The good habits and rituals in our lives exist for a reason. They help us navigate life and allow our brains to focus on those activities that require thinking. But how do we develop good habits, and do we need to get rid of bad habits first to form better rituals? It’s a struggle for most people, myself included. But there are techniques you can apply today to make that process easier. It won’t be easy and free of pain, but at least it will be easier.
The Habits Problem
So, what is the issue we all have when it comes to habits, good or bad? The problem is that we all know what we must do. We know it at an intellectual level, and we do not doubt it. It’s obvious that some things are good for us and some things are bad for us.
But we can’t seem to do the things that are good for us, while the things that are bad for us seem to… do themselves, without us being able to stop them.
In time, we give up. We allow those bad habits to grow and, eventually, we even label ourselves by them. Procrastinator. Smoker. Binge-eater. You name it. We forego the idea that we’ll ever be able to implement those good habits we keep dreaming of, like exercising, going to bed early, reading, talking to our family, and so on.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Read along to get a few practical ways that you can use today to replace your bad habits with new, better habits and rituals.
Note that this is not my first article about replacing bad habits with good habits. The previous one was written about two years ago, and since then, I’ve learned and experimented a lot more with habit creation. This article complements the previous one, with additional views, ideas, and techniques for winning this difficult battle with habits.
What is a Good Habit?
What is a good habit? Or even simpler, what is good, to begin with? The answer depends on who you ask. If you ask a heroin addict, they might say that shooting up heroin is a good thing. But do they believe it?
Herein lies the conundrum, because just by saying that something is “good for you” doesn’t mean that it’s objectively good for everyone, or indeed even for you. On the same token, just stating that something is not good doesn’t make it right.
You may believe that vaccines are not good for you, but science might disagree. You might think that eating McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is quite okay, but your early heart attack might prove otherwise.
The point is, when you start to think about habits and breaking them down into good and bad, you must not forget about one critical aspect: Awareness, or, more precisely, self-awareness.
- What the hell are you doing?
- What the hell are you feeling?
- What the hell are your blind spots?
Just by reading these questions and trying to give your top-of-mind answers, you realize that they lead toward knowledge about yourself, and that will advance you toward a deeper understanding of who you are.
Only by knowing who you truly are, by being honest and open, can you finally see the many bad habits that clutter your life. By understanding and accepting these bad habits, you can then take action to remove them from your life.
Removing bad habits is very different from creating good habits from a psychological perspective, although the mechanisms by which one approaches both are similar.
Bad habits put you in a hole, sometimes the final six-foot hole, if left unattended. Removing those bad habits from your life is like clawing yourself out of that hole, little by little, meter by meter, until your hand finally reaches the top, and you pull yourself out of there.
Once you are up, on solid ground, first, you must run as far as possible away from the hole. You run until there’s no remote possibility of falling back in.
Then you look up. There’s a ladder that leads you to a higher level. Some sort of made-up heaven, if you will. Adding good habits to your life is like climbing that ladder. The difference is that removing bad habits is a race for survival, whereas adding good habits is a race for betterment.The difference is that removing bad habits is a race for survival, whereas adding good habits is a race to betterment. Click To Tweet
But can you have both bad and good habits at the same time? Sure, you can.
I’ve seen people who eat healthily and exercise, but they also smoke. I know people who habitually clean their homes and routinely read books to improve their knowledge, and then they spend most of their weekend half drunk. The reason I know is that I was one.
One thing to remember is that, although good habits are almost always good, they don’t merely negate the bad habits.
Good Habits Don’t Negate Bad Habits
You may have a good habit of buying your wife flowers, kissing her morning and night, and having sex twice a week, but if over the weekend you spend a few hours with your side-lover, you can’t call it square.
You can’t take a healthy walk and smoke a cigarette at the same time. One doesn’t cancel the other.
You see, your bad habits will define you a lot more than your good habits will. Nobody cares if you are on an exclusive kale diet if you smoke. You are still a smoker, not a kale-eater.
Bad habits tend to create labels for you.
So what’s the solution?
I propose that one way is not just to develop good habits and remove bad habits, but strategically replace bad habits with good habits.
I know I’m overly-simplifying this, but imagine that every time you want to smoke, you go for a walk instead. It sounds simple enough, but it’s hard as well, of course. Otherwise, nobody would have bad habits.
But stick with me just a bit longer, and it will all make sense.
The Habit Loop
In his best-selling book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg discusses the habit loop: This concept explains how habits function and develop inside our brains. The short version of it is as follows:
Cue > Craving > Routine > Reward
The cue is what prompts you to want the reward. For instance, a stomach growl might be a clue that you need some food. To fill in the gap between the cue and the prize, you develop a routine that satisfies the craving generated by the signal. In this example, going to the fridge and getting a snack is the routine.
It doesn’t matter if the habits are good, bad, or even neutral-they all follow that same pattern. When repeated multiple times, the pattern is learned and hard-coded into your brain in an area called the basal ganglia. As you might imagine, “hard-coded” and “into your brain” gives you a clue about the power of habits. Once they get written down, they behave like a permanent memory chip-they are tough to change.
But what if you could hijack the cue and create an alternative path that starts with that cue? By imagining a different reward and creating a different routine, you could replace one habit with another.
In his book, Duhigg provides a framework for this process, described below. As you’d expect, this is not as simple as saying to yourself what the changes should be. That’s not how your body and mind work. The process of changing a habit requires time and experimentation, and, to some extent, pain.
The idea is that the reward that seems evident to you might not be the actual reward that you are satisfying. Your brain’s chemistry is deceiving you.
How The Habit Loop Works
In the example above, which is the reward? The food, the walk to the fridge, or simply the time away from whatever you were doing at the moment?
Identifying the cue and the reward and then experimenting with different ways of connecting them is one way to create new routines.
Take smoking, for example. Usually, this activity involves a few things:
- Requires to move away from where you are physically
- Consists of the action of getting the cigarettes and a lighter
- Might involve engaging somebody else to join in
- Requires walking or standing
- Takes about five to seven minutes
- It’s sometimes paired with a cup of coffee
What are the possible rewards that this action could provide? Let’s think about it:
- Breaking away from the current activity and disconnecting
- A change of scenery
- Talking to or socializing with a few people
- Getting nicotine inside your body
- Looking cool
- Drinking coffee
The Self-Awareness Problem
The issue that most of us have is one of self-awareness. We don’t know which one of these rewards is the one that we truly want. From all of these, if you were to analyze them at an intellectual level, the only one that doesn’t make sense is “getting nicotine inside your body.”
We all know it’s not good for you. It’s also the only item on that list that is exclusively associated with smoking.
Replace “smoking” with “eating carrots” and everything else would be the same. Or, it should, at least. But it isn’t.
If it were that easy to flip the reward, we wouldn’t be talking about this. To make that shift, you first need to go back to the cue. What is it? Is it:
- A specific time of the day?
- A particular time that passed after the last cigarette?
- Before or after a different activity, such as eating, meeting, or chatting?
- Always linked to coffee?
- Often connected to talking to people?
- Happening when someone else asks you to smoke?
- Appearing when you are stressed, anxious, happy, sad, or angry?
Documenting Your Good and Bad Habit Loops
To isolate these, you need to get yourself a notepad, and every time you smoke, record the cues from all possible directions. Where are you? Who are you with? What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Are there any sounds that you notice? What do you smell? What do you see?
By writing down these facts, time and time again, you begin to create a profile of the cue for your habit. Soon enough, reviewing these writings, you will start to notice a pattern.
The cue in your situation might be composite. This means that it may be a combination of things. That’s okay. Write them down and observe them.
Soon enough, you will know your call to smoking.
Step two is to experiment with eliminating rewards. In the example above, cut each reward at a time on several occasions. If you cut one reward, do you feel satisfied in the end? If yes, then that was not the real reward. Continue experimenting until you find the real reward behind your routine.
Perhaps you discover that the real reward is those five to seven minutes of away time. That’s good.
Now that you know the cue and the reward, it’s time to shift the routine.
Let’s assume that your self-reflection revealed that your smoking habit’s cue and reward are:
- Cue — every two hours, you feel restless and need to change the scenery
- Cue — when you feel bored, you need to go away and smoke
- Reward — you disconnect, and your brain calms down; you feel refreshed and ready to restart
Creating the Good Habit Loop Replacement
Okay, so now you will define a new routine that provides you with the same reward, and you will deliberately trigger it yourself as the cue shows up or even a short time before it appears. That latter part comes with practice, but if your cue is time-based, you could “hack” it with a simple timer. But let’s take it one step at a time.
You theorize that to disconnect your brain, you could listen to a podcast for five to seven minutes. This is something you would not think to do, let’s say, during work hours, but now you realize that smoking takes precisely the same amount of time. You enjoy podcasts, and they, too, relax you and give you the sentiment of disconnecting from the day-to-day.
So you now must start to anticipate your cue. If you know you get the itch to smoke every two hours or so, set a timer on your phone for one hour and fifty-five minutes. As soon as the time comes, you know the cue, and the craving is right around the corner. So, get up and go for the five-minute walk with the headphones on and the podcast up.
Make it your favorite one, one that you can truly listen to.
By doing this, you shortcut the old cue -> reward pathway: As the natural cue comes in, you are already in the process of getting the reward. The craving no longer happens, and the association of the cigarette is not in the picture anymore.
The Importance of Cue-Craving-Reward Awareness
Now I know this sounds a bit simplistic, but in reality, if you pay attention, it takes a lot of willpower to spend the time to analyze your cue-reward cycle. Most people who experience any kind of bad habit don’t take this time to reflect. By not doing so, they are not prepared to cast away the bad habit. They’ll try to work around it and do things external to the cue-reward pathway, which is firmly inscribed into the brain.
What you want to do is to create a new routine; you want to get the needle on the vinyl to scratch its way from beginning through to the end of the entire habit loop, jumping over the old ritual.
The craving is the key to this. If you eat a big meal right before going shopping, you will buy less crap; that is a fact. But if you go hungry, your reward is right there, as the craving is in full swing. By feeding your desire ahead of time, you won’t allow it to manifest anymore in ways you cannot control.
Eliminating Bad Habit Cues
Another technique for reducing the number of bad habits is to eliminate as many cues as possible. This is not always possible if the cues are not inside your control, but it’s very effective when you can do it. You still have to go through the exercise above, but besides coming up with new routines to satisfy the real reward, you can also reduce the number of cues for the bad habits.
An obvious one has to do with eating unhealthy food. Look, I’m just as guilty of this as you are. If there’s a plate with steaming, salty, golden French fries on the table, it doesn’t matter how stuffed I am. It doesn’t matter if I had a filet mignon just minutes ago; my hand will magically move toward that plate, grab those damn fries and shove them in my mouth, as I am thinking how bad that is. It’s hypnotic.
So, remove the fries. And by fries, I mean anything that promotes or facilitates the bad habit. Simply do not allow it to exist in your physical space. By making access to the cue either impossible or, at least, very difficult, you reduce the possibility of the habit loop to occur.
The idea is to create new routines that are easy and satisfying and make old habits hard and annoying. For example, maybe you don’t want to get rid of all the alcohol in your house, but you can at least put it far away. Put it someplace that makes it a drag to have to get it. It’s a small adjustment, but it counts. By the same token, keep fresh, sparkling, shiny apples in a big bowl in the middle of the table.
If you work on hacking the cue-to-reward routines and implementing new patterns, and then make the new routine easy and the old routine hard, it won’t be very long until your brain starts to reprogram itself. Remember, we are all wired to run away from pain in any form and seek pleasure all the time. By making your old habit as painful as possible, and the new pattern as pleasurable as possible, you rewrite the pathways in your mind.
I know that this sounds somewhat simple, although it is, in fact, extremely complicated. Habits are hardwired, and they are necessary for our survival. Decision-making is something we do thousands of times per day. Without habits and routines, we’d have to stop and analyze every single step we take. Without habits, our life would be an endless cycle of stop-and-go; there would be no fluidity to it. Routines give us faith in actions that we have previously thought out. This adds flow to our life because we already know that these habits work, and they provide us with the rewards that we seek.
In time, you will feel those bad habits subsiding, day by day. This will make space for your new, good habits. Soon, you’ll define morning routines, evening routines, and weekend routines, which will contribute to your physical, mental, and emotional growth. Keep in mind that good habits are the backbone of goal accomplishment and making solid strides toward your life vision. That is why starting with fixing your habits is the best way to ensure that the rest of your self-improvement will go smoothly.
Also, don’t get discouraged along the way. It’s a difficult trip, and there will be slip-ups. We are all human, and this process is callous. But if you stick with it religiously, you will be able to turn it around and make it work for you in no time.
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- What is harder for you, implementing good habits or getting rid of bad habits?
- What has been the hardest bad habit to remove, and how did you manage to do it?
- Do you have any good habits success stories?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!