Everyone has bad habits. Maybe you eat more junk food than you would like. Maybe you hit the snooze button more often than you would like. Maybe you waste more time online than you would like.
If you want to break a bad habit, you could just try to muster up more willpower to stop doing your bad habit. While this is unfortunately what most people do, this approach is rarely effective or sustainable over the long-term.
As I wrote here, habits do not occur in a vacuum. Habits (good or bad) are caused by cues . Therefore, a much more effective approach for breaking a bad habit is to remove or reduce the cue(s) that trigger your bad habit.
Cues can be visual, emotional (i.e. due to stress), mental (i.e. due to boredom), physical (i.e. due to exhaustion), or social (i.e. being with certain people). A certain day or time can also be a cue. Here are some examples of habit loops for negative behaviors:
- You see candy on your desk (visual cue), so you eat the treat (routine) in order to enjoy something sweet (reward).
- You feel stressed (emotional cue), so you smoke a cigarette (routine) in order to feel relaxed (reward).
- You are bored (mental cue), so you scroll through your Facebook news feed (routine) in order to receive intellectual stimulation (reward).
- You are exhausted (physical cue), so you consume an artificial energy drink (routine) in order to feel more alert (reward).
- Your friends stay out until 2:00 a.m. getting drunk on a Saturday night (social cue), so you drink with them and stay up late as well (routine) in order to feel like part of the group (reward).
- It’s the weekend (time-based cue), so you eat a huge ice cream sundae (routine) in order to enjoy something cold, sweet, and creamy (reward).
Remove or Reduce the Cue
Visual cues (like candy on your desk) are the easiest to remove. You can often eliminate other cues though as well. As an example, consider the bad habit of drinking an artificial energy drink. Better nutrition and better sleep might remove or reduce the cue of feeling exhausted, thereby decreasing the craving for a routine that helps you feel more alert.
Other bad habits can be broken by reducing your exposure to the cue. For example, consider the late-night drinking habit above. By socializing less often with certain people (or by socializing with them at different times or at different venues), you could cut back on alcohol consumption and late nights that reduce your sleep quality and your overall energy.
Just relying on willpower is a weak strategy for breaking a bad habit. The best way to break a bad habit is to remove or reduce the cue(s) that trigger it. Test it out for yourself. Select one bad habit that you want to break and try to identify the cue(s) that bring it on. Then, look for ways to remove or reduce those cues.
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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).