Habits 101 Part 2 🧠
How to break bad habits (10min read)
Where do bad habits come from?
Habits vs. Addictions
Step 1: Awareness
Step 2: Replacement
Step 3: Remove Triggers
Step 4: Plan to Fail
Welcome back. Today we will be covering Part 2 of our Habit 101 series!
In Part 2, we will take on breaking old habits, or as we discussed last week, “Stops.”
The Neuroscience & Psychology of habit destruction are powerful fields of study, I’m excited to dive in!
Where Do Bad Habits Come From?
The first thing we need to chat about is where on earth do these bad habits come from?!
We know we don’t want to do them, but we still find ourselves in the same loops, over and over again. Why?!
To oversimplify for a moment, it’s because they serve us in some way.
We bite our nails when we get nervous, smoke when we’re stressed, bounce our legs when we’re anxious or restless, or drink another beer when we feel lonely or bored.
These surface-level emotions like stress, boredom, anxiety, etc are almost always created by deeper-level fears, beliefs, or attachments that are too hard for us to process and acknowledge, so we shove them down until they boil up to the surface like a beach ball that you try to keep underwater.
So, instead of doing the deeper work we need to do, which is hard, we need to soothe ourselves somehow, which is where bad habits come into play.
They give us temporary relief from having to dwell or deal with the deeper baggage.
This is precisely why “just stop doing it” is such terrible advice, and rarely works.
Not only do they often serve a secondary subconscious purpose, but they lay down neural pathways as we talked about in Part 1.
Over time, we become these habits, we start to say, “I AM a smoker.” “I AM a nail-biter.” “I AM a drinker.”
Once we’ve identified with the habit, it becomes subconsciously who we are, it gets wired and fired together in our literal brain cells, and becomes how our brain decides our behavior.
This is scary considering our subconscious directs 95% of our daily behavior.
So, it’s no surprise that truly breaking a bad habit is so hard, we not only have to do the deeper work around what we’re trying to get away from dealing with, we have to shift our core identity, and we also need to create new neural pathways in our brains.
As nearly impossible as this seems, Neuroscience can help, let’s get started!
Addiction vs. Bad Habits
This is a very highly debated topic in the world of Neuroscience & Psychology, but I thought it would make sense to air this concept out before we dive too deep into breaking bad habits.
There are many ways to think about this, and based on my own research, I’d like to tell you my perspective on the topic.
Again, this is highly debated, so my thoughts could change with more research, but as of now, I differentiate these two things by choice.
When we are addicted to something, we often times don’t have the ability to make a logical decision about the behavior because of what the addictive chemicals are doing to our brain and mind.
When talking about habits, we typically have more voluntary control over them and could stop them if we wanted to.
I also believe that conscious, bad habits can turn into addictions, especially in relation to addictive substances like alcohol or drugs.
This puts habits more in our minds, and additions more biologically bound to circuits in our brains.
Bad habits are like precursors to addictions.
This doesn’t mean all bad habits turn into addictions, but it is something to be aware of!
That being said, this series is for bad habits.
We will be doing a future blog that focuses more specifically on addictions, and we will cover our DOPAMINE detox process in that blog, and a couple of other tools for addictions.
Step 1: Awareness
The first step in breaking a bad habit is to truly become aware of it.
Questions are the answer when it comes to awareness, here are some good ones to start with:
When does your bad habit actually happen?
How many times a day do you do it?
Where are you when it happens?
Who are you with or around?
What triggers the behavior and causes it to start?
After answering these questions, I suggest doing what James Clear advises, start to keep track of the behavior.
Grab a note card, or use a tracker on your phone to tally up the number of times per day that you do the behavior.
This is a non-judgemental exercise to bring awareness to the depth of the bad habit.
By doing this, you are highlighting the neural pathway that needs to be shifted and preparing your brain for the changes.
This exercise will also allow you to bring the subconscious nature of the behavior into your conscious awareness also making it easier to change.
Step 2: Replacement
As we discussed above, simply stopping the habit is hard because it’s benefiting us in some way.
The second step of breaking a habit is digging into these secondary gains and our beliefs around them, so we can replace the bad habit with a new habit that serves the same purpose.
This is only possible after you’ve taken the time to journal about the questions from Step 1.
Once you’ve taken the time to really think about what triggers the bad habit, like stress, boredom, or overwhelm, you can start to think of different ways to get your needs met.
For example, if you realize that the only time you snack on sugar or carb-filled things is when you’re stressed out and overwhelmed, and you also realize that you feel this way most often after a hard day at work, you can now start to plan or ideate about ways to destress after work that serve you.
Some examples could be starting to plan your workouts for after work, going for a walk, mediation, or some form of play like dancing or singing with the windows down on your way back home!
This works well for the surface-level feelings we talked about earlier, and for a lot of habits, this is very helpful.
Sometimes people need deeper help, and they need to attack the deeper-rooted fear, beliefs, or emotion before they can kick the habit.
For these types of habits, we use something called the Belief Wheel to get to the root of the problem.
We don’t have time to go all the way through this today, but in a coming blog, we’re building a video walk-through of this process to share with you all!
If this is something that can’t wait for, and you need some help immediately, book a Belief call with me, it’s free & only for Heroes Digest subscribers.
In the call, I will help you highlight the root, and give you some personalized suggestions on uprooting the beliefs!
Step 3: Destroy Triggers
In Atomic Habits, James Clear is huge on destroying the triggers that lead to our bad habits, and I agree with him.
Bad habits are often times connected to other behaviors that we don’t realize until we’ve done the awareness journaling from Step 1.
Once you know your triggers, start removing them from your environment. If you’ve got a bad habit of negative thinking, but only around your pessimistic friends, limit your time with them.
If you have a bad habit of checking your phone right when you get up, put it in the other room so you’re not tempted!
Step 4: Plan to Fail
You read that right, planning to fail is the last step, and where we will spend a large chunk of time, because the most important part of breaking a bad habit for your brain, is what you do, think, and feel before, during, and after you fail.
Let me repeat that, the most important part of breaking a bad habit for your brain, is what you do, think, and feel before, during, & after you fail.
Failure is part of breaking a habit, so preparing for it is a must when trying to break a habit.
Let’s talk about some of the ways you can get your brain back on the right track when failure comes knocking!
To be clear, the goal isn’t to fail, just be prepared for it! One of the best ways to be prepared for it, and attempt to not fail is through Fear Setting or Inverse Thinking!
This process flips failure on its head by asking the question, “What would I have to do, to ensure that I fail?”
Kind of a funny question, but our brains are evolutionarily predisposed to thinking about negative outcomes.
This is why what you’ll find when you try this, is that you can come up with a ton of things you’d have to do to fail.
Strangely enough, you’ll probably be able to think of more ways to ensure your failure than you can even think of ways to succeed, this is normal!
Your list should sound something like this:
Don’t set up any form of accountability
Don’t eliminate all of the triggers in my environment
Don’t tell anyone else so no one knows I failed
Try to change 10 things at once instead of focusing on the most important one
Don’t track my progress
Once you’re done, you’re ready to inverse them, now it’s time to reverse all of the things you wrote down.
Ensure that you have an answer for all of the different ways you think you could fail.
This type of thought process goes all the way back to Socrates & Plato, probably even further than that, and it’s still useful today!
In the midst of failure, most of our minds have the tendency to go very negative and we start beating ourselves up.
This is where another James Clear tip comes in handy, which is the power of “but.”
Wherever your mind goes in moments of failure, this can help you out, here are some examples:
I’m a failure, but everyone fails at some point.
I’m not smart enough to do this, but I can learn.
I’m overweight, but in a few months, I’ll be at a healthy weight!
Another 3 letter word that’s useful during a failure is “yet.”
Just add it to the end of a negative thought or sentence to help your mind end on a thought of possibility as opposed to a thought of limitation.
I’m not smart enough… YET
I can’t do this… YET
I’m not where I want to be [finainially, mentally, emotionally, health-wise, etc]... YET
In this final section, I want to cover one of the most powerful brain tools we teach on this topic.
The method is called, “Post Bad Habit “Positive Cargo” and it comes from Dr. Andrew Huberman.
This is one of the most effective tools I’ve ever found to break a bad habit in relation to what's happening in your brain.
The first thing to understand about this is what’s happening in your brain.
When you’re executing a bad habit, there is a closed-loop neural network in your brain that’s running that represents that behavior.
These become subconscious to us the more we execute them so we end up doing the bad habit without even realizing it sometimes, like biting our nails.
Usually, once you realize this, you beat yourself up and are hard on yourself for falling back into the old pattern.
This creates a “Bad-Bad” loop in our brain.
This is where the positive cargo comes in, and why failure is so important for breaking a bad habit!
Positive cargo is the term Dr. Huberman uses to describe breaking this Bad-Bad loop that represents the bad habit!
It’s a very easy process and only two steps.
The first step is bringing your attention to the period immediately after the bad habit.
After you’ve brought your attention to this period, you need to insert the positive cargo into this space.
Positive cargo could be anything! Drinking a glass of water, doing some jumping jacks, saying some affirmations, taking a moment to do some deep breathing, reading a book, etc.
Define the positive cargo you want to insert, and then right after you’ve realized you performed the bad habit, perform your good habit or positive cargo!
This breaks the “Bad-Bad” loop in your brain that’s become subconscious to you and creates a new “Bad-Good” loop in your brain that allows you to become more aware of the steps leading up to the bad habit.
After you’ve done this for long enough, instead of just doing the bad habit rotely, you’ll start to become aware of the steps right before the bad habit, and you will be able to start choosing to do one of your replacement habits instead!
I suggest doing this for 63 days. This is how long it takes for a new neural pathway to be created in your brain.
After day 21, you’ll start to become more aware of the steps/thoughts before bad habits.
Around day 42 you should be getting pretty good at replacing the bad habit, and by day 63 you’ll be well on your way to the extinction of that old neural pathway!
This is it for Part 2, in the final part of this series we will be talking about habit creation, and discussing tons of tools to help you start your habit creation process.
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Until next time… Live heroically! 🧠