4 Steps for Immediately Breaking Bad Habits

The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. An amateur has amateur habits. A professional has professional habits. We can never free ourselves from habit. But we can replace bad habits with good ones.

— Steven Pressfield

We all know what we should be doing, yet we have a hard time actually doing it. We are quick to judge others and slow to take action in our own lives.

Unsure of how our surroundings and environment affect us, we get mad at our lack of willpower, self control, lack of consistency and our inability to create habits that would ultimately get us ahead.

It’s time we understand what creates lasting change. Only after we understand this process we can remove our personal roadblocks and start doing the work that actually matters.

What follows is a process for understanding how to break bad habits and replace them with empowering ones. If you have habits that hold you back. This post is for you.

Enough pep talk, lets get to business.

 

Step 1: Get Leverage Against your Bad Habit

Imagine your worst, deepest and darkest bad habit (You know the one where you close your eyes just to hide from the inner shame).

Image from Book Yourself Solid

Image from Book Yourself Solid

Michael Port probably has you beat.

In an interview with Port he described his erratic and obsessive eating habit. Port would buy all of the nasty junk foods he could get at a local convenience store. “Foods” such as Twinkies, Ho-Ho’s, Little Debbies, Cheetos, Doritos and Skittles. After filling himself with junk, he would feel bad about his lack of self control. To prevent himself from eating any more he would spray the food with water and then put the soggy clump of junk food at the bottom of his trash.

You would think that would be enough to prevent his compulsive eating habits. Think again.

Moments later he would find himself digging in the bottom of the trash to pick out and eat the soggy junk food slop.

Listen to the interview here.

The reason he was unable to change this behavior, is because of a science called neuro association. It’s the process by which your brain decides what is good for you and what’s bad or what’s going to kill you and what’s going to keep you alive. [1]

In other words, you will continue to execute the behavior you know to be bad because your brain has linked pleasure  or comfort to these behaviors.

Michael Port knows eating soggy Twinkies from the garbage is not going to lead to lifelong health and holistic wellness (hopefully we all know this). But his nervous system is telling him that there is terrible pain associated with changing his behavior. Consciously he knows that his habit is disgusting, but because his nervous system associates intense pain with changing, he doesn’t stand a chance.

Get Leverage: In order for him to change he needs to link immediate and unbearable pain towards staying the same. I’ll write that again. Link immediate and unbearable pain towards staying the same, when you want to create change.

 

Here’s the first exercise: Get out a piece of paper and draw a line between the middle. On the left write “If I stay the same”. On the right, “If I change”.

In the left column write down all of the consequences of staying the same. Be as dramatic and vivid as possible. If it is bad food holding you back, imagine the bodily effects of the decision to eat it. Picture the junk food creeping into your bloodstream, causing inflammation, havoc, clogging arteries and leading to premature death.

On the right side of the sheet, write down all of the immediate benefits of making this change (the human mind is terrible at predicting and understanding the future). Write down all of the vivid and amazing things that will happen, such as more energy to attack the day, making $1,000 more each month with that extra energy, stronger relationships, being more attractive etc.

After you have these two lists, move on the the next step.

 

Step 2: Interrupt The Limiting pattern (Don’t be One of Pavlov’s Dogs)

Interrupt the limiting pattern! Image from Psychology Today.

Interrupt the limiting pattern! Image from Psychology Today.

Jen wants to start a side business. She owns a website and has a vague feeling of what she wants to do. Each morning she wakes up and says “Today is the day I start my business!” She goes to her day job works a full day. By 4:30 PM she feels tired. On Her way home she gets stuck in traffic and listens to the same radio station to pass the time.

By the time she walks into her apartment, she’s hungry, tired and wants to watch The Bachelor. She says to herself “after a little TV then I’ll get to work” (yeah right).

A few hours later Jen goes to bed feeling guilty and accomplishes nothing.

Sound familiar?

Here’s the problem. Jen is going the the same motions and patterns each day and expecting to suddenly have the  energy to break her limiting pattern. She’s like a vinyl record playing the same song, the same way, each time.

She needs to break the pattern. Let me rephrase… She must smash and obliterate the old pattern.

All habits work by the same set of rules. First the habit is triggered (cue), then the behavior is executed (routine) and then it is rewarded.

Image from Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit

Image from Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit

Here’s what Jen should do instead. Instead of going home after work, she should go directly to a coffee shop with computer in hand and plan on being there for exactly 2 hours. During those 2 hours she needs to have a concrete plan of how to spend her time (specific tasks, with sequences, orders and all of the resources she needs already there). Then and only then, she’ll start working on her side business.

The main takeaway? If you find yourself with little self control towards the end of the day and falling back into old bad habits. It’s time to break the pattern.  Do something drastic and dramatically different to step outside of your normal behavior patterns.

Break the pattern earlier in the day and get a different result you want. 

 

 

Step 3: Replace the Bad habit with an Empowering habit

It’s January 1st and your friend says: “I’m serious! This is the year I get my body back! I’m going to start eating better, exercising, and go to bed earlier. I’m really going to do it this time!

You hang your head, trying to avoid eye contact, because you know by February 1st their dream of a beautiful beach body is over. Have you ever heard of someone just stopping all of their bad habits at once and actually stick with it?

You can’t just stop. You need a plan that begins with selecting an alternative empowering behavior or action.

It’s as simple as that.

Let’s go back to Michael port in step 1.  He can’t just stop eating out of the garbage. He needs to create an empowering alternative such as eating an avocado every time he’s hungry.

Jen in our 2nd example can’t just stop watching The Bachelor and resting at night. She needs to create a specific behavior (the coffee shop) which replaces her bad habit (vegging out on the couch).

 

Step 4: Reward the New habit

Most people are very good about doing steps 1-3, however, not at the next step. They forget to give themselves an immediate reward to anchor the new habit.

Here’s the deal: Your brain is both conscious and unconscious. The conscious part of your brain knows what’s good and bad because of social conditioning and learned experiences.

The unconscious part of your brain is always pinging off the environment trying to understand what is going to kill you and what’s going to keep you alive. It needs to be rewarded in order to create new habits.

For example, if Jim goes to the gym for the first time in over a year. His subconscious mind is trying to understand if this new behavior is good or bad.

This is where a strong immediate reward comes into play (tells the nervous system and subconscious mind that the new behavior is good). You are much more likely to create the new habit if you follow this step.

The best types of rewards are immediately following the new behavior. It can be something as simple as listening to your favorite song, smelling vanilla extract, eating high quality and delicious food following the new behavior, high fiving someone or saying words of encouragement to yourself. They sound strange but work very well.

A quick overview on good habit rewards:

  • Needs to be an immediate, strong and empowering reward.
  • If choosing a food reward, choose foods that ranks low on the insulin and glycemic index (unless eating after a hard training session).
  • Your favorite song works well.
  • Drinking coffee is a great reward.

 

Conlusion

When your strategy is lacking, your results will follow. How many times have you heard someone promise that they are going to change and then fall off the bandwagon 2.5 weeks later?

They try the same failing strategies and expect a different result (the definition of madness).

By using this 4 step model you can break bad habits and turn them into empowering ones!

 

Sources

[1] Pacheco-López, G. (n.d.). Neuro-Immune Associative Learning. Retrieved May 7, 2015, from  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3908/

[2]  The learned immune response: Pavlov and beyond. (n.d.). Retrieved May 7, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19698779

[3] Unleash The Power Within, Tony Robbins

[4]  Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York: Random House.  

 

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About Ben Austin

My friends call me the illegitimate love child of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Nye. I’m a bodybuilding-yogi-science loving-foodie bringing an engineering approach to lifestyle design. Join me as I analyze the systems that go into optimal mental and physical performance and explore the stories and tactics of people who set the standard for the rest of us.

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