100 Ways To Live A Better Life – 79. Break A Bad Habit

To break a bad habit is difficult. But breaking an old bad habit will free an incredible amount of time for your life. Quit smoking or stop thinking bad stuff about yourself. Whatever you break, it will change your life for the best.

Like assumptions, habits are life shortcuts. We use them when we want certain tasks on auto-pilot, like riding a bike or driving a car. We learn them once and then we’re good to go. Learning how to drive a bike each time we use it would be really strange, I admit.

But once a habit is no longer needed, we should do whatever it takes to get rid of it. Bad habits are like driving with our eyes closed: we’re still on auto-pilot but we’re doing something really bad for ourselves.

Start small, if you never did it before. But acknowledge even the smallest accomplishment when you break free from your bad habit. 

How To Break A Bad Habit

Ironically, breaking an existing habit is often more difficult than creating a new habit – which, in itself, is not simple also. It seems that we’re built in such a way that we thrive on habits. We create small processes, we chain them together, we refine them, and when we reach a certain autonomy level in performing those processes, we leave them on auto-pilot.

To a certain extent, this is very good. Putting processes on auto-pilot allows us to free energy and focus for exploring, for experimenting, for trying new stuff. For instance, a very useful habit is our heart beating. Or just breathing. I know it sounds awkward, but deep down, these are just habits. They’re so deeply engrained in our biological support system that we don’t perceive them as conscious anymore.

But, engrained or not in our biological structure, habits can be broken. And that’s a very good news.

Alas, more often than not, that’s easier said than done. The mere fact that they’re camouflaged, that they’re not under our conscious control anymore makes them hard to get.

In my experience, to break a bad habit requires at least 3 stages. The length and intensity of these 3 stages are quite different, but their order is always the same. First, it’s the realization that we do have a bad habit. Second, is the decision to get rid of that habit. And third, it’s the actual process of ditching that habit, phase which often implies introducing a new, complementary habit.

Let’s take them one at a time.

1 How Is This A Habit, And Why It’s Bad

The first question is: how do you identify a habit? Is this because it is repeating? Is this because it’s triggered by the same stimuli? If you answered “yes” to those questions, you’re half way there. The last question is: “how much do you control it?”. If the answer is somewhere between zero and 5 percent, then you do have a habit.

The more important characteristic of a habit is not its frequency, or its contextualization. It’s the fact that you have little or no control over it. A habit is something that, by definition, is outside your control, out of your reach. It’s something going on beyond your intentions, something that carries on incessantly by itself. Like I said, if this habit is abut breathing or heart beating, that’s great. But if this is about, let’s say, smoking, or thinking bad thoughts about yourself, then you’re in trouble.

So, the first and the most important step is to accept not only that you have something that you can’t control, but also that this uncontrollable thing is ruining your life. Understanding the toxicity of the habit is fundamental in getting rid of it. And I mean really understanding it.

And this realization comes when you put together the tree parts above: the repetitive character of a habit, the specific context in which it appears and the lack of control you have over it. Let’s see an example: the moment you realize you have bad thoughts about yourself, that you do this every time you face rejection and that you have no control over this reaction, well, that moment will scare the shit out of you. Because, from that moment on, you realize that a significant part of your life would be led by an uncontrollable reaction to some random stimuli, reaction that will inject toxicity in your mind each and every time it’s triggered.

That’s a hell of a life to life. That’s not good. And you don’t want to live like that.

2 I Really, Really, Really Want To Quit

Realizing you have a bad habit is just the beginning. Next, you have to really, really, really quit that habit. I deliberately used 3 times the word “really”. Really. Because this decision is very hard to take.

Habits, as a form of externalization of tedious tasks, are essentially good and we already know that. Habits are playing a huge part in our energy management. I know I’m repeating myself but imagine how it would be if we would have to learn to ride a bike each and every time we use it. Our energy will spiral down very fast. Habits are a precious mechanism for saving our energy, by identifying, isolating and putting repetitive processes on auto pilot.

Hence, every time we try to break a habit, we will break our energy system, somehow. It doesn’t matter if the habit is good or bad. What matters is that our internal energy saving mechanism will be turned upside down for a while. We will have to find new ways to recirculate the energy, to rechannel the focus.

And that requires a lot of commitment. Instinctively, we resist change. And breaking a habit is a huge change. That’s why you really, really, really want to quit. Because if you’re not there with all your being, with all your focus and concentration, inertia will prevail. The system will get back to its initial state, just because it was chepaer, from an energy point of view, to function like that.

In a way, breaking an old habit will make things worse before making them better. You have to accept that and be prepared for it.

3 Work It Out. Out Of Your System

The last stage of breaking a habit is about doing stuff. You’re past identifying the habit and past taking the decision. This is the stage where you work it out. Like, literally, taking it out from your system.

There are two ways of doing this (again, only in my experience. There might be a thousand more ways, I’m just sharing what worked for me here).

First is to find a “replacement” habit, a complementary habit, something that you will put in the place of the defunct one.

And second is just to be aware of it, observe it and wait. I call it “starving” the habit. Because you’re not feeding it with energy anymore.

Let’s take them one at a time.

In the first case, creating a new habit is usually a matter of “reshifting”, or redesigning the bad habit. If the bad habit was smoking, then you can implement the habit of making sport. If the habit was thinking bad about yourself , the replacement habit could be something about positive affirmations. It’s something that you use to fill in the gap.

Although it seems intuitive and logic, this is actually harder than the second approach. The old habit will be quite resilient. Because you didn’t do anything to weaken the old habit and it will still kick in. You’ll have some sort of a battle between the old and the new, and it would be quite challenging. If you manage to keep your focus on the new habit, while still resisting the old one, you’re set.

But you know what they say: old habits die hard.

I personally like the second approach more. Although it’s less spectacular, and somehow slower than the first one, it works better. What you do in this approach is observing. If you feel the need to smoke a cigarette, for instance, you don’t resist it. You smoke it, but you observe what’s happening to you. There is the initial rush of adrenaline, specific to any addictive state, followed up by some mild satisfaction. If you keep observing after this stage, you will start to notice some other stuff too: your body reaction (which is strongly refusing the toxicity), your decrease in energy and all the other bad symptoms. Next time when you want to smoke a cigarette, your memory of these bad symptoms will be a bit more present. And you will continue to observe. After a certain level, the memory of the bad consequences will start to overcome the need for the cigarette. And you will simply stop smoking.

Just like that.

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