Three Ways to Break Bad Habits
It takes anywhere from 20 to 50 days to permanently change a habit. However, research also shows that once you’ve followed a new habit—or refrained from an old one—for five days, it gets much easier to stick to, and the odds that you’ll make that habit change stick become very high.
By the end of this course, you’ll be past the five-day mark for two different habits. Today, you’re going to learn three tactics for breaking bad habits, and then you’re going to start working on the one you decided to get rid of yesterday.
Each of the three techniques in this lesson works by targeting a different part of the habit loop. As a reminder, habits have four components. There’s the cue that causes you to start the habit, the routine that you engage in, the reward you get for doing the routine, and finally, the craving that causes you to want the reward.
Technique #1: Cue Suppression
A habit begins when its cue occurs, which causes you to engage in the routine. Therefore, one way to stop yourself from engaging in a habit is to prevent the cue from ever happening.
For instance, if you are easily distracted from your work by incoming message notifications, you could turn off your phone and disable incoming message notifications on your laptop. If you always buy a donut when you walk past the neighborhood donut shop, don’t go near that shop.
There are some cues that can’t be suppressed—if the cue for a habit is getting hungry or entering your home, a different technique may be more appropriate. But where cue prevention is applicable, it is often the most straightforward approach to breaking a bad habit.
Technique #2: Routine Disabling
The second approach to ending bad habits is to remove your ability to engage in the routine.
The classic example of this is to remove all food from your home that doesn’t fit your diet. Another good application of this tactic is to disconnect your computer from the internet any time you’re doing work that can be done offline, so you won’t be able to waste time browsing the web. I do this all the time.
Like cue suppression, there may be some cases where this can’t be done—you can get junk food out of your house, but that doesn’t stop you from overeating healthy food.
Routine #3: Aversion Therapy
The last approach to stopping bad habits is, unfortunately, also the most unpleasant. Aversion therapy is the pairing of an undesired behavior with an unpleasant stimulus. For instance, some people snap a rubber band against their wrists while watching television or listen to recordings of annoying sounds while smoking.
This technique works by targeting the reward and craving—it sabotages the reward so it feels less rewarding and is less effective at satisfying the associated craving. While it’s not fun, it is highly effective, especially when cue suppression or routine disabling are hard to implement for a given habit.
Exercise: Start Using One of the Techniques
Yesterday, you decided on a bad habit that you’re going to get rid of. Now, select one of the three techniques—cue suppression, routine disabling, or aversion therapy—to use on that habit. Decide how you’ll apply that technique, and start using it every day. Keep a log of when you engage in the habit.
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