To the people out there who think that they do not have a habit, think again.
Habits are behaviour that we develop at some point in our lives, and it gets locked in, becoming automatic—like how we carry on a conversation whilst driving. As we practice these behaviours on auto-pilot, we often fail to recognise that we have a “habit”, let alone—a “bad habit”.
Knowing That It Is Bad, We Do It Anyway
Now comes the scary part.
Why do we reach out for the ice cream after every dinner, even though we know that too much sugar intake is bad for us? Why do we continue to use multiple plastic bags to bag our groceries despite knowing that plastic contributes to environmental pollution? With all the education that we have received, surely smokers are aware of the harmful effects of smoking. Yet why do we still do it?
There are books that articulate the neurological pattern that governs habit, such as Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” and Clear’s “Atomic Habits”. In brief, the backbone of every habit begins with a cue, followed by a craving that motivates a response, delivering a reward.
The response transforms into a habit over time, becoming a natural reaction whenever that specific cue is triggered. Meanwhile, the universe tells us that the act is factually bad. As we do not want to give up the reward, we perform mental gymnastics in our minds to conjure misguided reasons to support and defend our behaviour. In the field of psychology, this is classic cognitive dissonance.
For example, when we feel nervous, we crave to be in control. We bite our nails, and the “feel-good chemical” dopamine is released in the brain, rewarding us with satisfaction and pleasure. We then start to associate the act of biting our nails with the solution to calm our nerves. Although we know that nail-biting is poor etiquette and there is the risk of transferring bacteria from the fingers into our mouths, we do not want to let go of the great feeling we once experienced, so we convince ourselves that “It’s okay, no one saw that.” Or “My fingers are always clean, and I don’t bite enough to cause any serious harm anyway.”
Does this sound familiar to you?
Old Habits Die Hard
When we learn that something can make us feel good, we must be insane to deprive ourselves of it. This is why habits are so easy to form yet so hard to break.
To tackle this, instead of focusing on breaking a bad habit and beating yourself up for the lack of discipline and resolution, focus on wiring a new and positive behaviour to override it. The new habit should also provide you with a similar benefit.
For example, if you find yourself spending too much time on social media because you feel bored and want to connect with people, change it up. Sign up for a course that interest you. It can keep you occupied, and you can make new friends too!
If you are trying to quit smoking, and you realise that picking up the cigarette becomes an automatic thing you do at break time, instead of “just stop smoking”, try calling a friend to chat or taking a walk around the block every time you take five. Time flies, and by the time you know it, you got over your break without smoking at all.
There are infinite ways to satisfy a craving and achieve the reward you seek. Be creative about it.
We Form Habits Based On What’s Easy & Rewarding
When replacing your bad habit with a healthier one, make sure that your new one is easy to practice repeatedly and is rewarding in your context.
For example, there is no point in imposing an exercise habit that involves running when you know that you absolutely hate running. Why not try dancing or martial arts instead?
If you like what you are doing, you will not find it painful to keep repeating it, making it your new habit and potentially keeping you away from returning to your old one—for good.
The Right Company
Surround yourself with people whom you feel can be a positive reinforcement for your new habit. For example, if you are planning on drinking less, hanging out with people who frequent the bar is the last thing you should do. You don’t have to ditch friends, but you can find new ones. Communities and support groups exist so that people can support and motivate one another.
If there is someone else you know who shares your goal, why do it alone? Join forces.
You can also rally for help. Tell your friends about your new mission of kicking a habit and get them to support you. Have them watch out for you when you fall back into the old ways and permit them to give you a nudge. True friends will always want the best for you.
A habit change will only happen and last when it feels good and does not trigger fear or procrastination. So, do it one step at a time. Tiny steps lead to progress, and for every little success, pat yourself on the back. A little boost of confidence goes a long way.
Be a badass and get started on breaking your bad habits today. Good luck!