Getting rid of all your bad habits from day one of the new year is unrealistic, even if you have resolved to do so. But bad habits can’t be all that bad if they can help you in some way. Beat them at their own game by pitting them against each other. Before you learn how to do that, it’s important to understand the hold they have over you. Let’s begin.
What Makes A Bad Habit So Persistent
You struggle to exercise despite knowing that it’s good for you. Meanwhile, you can’t resist eating junk food despite knowing that it’s harming your body.
What accounts for these poor decisions when you’re well aware of their negative consequences? Here’s the science behind it.
All the bad habits in your life don’t exist just because. They exist because they promise you instant benefits in some form. The lure of these benefits activates the dopamine receptors or “reward centers” in your brain. When your brain is in the clutches of this biological event, you:
- Enhance the scale and importance of immediate rewards, making them more attractive to yourself
- Downplay the price you have to pay in future for your indulgences
This behavior, which follows the mathematical model of hyperbolic discounting, is what causes those continued bouts of poor decision-making, when you choose instant gratification over longterm benefits. It is why you eat that ordinary slice of cake thinking, “It’s just one slice. What could it hurt?”. Even as you make that decision, you know that eating the cake is not going to be as satisfying as imagining eating it.
The Common Remedies
When it comes to a bad habit, the advice to “just stop doing it” never seems to work. If you resist temptation in one area of your life, you’ll succumb to it somewhere else.
There is no dearth of online resources to help you break your bad habits and adopt good ones. Among the most well-known ways to counter bad habits are:
- Replacing bad habits with good ones
- Changing your environment
- Finding an accountability partner
- Creating obstacles to give yourself pause for thought
- Avoiding temptation
- Gamifying habit building
The Path Less Traveled
Today, let’s change tack and and discuss what you could call the “fighting fire with fire” method to get rid of your bad habits. It takes decision-making out of your hands and tricks your brain into adopting the desired positive behavior. That’s the reason it can prove quite effective.
The idea behind this approach is to work on bad habits in pairs. Whenever you indulge in one, work on giving up the second one as a way to make amends. If you fall prey to the bad habit X, follow it up with one activity to correct the bad habit Y. Don’t give yourself a third choice. Since the corrective activity is unpleasant in some way, it becomes easier to stop bringing it on. Every time you resist temptation, be sure to list it as a success in your “done” list.
The reasoning here is based on what economists call the loss aversion theory, according to which people tend to focus on avoiding losses than acquiring gains. The bottom line is that the threat of punishment as a consequence is a more powerful motivator than the promise of a reward.
In a study of 150 public-school teachers in Chicago Heights, Illinois, University of Chicago economist John List split the teachers into two groups and told both that their bonuses would be linked to student test scores. Teachers in the first would receive a bonus at the end of the year if student test scores improved. Members of the second group received a check for $4,000 in September and agreed to return the money if test scores failed to rise by June. Loss aversion worked: Teachers who faced the threat of having to refund their bonuses produced student test scores that were about 7 percentage points higher on average than the scores of students with teachers in the conventional bonus plan.
~ From Reward vs. Punishment: What Motivates People More? published in Inc.
Here are a few real-world examples to show you how you can implement this method.
Constant Email Checking / Multitasking:
The habit of checking your inbox every few minutes or dealing with email as and when it comes in can be quite powerful. But all it does is fracture your time and disrupt your focus, and you’d do well without it. Multitasking is another habit that does more harm than good.
Here’s how you can pair up these two bad habits. Every time you check your inbox other than during a designated email-checking session, as a penalty, work on one Pomodoro of a task. In case you’re wondering what Pomodoro is, here’s an overview of the popular time management technique.
Resist the inbox temptation to avoid the single-tasking that follows, and you’ll eventually be rid of your email addiction. Succumb to the former often and you’ll get through enough single-tasking for it to become a habit. Either way, you win!
Skipping Exercise / Procrastination
Whenever you find yourself putting off your work, get your body moving. A 7-minute workout, the thoracic bridge exercise, a sprint, a walk, a swim — anything that gets your blood circulating will do. You can use other positive choices like preparing a healthy meal, drinking a smoothie, or exercising your brain as the corrective activity.
Excessive Spending / Avoiding “Someday” Tasks
Make a list of tasks that you don’t have a deadline for but need to wrap up sooner or later. For example:
- Updating your website/resume
- Making that unpleasant phone call
- Dealing with paper clutter
- Sorting old photos
- Merging your email accounts
Every time you make a frivolous purchase, online or offline, tackle one of those “someday” tasks from your list. This should either curb unnecessary spending or whip some neglected area of your life into shape.
Play Dirty To Defeat Your Bad Habits
Bad habits are sneaky, and you need to be twice as sneaky to get rid of them. Not every strategy you come across will bring you positive results, but only by trial and error will you find the one that works for you. Use the idea outlined here to come up with creative pairs of bad habits that you’d like to eliminate and get to work.
When you have been successful in overcoming some of your bad habits, you must avoid the pitfall of restraint bias – the tendency to expose yourself to too much temptation by overestimating the limits of your self-control. One impulsive act is all it takes to fall back into your old ways.
Have you tried a similar approach to fix your bad habits? Did it work? Share your successes and failures in the comments.