Live Free: Old Habits Die Hard

Whether you realize it or not, your daily life is largely comprised of countless habits. When you perform any given action, say rinsing your toothbrush with water after adding the toothpaste, your brain forms neural pathways specific to that exact action. Each subsequent time you repeat this action, those pathways are strengthened. And so, the habit is formed, and you now exclusively brush your teeth in this certain manner, likely without thinking much of it. That is, until you get into a heated argument with your mate who only rinses his toothbrush before the toothpaste, like some sort of wild animal.

While the toothpaste example ultimately has little to no effect on your life, other habits certainly do. If you instinctively drive to the gym after clocking out at 5:00 pm, congratulations, you’ve established yourself a good habit. Now, let’s say when you are at the gym you exclusively work your “Bis and Tris,” you’re going to be a top-heavy fool who’s not making the most of their workouts. This would be a bad habit. But never fear, we’ve got you covered—here’s advice on how to break those pesky bad habits of yours.

There are several different approaches to breaking habits, but the one found most beneficial is a notion put forth by Stanford grad (so you know he’s credible) Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. It’s called progressive extremism. The idea is relatively straightforward; you need to think in terms of identity as opposed to willpower. For example, if you’re trying to stop using your mobile phone mindlessly—and let’s be honest, it wouldn’t kill us to spend a little more time in the real world—you should think of yourself as “a person who uses his phone minimally,” as opposed to “a person trying to use his phone less.” When you actually change how you define yourself, your actions become a product of who you are. You should think in terms of “don’t” instead of “can’t”: “I don’t use my phone much,” not “I can’t use my phone so much.”

Now let’s put these ideas into a step-by-step course of action.

  1. Identify the habit you want to break. In the previous example, that would be absentmindedly using your mobile phone.

  2. Start small and choose a component of this habit that is extremely easy to break. If you never even downloaded Candy Crush when it was in years ago, you can confidently say, “I do not play Candy Crush.” This begins the process of getting in the mindset of someone who doesn’t use his or her mobile phone much. Make a list of these little things that you will no longer ever do. Way to go, you’re already breaking that habit. Perhaps you want to quit smoking (the hardest habit to kick). In this case, pick a trigger that you don’t currently indulge in. If you’re not the kind of smoker that pulls out a cig whenever you walk, start here.
  3. Wait and then re-evaluate what else you can do. The key to this step is to not overshoot it. If it feels like something that would be hard for you to do, you’ve done too much too fast. Each successive action should feel effortless. In this scenario, maybe you resolve not to be on your phone while you’re ordering coffee, or you only use your phone for music when you’re working out. Again, this next step should not be something you find difficult; it should be something you can be proud of doing (or not doing) forever. For the smoking example, it might be time to forget your morning smoke or the immediately after a meal smoke.
  4. Continue to re-evaluate changes that you are capable of making. Don’t rush the process, or you will feel uncomfortable with your changes and will likely not be able to incorporate them into your identity, instead finding them difficult to make and keep.

It may sound fluffy, but it’s very important to truly think of yourself as a person who doesn’t do X; the strength of your self-identity is extremely powerful. By following these steps, you can begin to rewire your neural circuits and actually change your habits at a chemical level. You begin small and work your way up to a new version of yourself. So, go out and give it a whirl. Break that habit, whatever it may be: drinking pop, watching too much TV, ducking out on work events. I promise you you’ll feel much better about yourself.