3 easy steps to break a bad habit and keep it gone
Discipline, will power and countless failed attempts. Let's do this.
For as long as I can remember, my mum always woke up at the exact same time: 5.15am. She’d be out of the house and at the park nearby by 5.50. By 7.10, she was back home, bathed and had breakfast on the table. It was a renewed struggle every day to beat her to the dining table, or be labelled the family sluggard. Then I got a job, moved out and forgot all about her borderline obsession with our meal times. But at 7.10am every day, she still has breakfast ready. It’s her love for routines that keeps her cheerful, I reckon. She can breeze through the morning humdrum because she isn’t giving any of it a second thought.
And that’s the thing about habits. They’re neural pathways, formed by repeated action, that allow you to move from one activity to another on autopilot, effectively freeing up space in your mind so you’re able to focus on other things. These neural running wheels are the reason you can drive while giving your full attention to a conversation or why the best ideas come to you while you’re brushing your teeth. They’re also the reason that habits are so difficult to break.
What do your daily habits say about you?
What you do with most ease begins to define you, and your daily habits say a lot about you. Example: In 2012, retail giant Target figured out that a 16-year-old was pregnant before her father did. How? Simply because her shopping pattern had changed. She was suddenly buying unscented lotion, cleaning rags and other products usually purchased by expecting mothers. They sent her coupons for baby products.
American psychologist and philosopher William James wrote, “All of our life is nothing but a mass of habits,” and as I watch my mum mechanically working through most of her day, I couldn’t agree more. But as conversations around how millennials won’t invest in homes, commit to long-term jobs or stick to monthly budgets swarm our newsfeeds, it’s apparent that we’re breaking the mould a generation before us so carefully set.
My father goes running every evening, even on weekends. I inculcated my exercise habits from his attempts to make me run, except, Mondays and Wednesdays are leg days at the gym and I go to Zumba class on Thursday evenings (or not, really just depends on what kind of day I’ve had at the office, sometimes you need a drink or five).
Every time I quit a book midway because I refuse to press on if I’m not interested in the first 20 pages, I’m reminded of how Mrs Braganza from my 25-minute Hobbies and Habits class would be disappointed. But I’m not the sole offender, I comfort myself. A survey published in Psychology Today shows that our hyperconnectivity (thanks Whatsapp) and short attention spans are making us increasingly flaky. We feel little or no guilt cancelling on friends at the last minute, calling in late at the therapist’s and always having a Plan B.
Perhaps this behaviour comes from the fact that our lives are not linear any more, and the lack of routine prevents us from forming habits — or breaking them. Think about the last time you made a New Year’s resolution and kept it. I’m in my mid-twenties, and my count comes in at about… zero. And I’ve tried it all — penalty jars, habit-building journals, hourly reminders, living with a family that doubles as the regimen po-po. Then, two months ago, I quit smoking. I haven’t had a single drag in eight weeks but really, I’ve been quitting for around 10-12 months.
3 steps to deconstruct habits
What it really boils down to is thinking consciously about why you’ve formed the habit. The New York Times journalist and author Charles Duhigg clarifies in his science-driven investigation, The Power Of Habit, that any repeated action can be broken down into:
1. Cue (something that triggers the action)
2. Routine (the action itself)
3. Reward (the reason behind the action).
Duhigg shares his own example: At 3.30pm every day, he would go to the office cafeteria, get a cookie and chat with his colleagues by the cash register. After gaining eight pounds (and a few pointed jibes from the missus), he tried to force himself to stop — he even stuck a post-it on his computer that read ‘no more cookies’. When he examined his habit, he realised that he didn’t even like cookies that much. So what was causing this craving at that exact hour every day? It turned out the time of day was his cue, the cookie-fetching his routine, and the reward, he figured out, was gossiping with his colleagues. Nowadays he just walks around the NYT press room at 3.30pm every day, gossips with co-workers — and has lost 12 pounds.
This three-step deconstruction can be applied to our emotional habits as well. The only way to stop obsessing about something is to find out why you’re doing it and put a stop to it. Biochemist-turned-Buddhist-monk and author Matthieu Ricard said in his TED Talk, ‘The Habit Of Happiness’, that because all emotions are fleeting, there is ground for mind-training.
“Look at anger itself. It looks very menacing. But if you look at the thought [cause] of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun. If you do this again and again, the propensity, the tendencies for anger to arise again will be less and less each time you dissolve it. And, at the end, although it may rise, it will just cross the mind, like a bird crossing the sky without leaving any track,” he says. And while the idea sounds a bit far-fetched, trust that the ‘happiest man in the world’ has science backing him.
A paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the US proves that through systematic training of the mind, we can become more empathetic and compassionate and by extension, increase our own happiness and mental well-being.
How to break a bad habit
For me, the key was small changes. After failing to quit cold turkey multiple times, and listening to a very angry (and probably stoned) Shia LaBeouf yell at me to “just do it”, I decided to take it slow. The goal was to do only as much as I could justify as “no big deal” to myself. I cut my cigarettes per week from 20 to 18 and tried to eliminate as many triggers as I could. So I promised myself I’d never light up at home (I usually needed a smoke with my morning coffee). And on days I was especially weak, I revisited AA’s motto, “Just For Today” because it’s always easier one day at a time. Six months later, I took a step back and realised that I was down to two cigarettes a week. Lesson? Staying consistent, even if — especially if — you fail, is vital.
Being able to break habits also has a lot to do with understanding how to form them successfully. A new study published in the journal Health Psychology explains how the instigation habit technique comes in handy when you’re trying to break a bad habit by overriding it with a good one.
Say you listened to ‘Lean On’ every time you started exercising, for a reasonable amount of time (it takes anywhere between 45-120 days to form a habit), the song would eventually become a trigger that made you want to exercise (you read that right, want). Another great tip? Treat your willpower like currency and try to schedule habit-building for the morning when it’s the strongest. Or use the streak method where you have the satisfaction of drawing a big X mark for every day you stay on track (it’s what had Jerry Seinfeld writing new material every day, ergo not turning into Russell Peters).Or then, leverage your laziness. If you don’t have ice cream in your fridge you’re less likely to eat ice cream.
And lastly, it’s rarely about your talent, gut, motivation or intelligence. With hard work, you can quit emotionally and physically damaging habits just by working on them persistently. As for me, I’ve kicked the butt, become a little bit of a stickler for breakfast at 7.10am and reward my lack of nicotine dependency with pancakes, which will also kill me, but in a slower and far more delicious way.