Have you ever wondered what causes bad habits?
Despite what many people believe, bad habits are not caused by a lack of willpower. As written here, bad habits do not happen randomly or because of the way you are. Habits form due to a process identified by author Charles Duhigg as “The Habit Loop.”  Every bad habit has triggers, and every bad habit provides short-term rewards.
If you want to break a bad habit, your first step is to determine what is causing it. Ask yourself the following five questions:
1. Where are you when you do your bad habit? Your physical environment plays a large role in shaping your behavior. Bad habits often occur when you are at certain locations. Maybe you drink a lot of alcohol when you are at bars. Or, maybe you waste a lot of time online when you are at home in your living room. Or, maybe you eat a lot of junk food when you are at work.
2. Who are you with (if anyone) when you do your bad habit? Your social environment also plays a large role in shaping your behavior. Bad habits can also be triggered by being around certain people. As Chip and Dan Heath write in their excellent book Switch, “Behavior is contagious.”  Maybe you drink a lot of alcohol or eat a lot of junk food when you are around certain people. In comparison, your bad habits can also occur when you are alone. For example, maybe you watch a lot of television when you are by yourself.
3. How do you feel (physically, mentally, and emotionally) when you do your bad habit? The way that you feel can also lead to certain behaviors. Maybe you drink soda when you are tired (physical cue). Or, maybe you waste time online when you are bored (mental cue). Or, maybe you smoke cigarettes when you are stressed (emotional cue).
4. What typically happens immediately before you do your habit? Bad habits can also be triggered by other behaviors. Maybe you start surfing the web immediately after you sit down at your desk each morning. Or, maybe you start drinking alcohol immediately after you leave work. Or, maybe you eat junk food immediately after you have an argument with your child or spouse.
5. What is the day and time when you do your bad habit? Maybe you have an artificial energy drink in the afternoons on weekdays. Or, maybe you drink alcohol on Friday and Saturday nights. Or, maybe you watch a lot of TV on Sunday afternoons.
Summary and Final Thought
What causes bad habits? Well, bad habits don’t just happen. They occur due to certain triggers.
Many bad habits have multiple triggers. For example, if you drink more alcohol than you would like, your triggers could be location-based (hanging out at bars), social (hanging out with certain people), emotional (dealing with frequent stress or sadness), and/or connected to certain days and times.
Once you identify the cues that cause a bad habit, you can then decide how to remove or reduce your exposure to those triggers. This approach will be much more effective and sustainable than just trying to have more willpower.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Earlier in his career, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.
References for this article:
- Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2014.
- Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.