We’ve all heard it once or twice in our lives: “You need to develop more good habits and get rid of all the bad habits.” Well, as much as we don’t like to accept the reality of this, most of our life runs on auto-pilot. And I’m talking about your day-to-day life, the things that you don’t even remember doing, but you do not doubt that you’ve done them. Have you peed in the morning? Have you brushed your teeth? Did you lock the door behind you? I’m sure you did all of those. Did you have to think really hard about doing them? Do you have post-it notes spread around your house to remind you of them? You don’t, because they are habits. Those actions are a part of your daily ritual and are so ingrained into your life that your body executes them automatically. Is that a good thing?
What The Heck Are Habits?
Of course, that’s an excellent thing because every action you take is a decision that shapes your day. But your mind would be overwhelmed if you had to decide for every tiny detail of your life. The habits are there to generate your routines and put parts of you on autopilot, allowing your brain to be used for making huge decisions. There’s an art to making decisions, which I wrote about in a separate post, and you don’t want to waste your energy on small, mundane things.
The problem arises when those insignificant little things on auto-pilot start having adverse effects on your life. How do you distinguish between them? How do you stop the bad ones?
You see, life is made up of consistency and intensity. If you want an analogy, your brushing your teeth is the consistency, while going to the dentist twice a year to do a deep cleaning is the intensity. Doing twenty minutes of exercise a day is the consistency; running a marathon once a year is your intensity. For real progress, you need both.
If you just go to the dentist twice a year without ever brushing your teeth, all your teeth will fall out. If you never go to the dentist, you will suffer long-term damage from the issues that are not solved by brushing.
So, you need both.
The intensity is where you use your brain and make a decision to do it. This is when you feel and want to be in control.
The consistency is that part that builds up from your rituals. This is where you don’t feel in control. You are actively trying to give away the control and let the routine become a habit so that you don’t have to think about it.
A ritual is a “push routine.” You have to push yourself to do it. Drinking eight glasses of water a day for the first time is a push routine. You may need to set the alarm, have a bottle on your desk, or have someone slap you a few times a day to remind you. Whatever works for you.
A habit is a “pull routine.” It’s a routine repeated so often that it actually triggers by itself and pulls you in to do it. It’s the way that your stomach growls five minutes before your usual lunchtime. It’s the itch you get on Friday at 5 pm when you go for the happy hour.
This system is by design, and it’s actually an excellent system that allows us to strive. But herein lies the problem: Not all habits are good for you.
What Are Bad Habits?
Obviously, defining a habit as “bad” is an inherently subjective matter. Some habits are universally accepted as bad. For instance, most of us would agree that injecting heroin into one’s vein five times a day is a bad habit. But the heroin addict would not agree to that; he or she will retort that the heroin injection is the only thing that makes them feel good. And feeling good is their number one value, and hence the habit works for them.
To understand this concept, we have to dive into the science of habits for a bit. A habit involves three components:
- The trigger
- The action
- The result
In the case of a heroin addict, the trigger might be body shakes, sweating, a feeling of depression, and anxiety. As soon as they feel this way, it triggers the need to take action.
The action is what you do when the trigger is triggered. In our example, you inject heroin into your vein.
The result is what happens afterward. Once again, using our example, you stop shaking, the anxiety is gone, and you feel good.
Of course, that’s completely an internal evaluation. A person observing the drug addict from the outside would have a very different opinion.
Of course, this is an example that is easy to comprehend because, as I said, some habits are universally (or almost universally) accepted as being bad. But you don’t have to go that far to see a bad habit in action. Let me enumerate a few more:
- eating unhealthy snacks in the evening
- watching hours over hours of TV
- drinking alcohol during weekdays
- not waking up on time
- not going to bed on time
- playing hours of video games
And I know you’re tempted to say: “Hey, not all of these are bad! Maybe they’re bad for you. I do them in moderation.”
But, here’s the thing. The drug addict also started with moderation. But habits have a way of taking over and becoming the norm. It’s a bad idea to think that you can control a habit. If you let it form, you will fall victim to it.
The reason for this is that we are creatures who seek gratification. But we all define gratification differently, depending on the system of values and metrics we create for ourselves. That system is part genes, part education, part family, part environment, and part circumstances. But once you define a value that you place high on your gratification meter, you will start creating habits to fulfill that value.
Very soon, we start to do something called confirmation bias. It’s basically a self-imposed mental model in which we justify our habits to ourselves. It’s amazing how many hoops we’ll go through, and what’s crazy is that we do this to ourselves much more than to anyone else around us.
How many times have you said something like this?
“I watch TV at night because I’m too tired after work. This relaxes me, so tomorrow I can be fresh.”
“I only drink to take the edge off. After a couple of beers, I’m a much better company.”
“When I smoke, I get great ideas. It’s like a time of reflection for me.”
“I play video games, and they enhance my attention, focus, and physical ability to react.”
“I don’t really help with the kids, but that’s because they have a much better bond with their mother.”
All of those are confirmation bias. You twist reality to match what you need; any new information is interpreted to justify the original idea. The moment you find yourself doing it, it means that on a subconscious level, you’ve actually identified that the habit is unhealthy for you. But the need for it to continue is so strong that you would rather spend energy to find a justification for it than try to think of a way to stop it. And what’s crazy is that for a very short period of time, you actually feel good about yourself. You’ve justified it. You’ve rationalized it.
You will go ahead and find other people who do the same and agree with you. You will seek external justification that you are not the only one.
So, then, what do you do?
Determining Your Bad Habits
To change your bad habits and replace them with good habits, you need to consider a few core steps:
A) Identify the bad habits
B) Replace a bad habit with a good habit
Identifying bad habits is the hardest process of all, based on what I explained above. If it were easy, people wouldn’t need interventions, friends who could tell them the truth, difficult conversations, shrinks, and mentors. But it’s not. It requires reflection and acceptance of one’s weakness, and that’s hard.
So here’s a method that I will share with you:
Step 1: The honest audit — take a piece of paper and, for every day of the week, write down what you do. Don’t lie, don’t pretend. Write exactly what you do, hour by hour. After a week, you will have a good picture. As soon as it takes shape, you will instinctively sense which habits you should target. But your own defense mechanism will get in the way; the little demon on your shoulder will start whispering in your ear. You’ll start dismissing items from the list. The confirmation bias and your broken mental models will take over. But don’t give up yet. Don’t throw away the paper. Leave it there and move to—
Step 2: Have an out-of-body experience—
Wow, wow… Wait a minute! What??
Settle down… It’s just a figure of speech. I mean this: Pretend you are out of your own body and you are hovering above yourself. Then, replace the “you” down below and your list with your child. If you don’t have a child, pretend you have one. Imagine that your child made that list. You are the parent, watching from above, and your task is to teach that kid, guide them, and help them figure out what they should and shouldn’t do.
Sounds a bit different than thinking about yourself, doesn’t it?
If you are a smoker, would you tell your child to smoke? Have you ever driven after a few drinks at happy hour? Would you encourage your son to do the same? If you’ve ever stolen anything and weren’t caught, would you tell your child to do it?
Think about it.
Or maybe it’s easier for you to think of yourself as your best friend.
Whatever it is, imagine that you are not you and your list is not yours. This will force you to approach it objectively.
If you do this exercise right, and if you are as honest as you can be, you will identify those bad habits.
One parenthesis here: Some bad habits require a bit of recursive digging to find their root cause. Here’s an example:
- you have a bad habit of waking up too late after snoozing your clock five times
- this is a result of you having a habit of going to bed too late
- that’s because you watch too much TV late at night
- you do that because you have dinner at 9 pm even though you are home at 6 pm
In this example, the habit you want to fix is waking up early, but the real bad habit you can trace back is having dinner too late.
It’s usually easy to identify these connections if you think of it this way:
Outcome – if the outcome is bad (waking up late), something is wrong in your process?
Process – if the process is not working well (sleeping routine), something is wrong with your awareness?
Awareness – if you have a blind spot (that dinner time affects your morning time), check your rituals?
Ritual – this is the habit that you must fix (have dinner one hour early)
Of course, this is overly simplified. You will find many different habits in your life, but almost always, they can be traced to some sort of outcome. Something that bothers you or somebody close to you whom you care about. Either something that’s happening or something that is not happening. That need or regret should drive your desire to change.
Consistency Is the Killer
I’ll jump back to consistency for just a moment because I truly believe that it’s at the core of why some people succeed and others fail in establishing good habits.
People who cannot keep a ritual consistently are those who start diets and give up two weeks in because they haven’t lost a pound (or worse, because they haven’t lost enough pounds). Those people who run for three weeks but give up on their dream to run a marathon because they don’t see enough progress.
They are people who expect instant gratification and don’t get the concept of patience and consistency.
But you know what’s insane? They don’t behave the same way when it comes to bad habits.
You didn’t just start smoking a pack a day, did you? No. There was a day in your life, which you can probably trace back to quite easily and identify when you first picked up a cigarette, and you smoked it. And you huffed and puffed and coughed and said to yourself that this is a stupid thing. Yet, you picked up another one the next day. Why? Maybe because your friends did it and they looked cool. Maybe because you wanted to see if there was more to it.
You never stopped two weeks in by saying: This smoking thing is not doing what I want it to.
Why? Because bad habits don’t have struggle-driven results. They are usually pleasure-driven, and pleasure is ephemeral. It’s like an orgasm. You feel good for a bit, but then the rest of your problems come rushing back.
Good habits are usually driven by long-term, lasting results, like losing weight, getting stronger, having a family, raising children, and so on.
When it comes to bad habits, we rationalize and justify to ourselves why we do them.
When it comes to good habits, we postpone, wait for motivation, and invent reasons why we shouldn’t do them.
And consistency is at the root of it all. The consistency in bad habits creeps into our lives, and we let it get in there. The consistency for good habits requires work and effort, and we don’t like that, even though we fully agree with the benefits it would bring to our lives. But just not today.
I’ll quit one day. When I’m 30. Then I’ll be motivated to live a healthy life. Until then, I’ll keep doing this. Yeah. I’m a really good person.
That’s a bullshit conversation, and you know it. And you’ve had that with yourself so many times. I know I did. I am a master at convincing myself and blocking feedback from others. It took me years to understand how damaging that was.
Have you ever met a person who bought a FitBit to measure their steps? They wear it all the time and tell everyone how they got it so they’d get better, right? Then you ask them, So, how are you doing? Well… I don’t really meet my minimum steps per day because I don’t have time. No time? Yeah, I’m just busy all day. I don’t have an hour to walk the 10,000 steps.
Well, have you considered walking for 5 minutes every hour instead? Maybe split your lunch hour into two parts and walk half of it? That would easily bring you to your step count. Have you considered the health benefits of having your brain relax for 5 minutes every hour and your body getting exercise?
Or how about a writer who has a lot of good story ideas but never has the time to write a novel? I say… really? Have you ever calculated that if you were to write for 20 minutes a day, you could write about 180,000 words in one year? And even if you were to cut that in half, it’s still more words than the first Harry Potter book. And your investment: Seven full 24-hour days.
The problem is that this kind of rationalization is scary. It’s very logical, but it requires one thing: Actually doing it. People would much rather find a replacement, to pat themselves on the back for thinking about it. If you don’t have an hour to do it all (intensity), then I’d rather not do it at all (no consistency).
The person who bought the Fitbit… Well, they bought it. They’re better than most people, they say to themselves.
The writer? Maybe they go to a writing conference every year to call themselves a writer to their friends.
But all of these are fake ways to make yourself feel good. They cannot be a true replacement for the consistent work you have to accomplish to accomplish your goals.
The Motivation Trap
Let’s talk about motivation now, since I mentioned it above. Motivation is a killer for most people, and it plays hand in hand with confirmation bias. It goes something like this, and maybe you’ll find it familiar:
- I’m tired from work, but my kids want me to play hide-and-seek with them.
- It’s okay; I’ll rest today and watch TV.
- Tomorrow, I won’t be so tired anymore because my brain will be rested.
- So, I’ll probably be motivated to play with them.
You will have to start running one mile every day before getting the motivation to run a marathon. If you are waiting for the motivation to run a mile, you will never, ever, ever run a marathon in your life.
A lot of times, motivation has to do with “feel.” When you say to yourself, “I don’t feel like [fill in the blank],” your bullshit monitor should raise a red flag. You are about to bullshit yourself out of a situation. “Feel” is a huge trap because most people can’t counteract it, so you shield yourself from feedback. If your friend says, “I don’t feel like playing tennis today,” what are you going to say back? Start feeling! No—you’ll enable them by saying, “Oh, I get you. I hope you feel better next week.”
So, here’s a habit that I’m challenging you to create and stick to. Every time you find yourself saying, “I don’t feel like doing X right now,” just do it! No pun intended and no kidding.
As soon as the words creep into your brain, squash them.
“I don’t feel like working out—” SQUASH! Go work out.
“I don’t feel like cleaning—” SQUASH! Go clean.
“I don’t feel like writing—” SQUASH! Go write.
Make your brain’s innate ability to give you a break from your harder tasks, the actual trigger for you to do those tasks.
In time, you will train yourself to do the difficult things right away, and you will become a more accomplished, happier person versus being someone who constantly regrets what could’ve been.
Consistency, Motivation, and Fear of Failure
There’s an interesting correlation between motivation to keep something consistent and fear of failure. The fear of failure acts like an internal filter, preventing you from stepping onto the consistent path because you are afraid you might not get to the end of it.
If you want to lose weight and fail, you risk having to accept to yourself that you will never lose weight.
If you train for three months and still can’t finish a marathon, you might have to call yourself a failure as a runner.
And oh, my God, what will everyone else think, too?
You see, it’s easy to succeed at bad habits because both the value you set and the metric you use to measure it are flawed. For example, I think that someone who dies from a heroin overdose has failed at life. But they might see it differently. Up until that last breath, they might be seeking nirvana or ultimate ecstasy.
Or what about a smoker who sets as his value not to die of lung cancer by age 80. He might be walking around at 81 saying things like, “See, this cancer thing is a hoax. I’ve smoked all my life, and nothing has happened. It happened to my cousin, but he was just unlucky.”
Do you smell the bias creeping in?
Since bad habits have pleasure as a driver, they are easy to comply with, and most importantly, offer an alternative to hard work because they are convenient. But I would ask the two people in the example above, what about the lost opportunity? What about what might have been? The reality is that people don’t think about lost opportunities. It’s an ugly topic because, inside our heads, we are the absolute heroes of our lives. Just the sheer thought that one different move could’ve brought us to a much better place is something that scares us.
And yes, maybe the 81-year-old will eventually have an epiphany and think that maybe he could’ve been a pro athlete had he quit smoking that year when he’d been drafted—it’s already too late. Don’t wait that long for the epiphany. Start now.
Realize that fear of failure is in itself a confirmation bias. It’s made up. Just like you choose to assume that you won’t get cancer if you smoke, you might as well choose to assume that you could run a marathon if you trained hard enough.
The more you shift away from pleasure, the less of a grip your bad habits will have over you. Instead of asking yourself, What can I do to produce pleasure for myself right now so that I forget about all the rest of the shit in my life, ask yourself: What am I willing to sacrifice and work hard for? It’s a huge mind-shift, but if you do it, your fear of failure will be just something that you learn to live with.
I’m not saying don’t be afraid—just the opposite. Be afraid. It’s a part of life. But do it anyway. And if you fail, do it again. And again, and again.
Replacing a Bad Habit
Going back to removing bad habits: It’s damn hard, okay? I know because I’ve gone through the process several times. The best way to get rid of bad habits is to switch the trigger to a good habit.
I’ll give you an example.
For the longest time, I’d come home from work and grab a beer out of the fridge. I’d drink it and feel good. It became my split between work life and home life. That beer signified my coming home and relaxing. In time, that beer became two beers. Then three. Then, maybe a glass of wine too. Why not?
Soon, I’d drink every night. The outcome: Fuzzy brain the next day. Bad breath. Inability to focus. Feeling shitty. That, until the next beer. I would not associate my feeling bad with the beer but with all the other stuff in my life. The beer was salvation. Confirmation bias. Justification.
So one day, I decided that this was one of my bad habits and that I must change it right away.
Going cold turkey would’ve been difficult. So, I applied the following change framework:
- Remove the temptation
- Reassign the trigger
- Create a system of rewards and penalties
Removing the temptation meant removing the beer from the house. Reassigning the temptation meant saying this: Every time I want a beer, I’m going to immediately make myself a mint tea and drink all of it.
In the beginning, it was very hard. The habit was so strong; my brain craved it. But I didn’t cave in. I kept at it.
It is said that it takes about ninety days for all the cells in your body to refresh, so it’s not surprising that it takes about ninety days for a habit to stick. That’s why you see so many ninety-day workout programs. They are designed to lead you to a healthy habit.
After those ninety days, I felt the change. My body craved tea every night, and the beer cravings had disappeared. The shift happened, and it stuck. A year later, I applied the same technique when I introduced the ketogenic diet in my life and lost 20 pounds in 90 days. It works.
This brings me to one crucial aspect: Attack one habit at a time. It’s very tempting to try to “fix” yourself by reversing all your life-long bad habits, but it won’t work. If you try to change too many things in one go, you will introduce too much change; it’s a shock to the system. That many changes will put too much pressure on you, and you will have difficulty sticking with it.
Prioritize the list of your bad habits and tackle the most important one first. It could be the one that has the worst outcome for you or the one that others have constantly pointed out. Whichever one it is, start with that one. Go for ninety days and then move to the next one. This takes a little bit of self-reflection and being true to oneself. Take time. Don’t rush.
The last point about rewards and penalties just reminds us of how much we are still children. Gratification and the fear of admonishment are still driving us into adulthood.
In my case, I made myself this reward: If I were to abstain from all alcohol during the week, I’d be able to drink beer on Saturday. But if I failed, I would not allow myself to watch TV. Reward and punishment. They helped drive the habit when it got hard.
Of course, it’s easier when somebody else creates these for you, but when you’re an adult, there is no one else but you. You must take responsibility for your own habits. Your parents, your spouse, your co-workers—$they can’t create the habits for you. They can support you and help you and be there for you, but you have to do the work.
And make it easy on yourself. Ensure that the bad habit is the hardest to fulfill (e.g., remove the temptation) and make the good habit the easy choice. Reverse your mindset, turn it on its head, until you succeed.
Declaring Intent About Your New Habits
Remember the fear of failure I mentioned above? I’ll give you a way to quash that: declare your intent publicly. There’s nothing scarier than that!
Do you want to write a novel? Okay, post on your Facebook wall that you are starting the novel today by writing 500 words every day. Do it. You’ll be surprised by how much support you will get from your friends. This action will allow you to forget about the fear of failure. At this point, you can’t hide from it, so that burden is off the table. You can now focus on creating your new habit.
Declaring intent is a potent and liberating tool. Doing things in hiding gives you the ability to wipe it all away as if it had never existed. Don’t build that exit strategy. Declare it and work on it.
Lastly, celebrate your victories and reflect upon your failures. What went well? What went wrong? Talk to others. Learn and repeat. The road will be riddled with failures, but that’s the only way to learn and get better.
Enjoy, and good luck!
Other Resources On Habits
- Judson Brewer – A Simple Way to Break a Habit (TED Talk)
- James Clear – How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One (article)
- Benjamin Hardy – 11 Things That Will Happen When You’re Ready To Give Up A Bad Habit (article)
- Mayo Oshin – 3 Scientifically Proven Ways to (Permanently) Break Your Bad Habits (article).
- Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habits (book)
- Habitica – https://habitica.com/ (habit-creating app)
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- What is one major bad habit you’d like to get rid of?
- How about one good habit you’d like to implement in your life today?
- What has been the biggest struggle with changing your habits?
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!