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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:


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 Ditch Your To-Dos: How To Use A "Done" List To Achieve Your Resolutions Ditch Your To-Dos: How To Use A "Done" List To Achieve Your Resolutions Resolutions come from a part of yourself where you feel lacking. Instead of a to-do list, try a "Done List" for a positive mindset to achieve your targets. Read More .

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 How to Beat Email Addiction by Tracking Inbox Habits How to Beat Email Addiction by Tracking Inbox Habits Email is hijacking your days, and it's being sneaky about it. You can regain control over your time. Figure out how much time you devote to email right now and steal it back. Read More 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 Pomodoro Web App Is Time Management Made Simple Pomodoro Web App Is Time Management Made Simple Can't focus? Get to work, now. is a free Pomodoro timer you can use directly in your browser – and it's possibly the best such app I've ever used. The Pomodoro technique is simple:... Read More .

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 Use Free 7 Minute Workout Videos To Get Into Shape [Stuff to Watch] Use Free 7 Minute Workout Videos To Get Into Shape [Stuff to Watch] There are lots of YouTube videos that can show you exactly how your workouts should be going, and they won't cost you a penny. Read More , 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 5 Things You Can Do In 5 Minutes To Exercise Your Brain 5 Things You Can Do In 5 Minutes To Exercise Your Brain Keeping your brain in top shape requires that you challenge it on a regular basis. Surprisingly, you can do a lot in five minutes. Here are five things you can do for your mental fitness. Read More 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.

Image Credits: sharonang, dabambic

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