me, I find the following two things to be true.

  • Where Focus Goes Energy Flows: Meaning by focusing on a bad habit even in with the best intentions can cause the habit to grow. So it's more beneficial to focus on building the habit you want to replace it with.
  • Awareness and acceptance of the unintentional habit is the first step to changing the bad habit. When I catch myself doing a habit I wish to change I celebrate the fact that I caught I myself doing the habit. I then accept that I am doing, forgive myself, and immediately do the new habit I wish to form.
 

Completely agree. Never heard "Where Focus Goes Energy Flows", but it's a catchy encapsulation of the right approach.

WOW! I can't believe I didn't touch on the importance of awareness in the original post. I might have to update it.

Thanks for taking the time to read it over.

 

I'm not sure if it's his quote originally or not, but I heard it from Tony Robbins.

 
 

Good article.
I also have a bad h😎bit.

 

"Instead of taking on the unintentional habit head on, search for the "plug" that caused it to develop in the first place. "

Words on marble

 

You need to have a plan ahead of time for how you will respond when you face the stress or boredom that prompts your bad habit