Welcome back for day 20 of my Happy.Healthy.Whole Project (HHWP)! If you’re just joining me, or want to catch up on any of the previous days of the HHWP, check them out here.
I’ve got a special treat for you today! Halloween is only one week away, and since it is my favorite holiday, I thought I’d write you guys a Halloween themed post!
If this spooky time of year featuring ghouls and goblins, zombies and witches, and black cats and monsters, isn’t enough to scare you, I think I know what will…. Bad habits!
Table of Contents
What Do Bad Habits & Being Possessed Have in Common?
Having bad habits is a little like being possessed. Um…… what?! Hear me out on this.
People that are possessed do things that are harmful to themselves (or others) without realizing it. The demon inside of them is controlling their actions.
A bad habit can be similar – we go through the motions without really realizing what we are doing. And by carrying out these bad habits, we end up doing things that harm us in the long run. All because we are letting these bad habits rule our life.
For example, these bad habits could be: being sedentary, smoking, eating lots of processed foods high in fat and sugar, spending more money than we make, etc.
We may want to quit these bad habits, but like the demon inside a possessed person – they can be really hard to shake!
So my goal for today’s Halloween-themed post is to teach you how to be your own exorcist and rid yourself forever of those bad habits that have been haunting you.
Follow the four steps laid out here, and your bad habits will be running for the hills, screaming all the way.
The Habit Loop: How Habits Work
In order to banish our bad habits, we must first be able to think like a bad habit. So let’s take a few moments to understand how habits work.
The habit loop was first conceived by Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.
However, the version habit loop that I have depicted here, was modified from its original version by James Clear, author of the book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.If you want to exorcise a demon, you need a copy of the Holy Bible. But if you want to exorcise your bad habits, grab yourself a copy of @JamesClear’s #AtomicHabits, aaaand maybe a few cloves of garlic for good measure. Click To Tweet
Alright, good to go? Let’s go through the four steps of the habit loop which describes how habits are formed.
The cue is essentially a reminder or trigger for the brain to start a habit. It could be a thought, a feeling, an event or something more physical that you see, hear, etc.
For example, let’s say, hypothetically, that the habit I want to quit is drinking coffee. For me, the cue to drink coffee is my alarm clock going off in the morning. This kicks off the habit of rolling out of bed, going downstairs, and turning the coffee maker on.
After the cue, comes the craving. The craving is the want or need to perform the habit. It is the reason that motivates you to actually do the habit. Without a craving, we wouldn’t take action and the habit loop wouldn’t continue.
It is important to really dig deep and discover the true craving that causes us to perform our bad habits.
In our coffee example, you might think at first that people crave the taste of coffee. And while they might like the taste of coffee, that’s usually not the craving, or motivating force behind wanting to drink the coffee.
Instead, the true craving is a want/need to wake up, feel more alert, and be ready for the day.
If you are struggling to identify the true cause of your craving, check out the 5 whys technique.
The third part of the habit loop is the response. This is the part of the loop where we actually perform the habit itself. In our example, this would be me putting the coffee mug to my lips, and actually drinking the coffee.
The reward is the whole reason that we perform a habit. For it to be an effective habit, the reward must satisfy the initial craving.
For example, drinking coffee must satisfy my craving of feeling more awake and alert, or else I wouldn’t continue to do it.
When performing the habit does satisfy the craving we experience, the habit loop comes full circle, making us more likely to perform that habit again. If the reward doesn’t satisfy the craving, we won’t repeat the behavior, and a habit won’t form.
Check out the table below for additional examples of the four habit loop steps:
The 4 Laws Of Behavior Change For Making & Breaking Habits
In the book Atomic Habits, James Clear lays out four laws of behavior change. In order for a habit to form, we need to make sure all four steps of the habit loop are working properly.
The following four laws of behavior change address each of the four steps of the habit loop.
- Make it obvious (cue).
- Make it attractive (craving).
- Make it easy (response).
- Make it satisfying (reward).
But today we’re concerned about breaking bad habits. To break a bad habit, we need to disrupt the habit loop. To do that, we flip the laws of behavior change upside-down (like a bat hanging from the ceiling!)
To break a bad habit, the laws of behavior change are:
- Make it invisible (cue).
- Make it unattractive (craving).
- Make it difficult (response).
- Make it unsatisfying (reward).
How To Break A Bad Habit: The Step-By-Step Plan
Alright, enough theory, let’s get down to work and send those bad habits screaming for the hills so that they can’t haunt you anymore.
I am going to stick to the coffee example here for consistency, but note that with a little creativity these same techniques can be applied to any bad habit that you want to quit.
[Note: I have absolutely nothing against coffee, in fact, I’m enjoying some now! It just makes a good example.]
Step 1 – Make It Invisible
If we want to disrupt step 1 of the habit loop – the cue – we need to do a little rearranging of our physical environment to remove any temptations to do the bad habit.
Remove Cues From Your Environment
Research has shown that humans are not especially good at willpower.
So instead of relying on sheer willpower to quit your habit, it can be much easier to rearrange your house to remove the cues for anything that reminds you of the bad habit.
Out of sight, out of mind as they say.
So if I’m trying not to drink coffee, I could get rid of all the coffee in my house. I could pack my coffee mugs away where I won’t see them every morning, and I could even move the coffee machine out of the kitchen.
If I do those things, I won’t constantly be haunted by my coffee habit everywhere I turn!
Reduce Exposure To Cues When Possible
Removing cues for the bad habit from your house can make your life a whole lot easier.
But what about when you aren’t at home? What if you’re at a work meeting and they bring coffee and donuts? What if your favorite breakfast restaurant smells like delicious coffee? What if your favorite coffee stand is on your route to work?
That’s where things get tricky. You can’t control the environment in every situation. Instead do your best to avoid these situations whenever possible, although that won’t be all of the time.
For example, you could get off the highway an exit early to avoid driving by the coffee shop and you could decide to eat breakfasts at home and only go out to eat for lunches or dinners.
Unfortunately, the coffee and donuts at work isn’t really something that can be avoided, but that’s life.
Step 2 – Make It Unattractive
If we want to disrupt step 2 of the habit loop – the craving – we need to make the habit seem more unattractive to ourselves.
To do this, we must shift our mindset and how we view the habit itself.
Make A List Of All The Reasons You Want To Quit The Habit
The easiest way to shift your mindset about the bad habit, is to remind yourself all of the reasons that you want to quit that habit, and how quitting would benefit your life.
You can just make a list and write down every single reason that you can think of. Dig deep, the longer this list is, the more unattractive the habit will seem. For my coffee example, it might look something like this:
I want to quit drinking coffee because:
- It makes me feel jittery and weird.
- I get caffeine headaches when I don’t drink coffee now.
- It increases my anxiety levels.
- It can make it hard for me to get a good night’s sleep.
- It’s expensive.
- I don’t like it black so I add sugar and cream which has a lot of extra calories.
- It can increase blood pressure and cause acid reflux.
After writing out a list like this, the habit will seem much less attractive.
Once the habit no longer seems very attractive, it can be helpful to replace the bad habit with a good one that satisfies the same craving.
Identify The Craving & Replace It If You Can
First, stop and ask yourself what you are really craving.
For example, people don’t usually crave the taste or smell of cigarettes, more often than not, they are looking for relief from stress or anxiety.
Once the true craving has been identified, you can ask yourself if there is any other, more constructive way of satisfying that craving.
For example, with the coffee, my true craving is to feel alert and awake.
So what other way could I feel more alert and awake that’s more constructive than drinking coffee?
I could possibly take a cold shower which has the added bonus of feeling very refreshing in the summertime (or if you live in Hawaii like me, it’s still refreshing on a hot and muggy Halloween morning)!
Or, I could do a short workout in the morning to perk myself up.
Both of these options satisfy my original craving of wanting to feel more awake and alert, and either could be used to replace the coffee habit.
Step 3 – Make It Difficult
If we want to disrupt the third step in the habit loop – the response – we can do that by making it harder to perform the habit itself.
The goal here is to make performing the habit more hassle than it’s worth.
Increase The Friction
Increasing the friction simply means making it more difficult to perform the bad habit you are trying to avoid. This can be done by adding extra steps to the process.
If I want to avoid making coffee in the morning, I could increase friction by unplugging the coffee machine, putting it back in its box, and putting it on a high shelf in the garage that I will need a ladder to get to.
Odds are that when I’m feeling that moment of weakness for my coffee in the morning, that I won’t be willing to jump through all these hoops to get it.
But if you think you still might…
Use A Commitment Device
A commitment device is something that you do in advance to lock yourself into a choice that aligns with your goals so that you don’t make a bad decision in a moment of weakness.
For example, if I still felt tempted to climb the ladder in the garage to get my coffee machine and drink that precious cup of joe… I could make it even more difficult to perform the habit with a commitment device.
Giving the coffee machine away would be an example of a commitment device. If I give it away, that removes my ability to make coffee entirely. Once I give that machine away, I’m committed to the choice.
Step 4 – Make It Unsatisfying
To disrupt the fourth step of the habit loop – the reward – we need to make a change so that we no longer feel satisfied when we perform the bad habit.
So how do we do that? Two ways.
Get An Accountability Partner
An accountability partner is a friend, family member or even co-worker who you have told about your goal of breaking your bad habit.
The purpose of this accountability partner is for them to check in on you and see how you are doing with your goal. The idea is that you won’t want to disappoint them, so you will work harder to stay away from that bad habit.
But if that’s not enough motivation for you, you can kick it up a notch by making a habit contract.
Create A Habit Contract
A habit contract is a document where you formally state your intention to break your bad habit, either to yourself, or even better, to others.
The purpose of a habit contract is to make it costly, embarrassing, or otherwise unpleasant to break the contract and perform the bad habit.
For example, some of you have been following my Happy.Healthy.Whole Project.
In this project I have made 5 different goals which I am pursuing for the month of October. The toughest of all these goals is to publish a blog post every single day for 25 days straight.
By making an announcement on my blog and social media channels that I was going to publish a post for 25 straight days, I essentially created a habit contract for myself.
Because now, if I fall off the wagon and don’t publish a post one of those days, other people will know. It will be embarrassing for me to have to admit that I wasn’t up to the challenge and that I wasn’t able to complete my goal.
So while some days I have been exhausted and really didn’t want to publish a post… I did it anyway, because the consequence of not doing it would be unattractive to me.
So, to wrap up with our coffee example, I could make a habit contract with my favorite co-worker, that if I stopped and bought a coffee for myself on the way to work, that I would owe my co-worker a week’s worth of coffee.
This way, there are the unattractive consequences of having to 1) admit I slipped up, and 2) shell out roughly 5$/day for a week’s worth of coffee.
Congratulations! You are now qualified to conduct a self-exorcism and rid yourself of those bad habits that have been haunting you for years or even decades. And just in time for Halloween too!
To recap, if you want to break a bad habit:
- Make it invisible.
- Remove the cue from your home.
- Avoid the cue outside of your home whenever possible.
- Make it unattractive.
- Make a list of all the reasons you want to quit your habit.
- Identify the craving and replace it with a more constructive habit.
- Make it difficult.
- Add friction by adding extra steps to the process.
- Use a commitment device to lock yourself into the decision in advance.
- Make it unsatisfying.
- Find an accountability partner to check in on your progress.
- Make a habit contract that will make it costly, embarrassing or otherwise unattractive to perform your bad habit.
It can take a little bit of creativity to figure out how to use each of these steps on your particular habit. If you get stuck or need someone to brainstorm with, please feel free to reach out to me either here in the comments, or on social media.
Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you have a safe and happy Halloween!