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Habits: Breaking Destructive Behaviours
How to systematically interrupt and break destructive habits.
Implement & Out
Habits have four components: Cue → Craving → Response → Reward. This process is cyclical.
Choose one of three approaches based on your desired end state: A) Eliminate entirely; B) Reduce the behaviour to your desired frequency; C) Replace the behaviour.
Apply your approach (A/B/C) to this four-step process: 1) Make the cue invisible; 2) Make it unattractive; 3) Make it difficult; 4) Make it unsatisfying.
Look Inside: The 4 Components of a Habit
“You don’t rise to the level of your expectations. You fall to the level of your training.” – Archilochus, Greek poet
Habits are a powerful force for change and the best predictor of our performance. We don’t rise to our expectations, we fall to the level of our daily actions. Our systems.
We can’t expect more of ourselves than what the daily behaviours we engage in enable us to do. When our days consist of calculated small, achievable actions that stack on top of each other, we enable ourselves to produce extraordinary results.
The nature of those actions or inactions will depend on your individual goals. However, the structure of every habit, good or bad, remains the same.
Understanding this structure is crucial to breaking destructive habits that left untouched would push you further from your goals.
Something one notices, consciously or subconsciously, that sparks the habit loop.
Work’s done, time to hit the gym.
Someone brought donuts into the office.
The meaning associated with the cue or the prediction of what will happen if you engage in the behaviour. This occurs rapidly or automatically after exposure to the cue.
The favourable outcome we expect from engaging in the behaviour causes a dopamine spike that inspires the next step. Expecting a displeasurable outcome will have the opposite effect and discourage us from taking action.
Exercise makes my body feel fantastic and fuels me with a sense of accomplishment.
Donuts are tasty. Yum!
The physical action of engaging in the behaviour.
Walk inside the gym and execute your planned exercise routine.
Walk over to the box of donuts, pick one up, and start eating it.
The realization of pleasure that you anticipated in the craving stage. This is what keeps you coming back for more or scares you off if the reward is negative.
The endorphin “high” and feeling of achievement you experience after a workout.
Enjoying the sweet, delicious taste of your favourite donut.
The more often we engage in this loop for a certain habit, the stronger it becomes and the more difficult it is to break.
Not every habit rewards us in a positive way. Some are neutral while others are negative.
We proactively seek and engage in habits that reward us positively and avoid those that result in displeasure. Neutral habits, such as taking the same route to work every day, are necessary parts of life we don’t associate with.
Achieving your goals will require breaking habits that may initially result in discomfort. To overcome this, leverage The Four Laws of Behavior Change to make not achieving them far more difficult and displeasurable than overcoming your initial aversion.
How to Break Destructive Habits
“One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease. The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity.” – Bruce Lee
Before adding positive habits, take a thorough inventory of your negative or self-destructive behaviours.
Setting well-defined anti-goals (where you don’t want to end up) is equally as important as setting forward goals (where you want to go).
Perform an 80/20 analysis to identify destructive habits that revert progress or leave you in a suboptimal emotional state. Be ruthless.
Who are the 20% of people in your life that are responsible for 80% of your distress or negative emotion?
What are the 20% of foods you eat that cause 80% of your low energy, sluggishness, and regret?
What are the 20% of excuses you tell yourself to avoid taking necessary actions 80% of the time?
Remember, everything in our lives from the people we associate with to the foods we eat is a result of the habit loops and behaviours we’ve developed.
Use these questions or mimic the structure to create your own. The point is that 80% of our results arise from 20% of our behaviours (in reality, it’s often skewed much higher).
Identify the 20% so we can eliminate it using the following process.
The Process to End Self-Destruction
Select one of three approaches based on your desired end state and apply it to this four-step process to turn your ambition into reality.
Focus on breaking one habit at a time, beginning with the most destructive. Alternatively, you could build momentum by starting with the easiest habit to break. Success breeds success. Choose the path that works best for you.
A) Cold turkey: Eliminate entirely, and never do it again
Decide to never indulge in the target behaviour again.
B) Taper down: Reduce the behaviour to your desired frequency
Determine how often you’ll allow yourself to engage in the target behaviour over a specified time period (weekly, monthly, quarterly).
C) Replace the behaviour
Seek an alternative to the behaviour you want to eliminate. For example, constructive friends to replace toxic ones.
The Four-Step Process
1) Make the cue invisible
Since cues can be difficult to identify, the most important part of this step is noticing the cues of the habit you’re trying to break.
To cultivate this self-awareness, observe your behaviour over the next five days. When you engage in the target behaviour, make a note on your phone detailing…
What the time is
The people around you
What was happening right before
In short: who, what, when, where, why
Be honest, but don’t judge yourself. The goal is to identify trends and isolate the cue that’s sparking the habit loop. Sometimes, the act of observing alone is enough to change your behaviour.
Once you’ve identified the cue, make it invisible. Reducing your exposure to the cue decreases the likelihood you’ll engage in the habit you want to eliminate.
2) Make it unattractive
Tell everyone you know from lovers to friends, family, and colleagues that you no longer do/are [insert destructive habit here].
Social pressure works wonders. Humans cannot bear inconsistencies between what they say and what they do.
You may also decide to meet people who allowed the habit you want to drop rule their lives. This will crystalize the ultimate outcome of your actions.
3) Make it difficult
Add more steps between your current state and the behaviour. Make engaging in the destructive habit extremely inconvenient. This is best done by manipulating your environment.
If your destructive habit is stress eating, scavenge the cupboards for unhealthy food and toss it out. Having to drive to the store should provide enough of a gap to regain mental clarity and reevaluate your actions.
4) Make it unsatisfying
Head to Amazon.com and find a leather-bound self-flagellation whip…
Okay, that was a joke. But it is important to have an immediate consequence for engaging in unwanted behaviours.
Social stakes (accountability) and loss aversion increase habit adoption exponentially.
A company called StickK capitalized on these principles by creating an online “commitment store.” If you don’t achieve your goal with StickK, it automatically notifies your friends which, granted you have friends who want the best for you, exposes you to endless mockery. Peer pressure at its finest!
Not only that, but you can put financial stakes on the line that are automatically donated to a charity or anti-charity if you fail. Scrap the charity idea. It’s effectively rewarding you for failure.
An anti-charity is an organization you so despise that you’d rather peel your fingernails off than donate to. If you have an opinion on controversial issues from abortion to same-sex marriage, StickK will automatically donate to the opposing party should you fail to accomplish your objective.
As Tim Ferriss writes, “A goal without real consequences is wishful thinking. Good follow-through doesn’t depend on the right intentions. It depends on the right incentives.”
Simplicity Inspires Greatness
“I realize it ain't what you have, it's what you feel, that's what true success is.” – Big Sean, No More Interviews
“Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.” – Henry David Thoreau
Destructive habits aren’t always apparent nor as grave as smoking or eating into obesity. Small, non-obvious changes make a big difference. We can make monumental improvements to our lives and substantial jumps towards our goals by modifying or eliminating destructive habit loops.
How would your life improve if you rewired your behaviour to prevent slipping into a negative spiral after a work conflict? Would you be better positioned to attain your goals if you tossed out trigger foods and disassociated with toxic friends?
Eliminate habits that cause negative emotion and push you further from your goals. Creating your dream life doesn’t come from adding more, but by removing that which is non-essential.
And as always, please give me feedback on Twitter.