How to Break Bad Habits One at a Time


This is the second post in a series of four establishing the core foundation of breaking any bad habits that are having a negative impact on your life. With this foundation, you will no longer be inhibited by these actions that are preventing you from being your best self.

In the previous post, I ran you through the gauntlet of finding a true understanding of your values and morals. In that discussion, you were able to see the the basic sequence of how your intrinsic values lead to the framing of your moral code, which allows you to define your bad habits.

Rather than this moral code acting as a perfectly sealed box where all your decisions are contained, there are little openings that you can take advantage of when the moment comes.

It just so happens, the more you take advantage of these gaps, the bigger they become and the more you stretch the definition of “the right moment” until it becomes the only moment and the box falls apart.

It is truly groundbreaking to have such a clear picture of how these bad habits come into existence. Without this knowledge, you would continue fiddling around in the dark, hoping to find your way. Now that the lights have been turned on, you have an exciting opportunity to learn about these habits without anything getting in your way.

But, take a deep breath. As great as it is to see everything so transparently, you might have uncovered a lot of stuff. And this can be quite overwhelming.

I’ll use myself as an example. Front and center, I see my horrible habit of eating way too many sweets (even after going cold turkey last year), my fits of anger about trivial things (like getting cut off a million times every time I drive around the city), and my inconsistent patterns of staying true to my why (branching off into projects that don’t matter).

The more conscious I become of the daily actions that don’t fit who I want to be (from a moralistic perspective), the more overwhelming it becomes.

Before you lose yourself down this never ending pit, I’m going to ask you to pick the one habit you want to address the most. And, I want to give you two strategies in making this choice, so you feel confident moving forward.

The first, and most commonly promoted, strategy is to pick something “easy.” Find something that will demand relatively little effort compared to something like ending your 20-year smoking career.

Picking up small wins is a proven way to build long-term success. And, as these small wins start getting bigger and bigger, kicking that smoking habit will look far less daunting.

The other route you could go, and I encourage you to check yourself before considering it, is to take advantage of the Pareto Principle. The idea, in extreme layman terms, is to find 20% of something that accounts for 80% of the existence of another something.

The fun part is you get to fill the “somethings” with whatever is relevant to you. In the world of bad habits, you could find what 20% of your habits account for 80% of the negative thoughts about yourself or 80% of the time you lose in a day or 80% of the poor relationship skills you exhibit.

Using the Pareto Principle, that smoking habit likely jumps to number one on your list rather than being dealt with later on. Quitting smoking will improve your mental (eliminate dependency) and physical (too many things to list) health, save buckets of money, and ensure you don’t miss out on that inside joke the next time you’re with your friends.

But, once again, I don’t want the big shiny box to draw your attention, never get addressed, and leave you with 100% of your bad habits still intact. Know your tendencies, and choose accordingly.

Observing your bad habit under a microscope

In this section, I’m going to continue using smoking as my example of a bad habit. So, anytime you read the word “smoking,” I want you to replace it with the habit you’ve chosen to tackle.

Once your selection has been made, it’s time to put this sucker under the microscope. Like any good scientist, all you’re going to do is observe this thing. Don’t project any negative (or positive) thoughts onto it. All you want to do is watch what it does. Don’t make the evidence fit a prewritten narrative. Make the narrative match the evidence.

How often do these temptations to smoke surface? Do you find yourself smoking once, twice, ten times a day?

Are there any patterns you recognize in your smoking habit? Is smoking a part of your morning routine? Do you only do it while socializing? Is it your go to during times of stress, anxiety, celebration?

Remember, I’m not asking you to stop or even reduce how often you’re acting on this habit. The first step is only observation. Be mindful of your experience.

As you continue gathering evidence (give it a week or two), I want you to hone in on the biggest triggers and formulate some solid responses to the question “what don’t I like about this habit?”

There was a fascinating study conducted about this idea of applying mindfulness to your habits. The researchers took a group of regular smokers (hence why I’m using it as my example) and turned “reason” upside down. Rather than testing forceful ways in getting smokers to kick the habit (like wearing a patch for instance), they focused on the smokers’ mindset. As Dr. Judson Brewer from the University of Massachusetts Medical School explains in his popular TED Talk (see video above):

“Now, with mindfulness training, we dropped the bit about forcing and instead focused on being curious. In fact, we even told them to smoke. What? Yeah, we said, "Go ahead and smoke, just be really curious about what it's like when you do."

And, what were the results?

“Here's an example from one of our smokers. She said, ‘Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!’ Now, she knew, cognitively that smoking was bad for her, that's why she joined our program. What she discovered just by being curiously aware when she smoked was that smoking tastes like shit.”

It’s kind of hilarious, right? But, at the same time, it’s frightening how something so obvious to a non-smoker could be so hidden to someone under nicotine’s spell. What spells are you under that would be painfully obvious to an outsider?

By participating as an observer, you are able to see your habit for exactly what it is. And, when you start taking steps to remove this habit from your life, you're going to find it's not so big and scary after all!

It's your turn to spend the next week in observation mode. After that week is up, come back here and find out how to take action and get rid of these habits once and for all!

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