Why Do We Have Bad Habits in the First Place?

A little while ago, I came to the realization that there are three common themes my monthly challenges fall into—habit breaking, habit making, and knowledge shaping. As of two days ago, I came to an even better realization that I haven’t really addressed how any of those three “activities” work, psychologically speaking.

In the end, that’s what all of these challenges come down to: rewiring the brain, so what was once difficult to change or retain is now common practice or knowledge. If we can’t point at the problem and understand its origins, how are we ever going to solve it? We won’t.

When you take a hard look at your values, there’s a sense of pride and identity that comes with it.

With that being said, I’m going to spend the next three months getting to the heart of what’s going on in our brains.

I’ll start with the ins and outs of breaking bad habits, then build on that knowledge with understanding how to develop good habits, and end with the mammoth of a topic known as learning (how we do it, and how can we get better at it).

If you so graciously choose to follow along, we’re going to be learning (no pun intended) from well-vetted research as well as play the “here’s the exception” game. Life always sprinkles a little bit of the unexpected onto things and we’re going to accept its generous handout with smiles on our faces.

Alright, let’s talk bad habits.

Coming up with a bad habit definition

I’m about to dig in the trenches for a moment here, so I want you to clear your head, eliminate any distractions, and focus for the next few minutes. I’m going to explore this question from the bottom up, starting with the foundation—values and morals—and ending at the peak—our individual definitions of what constitutes a habit as “bad.”

How values and morals lead to a simple definition of “bad”

The terms values and morals are so similar, it can be difficult to talk about the two without sounding redundant. So, here are the definitions (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) I’m going to follow in order to separate the two:

  • (Intrinsic) Value—“the value that something has “in itself.”” (or does not derive its value from something else)
  • Morality—“descriptively to refer to certain codes of conduct...accepted by an individual for her own behavior.” (as opposed to normatively)

LEVEL UP: Dig Deeper into the Value and Morality Debate

When you take a hard look at your values, there’s a sense of pride and identity that comes with it. In just a few words or phrases, you can tell the world what guides you on your journey.

Because these words carry so much weight, they rarely need further explanation. They deeply resonate with any ears they come across, even if those ears don’t carry the same values.

Values are the starting block to establishing our morals, and this is where the fun begins.

I’m going to introduce three general pathways people choose to take when it comes to how they define their moral code:

  • Moral Realism—there are knowable, objective moral truths.
  • Moral Relativism—there is a difference in moral judgement across different people and cultures (there are no universal moral truths)
  • Moral Skepticism—no one has any moral knowledge

After reading these brief descriptions, I want you to ask yourself three questions.

  • Do you believe some actions, independent of your knowledge or emotions, are universally good or bad (moral realism)?
  • Do you believe context is everything and that culture, social, or personal circumstances determine how good or bad your action is (moral relativism)?
  • Do you believe nothing is good or bad and everything just “is” (moral skepticism)?

With this information in front of you, the way you define a “bad” habit should be clear. I think it is fair to say, and this is totally my opinion, that a “bad” habit is simply one that fails to follow our individual moral beliefs as derived from our intrinsic values.

You start going down the justification rabbit hole. You define this particular context as unique and an exception to the moral code you’ve defined for yourself.

Now, the question of the hour, do you have “bad” habits?

My guess is you wouldn’t call them “bad” if you didn’t, but I want to make clear this isn’t about judging yourself or beating down your spirit. This is about discovering misalignment, and understanding how to make the appropriate corrections.

It’s no different than taking your car to the shop and getting a tune up. The car isn’t broken, but it’s not operating as effectively as it could, which could lead to disastrous consequences in the long run.

You don’t want that for your car, so why would you want that for yourself?

When our bad habit definition fails

The unfortunate thing about values and morals is they play under the rules of subjectivity. There is no wrong or right answer, there’s simply an opinion you and I choose to believe in (or not).

We like to convince others our opinion is “correct,” but in reality, we’re all ignorant animals living under the will of the universe or God or Wakan, or whatever or whomever our belief system claims is all powerful.

Even more unfortunate about the subjective nature of things is our ability to change our codes in an instant.

Regardless of the moral path you choose (realism, relativism, skepticism), the relativist framework begins taking over when you find yourself going toe to toe with a decision that you know is going to have negative consequences.

You start going down the justification rabbit hole. You define this particular context as unique and an exception to the moral code you’ve defined for yourself.

You justify your decisions with one-off phrases like “sure, going on a shopping spree would be harmful if I did it ALL the time, but everything in moderation, right?” or “I’m young and healthy, so I’ll eat whatever I want, but I will be sure to pay more attention when I’m older.”

Before this conversation began, you might have thought habit development would be as easy as following your values and morals, but now you might realize you have habits that clearly act against these things. What now?

I’m going to be that teacher that turns off the movie on Friday, right when things are about to get interesting, to make sure you have a little incentive to show up on Monday. But, there are two things I’ll promise before leaving you with your thoughts.

One, this was a rather difficult read to get through, so I promise the rest of the month will be much more actionable and not so “pie in the sky.” And two, I promise if you come back for “episode two” of how to break bad habits, you’ll be well-equipped to redefine your lifestyle.

Until then, I’d love to hear your opinions on what you think defines a bad habit and whether “bad” and “good” exist at all.

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