“First we form habits, then they form us. Conquer your bad habits, or they’ll eventually conquer you.” – Rob Gilbert
This week’s challenge is to identify ONE bad habit and replace it. Everyone has bad habits because we are both emotional and logical beings. Bad habits exist because we rationalize the behavior with fallacious logic. For example, a person that is drowning in debt will rationalize another purchase they cannot afford with the old standby, “what the hell, I’ll never get out of debt anyway.”
Somehow this logic makes sense to us, but could you imagine Spock from Star Trek saying that, or even budgeting expert Dave Ramsey saying it? Of course not. That is the erroneous logic that created this person’s crisis in the first place. Most crises are an accumulation of bad decisions. Rarely is it one gigantic error in judgment.
Most crises in our life are the result of bad habits. Repeating the same bad decisions until their effects can no longer be dismissed or ignored. The results of bad habits aren’t immediate, so we don’t equate them with the future disaster they will bring about. Habits, good or bad, compound over time; that is why they shape our lives. “Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that separate them.” Confucius
Bad habits are easy to form if you aren’t mindful of your decisions and patterns of behavior. At the most fundamental level, PAIN and PLEASURE are the two forces that steer our decisions. Every motive can be boiled down as an effort to avoid pain or seek pleasure. Our desire to avoid pain is powerful, even more, powerful than our desire to seek pleasure because it is more closely linked to our survival.
Knowing our desire to avoid pain is greater than our desire to seek pleasure can help us to break a bad habit. The reason bad habits form and persist is that we are linking the behavior to the PLEASURE it provides, and not the PAIN of its long-term consequences. Creating a strong linkage of pain with the behavior can help you to end the bad habit.
Negative is natural. It isn’t good, but it is normal. Weeds don’t have to be nurtured. In the absence of light, there is darkness. In the absence of diligence, neglect will pervade. Bad habits form naturally, without any effort. The linkages of pleasure to the behavior form unconsciously.
Diligence isn’t required to link eating a piece of cheesecake to the delight it brings to our taste buds. We don’t have to try to link pleasure to purchase a new tech toy we cannot afford. No, these linkages form naturally. They aren’t good, but they sure feel good, and they are so easy to do.
Interrupting a bad habit requires us to change our opinion of it. We must see it as a problem. We have to link it to the pain it is causing us. We are logical beings. We don’t like when our behaviors and attitudes are misaligned. It causes us emotional distress. The mental state of having inconsistent attitudes and behaviors is called cognitive dissonance.
Our minds seek to reduce the conflict and minimize our discomfort. We have three options for minimizing this conflict between our attitudes and behaviors. The first is to change our attitude. The second is to change our behavior. The third and most effective method is to change both.
Bad habits are natural. They are easy to form, and they usually don’t produce any immediate ill effects. It is easier to change our attitude toward a bad habit than to change our behavior because it doesn’t require any sacrifice. It allows us to continue to indulge in the instant gratification it produces. No sacrifice is required. All that is required to continue the behavior is a flawed rationalization to ourselves; a flimsy excuse.
A lazy worker will excuse their poor performance by saying, they don’t pay me enough to work that hard. They will do just enough to avoid getting fired. They will think themselves clever for getting the most benefit from the least amount of effort. This poor attitude will produce poor results over the course of their career. This poor attitude is born from a lack of gratitude.
Obviously, breaking a bad habit requires us to change our behavior, but we can make the process easier by also changing our attitude towards it. If we can linkPAINto the behavior, it will not feel like a sacrifice. The stronger we can link the harmful effects it’s having on our lives, the easier it will be to give up.
In the example I have provided, the worker could more easily change his behavior by changing his attitude toward doing the minimum. If he associated his poor attitude to poor results, he could more easily improve his attitude. If he equated doing the least amount of work with poor economic results, it would help him change his behavior. The key is linking the long-term effects with the behavior, instead of the immediate gratification. “Do more than you are being paid to do, and you’ll eventually be paid more for what you do.” Zig Ziglar
When we neglect to exert control over the linkages between our actions and outcomes, which are constantly being formed, we allow them to form on their own, at the subconscious level. At that cognitive level, the linkages are always made based on the immediate results they produce, and not the long-term results produced.
Our greatest gift as human beings is our ability to link long-term results to our short-term behaviors. When we fail to make these connections, we are not operating at the highest level of our existence. We are essentially operating at the same level as the animals.
Bad habits are natural. That is why everyone has a few. In the absence of diligence, the weeds move it and take over, but weeds cannot stand up to diligence. The longer the weeds grow, the deeper their roots will be, more determined we must be to rip them out, roots and all. If we don’t change our attitude toward the behavior, it is like leaving the roots under the surface to grow again once we let our guard down.
We must see that bad habit as the problem it really is. In this example, he must make the linkage of pain to that bad attitude as strong as possible. Lasting change requires that we change not only our behavior but our attitude toward the old behavior. In this example, he must equate minimal effort to holding his career back and hurting his family’s long-term economic prosperity. To reinforce the new behavior of doing more than he is paid for, he needs to equate it to new opportunities to advance his career. He must believe a better attitude will produce better results.
Bad habits and bad attitudes are normal. They aren’t beneficial, but they are normal. Cultivating a great attitude and productive habits require discipline and effort. They don’t happen by accident; progress is always intentional. Great achievements are never accidental. They are the results of diligent effort over time.
On the weekends, I typically indulge in a drink or two, but a year ago I developed the habit of drinking every night. It began with me having a drink after a particularly long stressful day at work, then it progressed to an everyday occurrence. What was once a weekend ritual became a nightly one.
Clock image by The Clear Communication
At the core of all habits is a neurological loop consisting of three components: a CUE, a ROUTINE, and a REWARD. The cue, in this case, was me arriving home after work, tired and stressed. The routine was drinking a cold refreshing alcoholic beverage. The reward was a sense of relaxation.
When you are trying to break a bad habit, it is always a great idea to let supportive friends and family know what you are trying to do. Not only will they provide a layer of accountability and encouragement, often they can help you formulate a plan. We lack objectivity when we are solving our own problems.
My beautiful wife asked me why I drank. I told her that it helped me to relax and I enjoyed the cold refreshing beverage after a long day. She suggested that I substitute the alcoholic beverage for some Topo Chico with a slice of lime. The calorie-free mineral water would give me the sensation I was craving without the unwanted alcohol and empty calories. An additional benefit was waking hydrated, instead of slightly dehydrated from the previous night’s drinking.
Substitution is a very effective way of breaking a bad habit. Typically, the cue, in this example, me arriving home isn’t something we can change, but my routine can be. We cannot always control the cues and events in our lives, but we can always decide what they mean and how we will react to them.
The most effective substitutions are those that provide similar rewards. In this example, the Topo Chico provided a cool refreshing sensation that helped me to unwind after a stressful day of responding to the numerous demands of my job. If you don’t have someone to help you solve your problem, I recommend you brainstorm on a piece of paper. Jot down the cue, routine, and reward associated with the bad habit. Then determine what new routine can provide some of the same benefits that the bad behavior provided.
Another technique you can use is shaping your environment. In this example, eliminating alcohol from our home would have eliminated the temptation of drinking. I didn’t choose that option, but I did shape my environment by ensuring I always had lime and a couple of cold bottles of Topo Chico in the refrigerator.
Perhaps you want to replace the habit of staying up late watchingTVwith nightly reading. You could shape your environment by setting-up an ideal area to readin. Ensuring that you always have a great book, adequate lighting, a bookmarker, a highlighter, and your journal to capture your notes in would foster the new behavior.
With a little imagination, you should be able to figure out how you can interrupt a bad habit and replace it with a good one. It isn’t difficult, but it does require effort and diligence. It is easy to do, but what is easy to do is even easier to neglect. Neglect is normal. Bad habits are normal. Success isn’t common. Jim Rohn like to say “success is doing what the failures won’t do.”
Reading this can potentially change your life, but knowledge isn’t power. Knowledge is potential power. Application of knowledge is power. Execution produces results. Ideation without execution is the beginning of delusion. Reading a great self-improvement book won’t change your life, but repeatedly applying what you have learned until you do it naturally will.
Thus far I have provided you with the tools, the mechanics of breaking a bad habit, but I haven’t addressed the Elephant in the room. In the New York Times bestselling book, The Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the authors describe the struggle we all face when we make a change in behavior.
The struggle is between the logic driven part of our brain, the Rider, and the emotion-driven part of our brain, the Elephant. The Rider is weak and prone to overthinking things, becoming overwhelmed by decision fatigue and analysis paralysis. The Elephant, on the other hand, is powerful, fueled by emotions and primal urges.[i]
The Elephant can easily overwhelm the smaller Rider, especially when the Rider is uncertain of which direction to go. Having a plan and pre-deciding what you will do when the cue presents itself will prevent your Rider from hesitating, but you still need to motivate that Elephant.
The longer you have held the bad habit, the deeper its roots. Warren Buffett compares bad habits to chains to light to feel, until they are too heavy to break. But break them we must. Our success in life is determined by our ratio of good habits to bad habits. “Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” – Benjamin Franklin.
Interrupting a bad habit can be difficult, especially if you have had it for a long time. You must be mentally prepared for the struggle. It is like the military axiom, the more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle. The better prepared you are, the better you will do.
Logic and reason will only get you so far. If we aren’t doing what we know we should be doing, it is because our WHY isn’t inspiring. Our reason must be bigger than our excuses. All actions flow from the head to the heart to the hand. If our hands aren’t moving; if we aren’t doing what we need to do, it is because our heart isn’t in it.
Without urgency, desire has no pull. When we are put in a do or die situation, we tend to do. The problem with most people is that their WHY is so weak, that any excuse is enough to sabotage their progress. If we are trying to lose weight, we have to equate eating that junk food in the breakroom with pain. The pain of remaining trapped in a body we aren’t proud of. The extra 20 pounds we are carrying around. “The secret to permanently breaking any bad habit is to love something greater than the habit.” Bryant McGill.
Success is not one giant effort. It is a lot of small decisions made correctly. A powerful WHY will give you that little nudge you need to make the right decision, time after time until it becomes a habit. Eventually, it will become a lifestyle.
“If you know the why, you can live any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.
Fortunately, after approximately two months, the new habit will be established. Maintaining the new habit will not require nearly the same amount of energy to sustain as it did to form. Motivation is most important when forming a habit, but I think it is important to understand that the herculean effort it takes to form the habit will not be the same effort required to sustain it.
Besides reconnecting with your WHY each day, listening to a motivational video each day can provide a real boost. Cynics will tell you that motivation doesn’t last, and they are correct, but what does? Perhaps we should stop brushing our teeth and showering. They don’t last either. Being a cynic is easy.
Being negative is easy. Don’t fall into that trap. If you make motivation a habit, you’ll become a more motivated person. Motivation is the most powerful catalyst for action. Energy is more important than intelligence. Knowledge isn’t power until it is applied. Keep your motivation tank topped off and start attacking each day with more drive a determination.
A fantastic video to get you started is Morning Motivation by Video Advice.
Until next week, good luck!
Our success is based on our ratio of good habits to bad habits. Change your habits, change your life!
[i] Chip Heath, and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Crown Business; 1st edition (February 16, 2010)
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