How to break ANY bad habit or addiction
In this article, I’d like to talk about something that affects-or has affected-everyone at some point in their lives: BAD HABITS. The thing is that most people don’t think anything of it until it becomes a problem. I don’t want that for you and I certainly don’t want you to be struggling with some ugly addiction that’s interfering with your life and preventing you from reaching your full potential. I’m going to be talking with you about how bad habits are formed in terms of how the human brain works. I will then describe strategies YOU can use to break almost any bad habit or addiction you may be struggling with in your life. I don’t care what it is….you deserve the best and I’m going to help you achieve that.
There are so many things we do in our day-to-day lives without even thinking: brushing your teeth, checking the phone, locking your door as you leave home etc. All these tiny actions are known as habits. So what is a habit? A habit is a behaviour/action that is hardwired into the brain over time through repetition. This will make a lot of sense in a short while as we discuss how habits form inside our brains. There is a particular region of the brain which is responsible for habit-formation known as the basal ganglia. Our decision-making ability is controlled by a different region of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. If you take any skill you’ve learned in the past, it takes quite some effort to get the hang of it, doesn’t it? That’s right-but eventually, it becomes easier, more habitual and almost effortless.
Once a learned behaviour/trait becomes automatic, the decision-making part of our brains effectively becomes dormant. The reason for this is so that the brain can expend energy on other things. Now the important thing to note here is that the human brain works in pathways. With every habit formed in your life, a neural pathway has been established in your brain and these pathways never die. This is why someone can stop playing an instrument for years and years, and then slowly get themselves back on it. Yes, they would be a bit rusty initially, but the neurological pathways for that skill are still in their brains. So we’ve now learned what a habit is, let’s look at the three components that constitute any good/bad habit:
TRIGGER: This is what causes you to engage in that particular behaviour. It is the cue that signals the brain to go into autopilot mode to execute the programmed behaviour. It could be situational, environmental or emotional
RESPONSE: This is the behaviour you engage in as a result of the trigger which initiated it. The response could be physical, mental or emotional
REWARD: After you have executed the behaviour, this is the reward you get from engaging in that behaviour-it can be positive or negative
The trigger-response-reward loop is essentially what a habit is made of. A great example of this is the telephone. The ringing of the phone is the trigger which causes you to initiate the response that involves you picking up the handset. The reward you get is the pleasant conversation with the person on the other end of the line. Now the brain remembers the outcome of every habit and decides if it is something to be sought for in the future. If the reward is positive (assuming your boss isn’t hounding you on the phone…), then your brain will remember it and will seek more of it next time. When the trigger comes again, it will cause you to engage in that behaviour to get the same reward. Over time, your brain will associate particular triggers with certain types of reward, forming neural pathways.
TRIGGER → RESPONSE → REWARD
It is best to view the brain a bit like a record player. Every time you do something, grooves are being formed in the disc. The more you do a particular habit, the deeper the neurological pathways formed (ie the “grooves in the disc”) will be and the more automatic it becomes. All habits, regardless of their outcome follow this general pattern. Unfortunately, the brain can’t tell the difference between a good and a bad habit. This combined with how they are hardwired is the why habits are so difficult to break.
Now it is important to realise that habits are split into two categories. Some are moderate like eating junk food or biting your nails whilst some are highly addictive like smoking or watching pornography. For the moderate habits, your brain has simply formed very deep neural pathways over time overriding your decision-making ability and causing you do that behaviour almost automatically. It is said that about 40% of all our actions are by reflex! So you aren’t really thinking about what you do 40% of the time-it’s all a matter of habits you have formed!! With addictions, there is more involved and I will give a brief overview of why addictions are so hard to beat.
First of all, you must realise that the brain is naturally programmed to seek reward. Eating food, exercising etc all stimulate the release of dopamine which is the “the reward chemical.” It basically makes you feel good and is also the motivating hormone of life that gives you the drive to get up and do things.
Addictive substances like drugs hijack this natural process and trigger the reward circuitry of the brain in an unnatural way. When you take an addictive substance, insane amounts of dopamine are released turbo-charging the reward circuitry of the brain. When you’ve stopped taking it, your brain wants more-it wants to feel more pleasure. It wants it’s “fix.”
When repeated over time, the dopamine receptors in your brain become used to this unnatural level of dopamine. Think of it this way: if you walked into a room and the stereo was playing the music too loud, what would you do?? Most of us would turn down the volume to block out the noise. The brain does exactly the same; the receptors give it the ability to sense the dopamine. Since there are now excessive amounts in the brain, the brain literally downregulates (kills off) its own dopamine receptors in order to cope.
Over time, more dopamine sensors die off. This has two consequences. The first consequence is the that the brain’s reward circuitry becomes desensitized to pleasure and enjoyment. So things in everyday life which should bring you joy and happiness actually don’t-life starts to seems dull and boring. The second consequence is that because you now have fewer receptors, your brain only feels a fraction of the pleasure it used to; so you need more and more of the drug to cope/get the same “high”. This is the essentially the basis of all types of addictions.
Your brain depends on more and more of the substance-not to feel pleasure but to just feel normal. When someone starts smoking, they might only do it three times a week. But as their dependency increases over time, they will need to smoke more often. When an addict tries to stop taking his ‘drug’, he has to deal with intense cravings. These cravings are so strong that that they will do anything-no matter how bad the consequences are-to gain access to their drug. Yes, they would literally break into their neighbours’ house if that’s how they can satisfy their cravings. Dopamine is essential for day-to-day function and with their brains now dependent on the drug for it, they have to persist through the mental struggle of needing their “fix.” This is very difficult for them and takes sheer amounts of willpower and determination which brings me to the next stage.
It has been shown that using addictive substances actually destroys the neural cells in the prefrontal lobes of your brain which is responsible for willpower and decision making. Even if they want to stop, their cravings override any decision-making ability they have.
Being the part responsible for decision-making, the prefrontal lobe of the brain should be able to make decisions and put down cravings/unhealthy desires. In a normal healthy brain, the prefrontal lobes can make decisions like, “Hey this might feel good, but it’s wrong and would be detrimental to my health, so I won’t do it.”
Unfortunately, this part of a drug addict’s brain has been impaired and when cravings come, a whole cocktail of chemicals are fired into their system, gearing them up for action. There is no amount of will power that can keep them away-they are literally enslaved. All forms of addictions (hard drugs, pornography, smoking etc) follow the same sort of mechanism described above. Now we have talked about how habits and addictions are formed, we will now discuss how to reverse what is going on in the brain and put YOU in control of your life.
Now I’m not asking you to start confessing all your bad habits in the comment box below….no, no, no! That’s absolutely NOT the objective of this article, but I want you to think about any bad habits you have in your life right now. Have you ever considered stopping?? A lot of people just try to stop and think that’s the end of the story. Unfortunately, what happens a lot of the time is that they end up reverting to the same bad habit they were trying to break initially.
The big mistake they make is just trying to eliminate the habit itself. It is very important to realise that even though they might be detrimental, all the bad habits provide you with some form of benefit. For example, staying in an abusive relationship would provide you with some emotional benefits. So if you want to quit in the long run, removing the bad habit itself isn’t enough. The key to breaking any bad habit is to replace it with a new, healthier habit that provides you with the same benefit. We’re going to draw a step-by-step plan on how to do this for almost any bad habit or addiction you’re struggling with.
How to break the bad habit
SET THE GOAL: I’m going to be honest here-breaking a bad habit isn’t going to be easy, especially if you’re dealing with a strong addiction. In fact, it is harder to break a bad habit than it is for a novice to learn a new one!! In order to maximize your chances of success, you need to be crystal-clear about what habit/behaviour you want to change. After that, you’re going to write down specific reasons as to why you want to break that habit. It needs to be really personal; the better the reason is, the more likely you are to quit.
IDENTIFY YOUR TRIGGERS: Now this is important and is the first step you must conquer to break the habit. As we’ve learned above, habits are caused by something. So next time, you spontaneously do your bad habit, ask yourself, “What just triggered me to so that?” The triggers generally will generally fall among one of these: environmental, situational, emotional (boredom, stress, anxiety), time of the day, other people. Whatever it is, you must think carefully and take note of what triggers you to behave in that way. Now, you might have multiple triggers for the behaviour you’re trying to change. That’s fine-just be sure you know what they are.
SHAPE YOUR ENVIRONMENT: Since we’re trying to break patterns of bad behaviour, we must deal with the triggers themselves. You cannot be living a life full of triggers and expect to break the bad habit. So for example, if you’re dealing with the habit of eating junk food and snacks, you don’t want to keep packets of M & Ms or fast food in your kitchen. Why not? Well because that’s going to trigger you to eat them-plain and simple. Now whilst it may not be possible to do this for every trigger in your life (eg time of the day), try and eliminate as many as you can.
CHOOSE A REPLACEMENT HABIT: We have already learned why just trying to quit on its own usually fails. What you’re now going to do at this stage is to choose a new good habit you are going to do in place of your existing bad one. If you have a bad habit of hitting your laptop to watch porn whenever you’re bored, you must now find new more rewarding activities to do when you’re bored. Examples of healthy habits are self-education (learning new skills, listening to podcasts etc), exercise, cold showers, meditation etc. So from now on, when the trigger arises giving you the urge, you will do the replacement habit instead.
START WITH CORE HABITS: Some habits can be very hard to break because they are the result of various small things which act together to promote the bad behaviour. If you have a habit of being late, simply telling yourself, “I’m NEVER going to go to work late again,” isn’t really the best approach. It’s a bit intimidating and without addressing the various components which comprise the habit, your lateness will just persist.
In this example, you would start by waking up about an hour earlier. Just stick with it whilst you get accustomed to your new routine and see how it goes. When that’s in place, now give yourself a STRICT time limit within which you must be dressed up and ready to leave home. After that (phew…), you can now start planning a more efficient way to get to work. Just focus on winning these small steps and you’ll be on your way to achieving the ultimate goal: getting to work on time. Key point: start by getting the fundamental habits in place, before stacking more on top.
CREATE MICRO-GOALS: This section is particularly important if you are struggling with an addiction. Since the bad habit you’re struggling with is so hardwired in your brain, simply quitting by going “cold turkey” isn’t the best approach. This is because the cravings you’ll have to deal are too overwhelming for your brain to handle at this stage. It might work sometimes (and if you want to go down this route…the road is all clear!!), but when dealing with a strong and addictive habit like smoking, that simply won’t hack it. I’m sorry…no one ever went from 30-a-day chain smoker to non-smoker overnight-it simply doesn’t work that way. It’s better to set yourself small goals along the way, incrementally working up towards the end goal. So for smoking, the schedule might look like this:
20 cigarettes/day for week 1
15 cigarettes/day for week 2
10 cigarettes/day for weeks 3 & 4
5 cigarettes/day for weeks 5 & 6
3 cigarettes/day for weeks 7 & 8
1 cigarette/day for weeks 9 & 10
No cigarettes AT ALL beyond week 10
As you can see from the above example, this is much more manageable and realistic for the chain-smoker. Despite the fact that it’s designed to progressively wean you off, it won’t be a walk in the park. This is particularly true towards the end and when making the transition between 1/day to NONE at all. If you’re brave and have chosen the cold turkey approach, that’s fine. Just be ready to struggle, fight and troop it out right to the end. Use your own discretion to decide which is better for you.
TAKE IT ONE DAY AT A TIME: Since breaking a bad habit is a long-term goal, you must take it one day at a time. You are just aiming to win the battle for that particular day. The following day, brace yourself and prepare for battle again. Your initial target should simply be to get to the end of the week. After the seven-day period has elapsed, do it again. Just small daily wins over and over again. Repeat that 52 times and you’re off your habit for a whole year!!
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF: You mind is your most powerful weapon and it will do whatever you set it to. I want you to visualize success at the beginning of each day as soon as you wake up. Be ready for any urges you may have and aim to win every time. If you really, really want something, you have what it takes to make it happen-never underestimate what you’re capable of. You must see the victory ahead of you and work to bring it to reality.
YOUR BRAIN WILL CHANGE: Along this journey, you will struggle initially because of those strong pathways formed in your brain by years of conditioning. Every time you do the replacement activity, a new pathway is being formed in your brain; your willpower will also grow. Conversely, the pathways in your brain for your old habit are weakening. As you repeat it over and over again, the new good will eventually become automatic.
REAP THE BENEFITS: You no longer have that bad habit because the neural pathways for it have now shut down. Your brain has rewired itself completely and has formed new pathways for healthier, more rewarding habits. Been hard work hasn’t it?? Yes, but after all…nothing in life worth having comes easy!!
Last words of advice…
Quitting any bad habit or addiction requires willpower and determination to see it through to the end. It is very easy to fall off the boat, so you must stay strong throughout!! Don’t worry if you relapse or slip up along the way; that will happen a lot in the initial stages. It’s all part of the recovery process. The number of times you relapse will eventually reduce and go to zero as you slowly become the boss.
It takes at least 21 days to form a habit and about 60 days + for that habit to become automatic. Just know that the brain is elastic and is programmed to change. You can break old habits and form new ones throughout your entire life. Everyone is different and whilst there is no 100% guarantee on anything, if you stick to my advice then your chances of success are very high. Enjoy your new life!!