Instead of the typical New Year resolution talk about creating new and healthy habits for the year, we’re going to take the opposite approach. All too often we start out with the best intentions of forming new and wonderful habits that will take us to a higher plane of existence as human beings, only to revert back to our old habits that keep us firmly on our current level of humanity.
So if we’re not going to talk about forming better and new habits, what’s this article all about? DESTRUCTION!!!
No, but seriously, perhaps what we need in the New Year isn’t creating new habits but destroying old ones. Imagine we could get rid of just one bad habit every year. Maybe part of the reason our new and healthy resolutions don’t stick is because we haven’t made room for them in our existing set of habits.
What are our options for getting rid of bad habits? Unfortunately, the latest neuroscience seems to suggest that we can never truly get rid of a habit once it’s ingrained in our brains. We can, however, play with the cues that trigger our habits, and the responses to the cues themselves.
One thing to be wary of when going after those bad habits is what is known as extinction burst. I’m sure we are all too familiar with this particular event. We go to break a bad habit, be it overeating, eating junk food, biting our nails, watching too much TV, overspending into debt, etc.. We do well for the first few days, but the urge gets stronger and stronger, until it’s all we can think about. We end up diving headfirst back into the habit that we were so diligently on the way to breaking. The terrible thing about extinction burst is that, when given into, it actually reinforces the bad habit even more.
How can we avoid having a bad habit reassert itself? We can be aware of the fact that extinction burst exists, and prepare ourselves to feel it. It takes will power (i.e. it’s going to be really hard) to not give in. But there are other tools at our disposal to aid us in our battle!
Awareness is the most important tool for dealing with habits. You can’t work on destroying or changing a habit until you know what is triggering it (the “cue”), what the process of the habit is (the “routine”), and what the end result of the habit is (the “reward”). We can increase our awareness of our habits by keeping a journal of our environment, what we are doing, and what we are feeling (physically and emotionally) when our habits kick in. After we’ve done that, we’ll be able to determine what cues, routines, and rewards are associated with our habits. Next, we can decide what tool we’ll use to blow our habits out of the water!
Change the Cue
The first way to get rid of a bad habit is through adjusting the cue that triggers the habit, and then getting rid of the cue. The best way to understand this is by looking at an example:
I have a habit of biting my nails when my boss walks up to my desk. The cue is my boss walking up to my desk, the routine is biting my nails, and the reward is a momentary reduction in stress over forgetting to put the new cover sheets on the TPS reports (or whatever else he wants to talk to me about). To adjust the cue, I’m going to snap my fingers every time I see my boss walk over to my desk, and then start biting my nails. In fact, anytime I feel the urge to bite my nails, I’m going to snap my fingers first. Then, after a month or so, I’m going to actively stop snapping my fingers, EVEN WHEN I see my boss walking up to my desk. Nail biting destroyed!
As you can see, the habit is still there inside our mind, waiting to be cued. All we did was adjust the cue, and then remove the adjusted cue so that the habit won’t be triggered.
Change the Routine
The second way to get rid of a bad habit is to keep the same cue, but let it trigger a different routine. Again, let’s look at an example:
I have a habit of going for a cup of coffee and a tasty treat from Starbucks every morning at work. The cue is the clock telling me its 10 AM, the routine is getting out of my desk and going to Starbucks for my food and drink, and the reward is getting a break from my sometimes tedious desk job and avoiding all those memos about TPS report cover sheets. To adjust the routine, instead of going to Starbucks, I’m going to take a vigorous walk outside, breathing deeply of the fresh air! Perhaps I’ll eat an apple as I march through the streets. I’ll walk for the same amount of time it would usually take me to get my coffee and food. I’m going to do this EVERY DAY at 10AM.
In this case, the cue is the same, but the habit has changed. We’ve replaced it with something much more beneficial.
Remove the Reward
The third way to get rid of a bad habit is to purposely expose ourselves to the cue, and even the routine, but WITHOUT the reward. Like all the other tools at our disposal, this one requires us to use will power. The more we expose ourselves to the cues without giving into the reward, the less power those cues have over our behaviour.
The last tools we can utilize when breaking bad habits are patience and forgiveness. Patience, because breaking or changing habits is something that can take anywhere from a few weeks to almost a year. Forgiveness, because breaking a habit is not easy, and we will likely have slip ups. But with habits, as with life, we must forgive ourselves our mistakes, and then move resolutely forwards towards those things we wish to achieve.
Lastly, remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound cure. Avoid picking up bad habits; better yet, actively build good ones. Let's set our future selves up for success.
If you’re more of a visual or aural learner, here’s a fun video that captures some of the same points that we discussed above.