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Bad habits can be like weeds in the garden, you get rid of them for a while, but they come right back. In order to successfully break a bad habit, you need to get to the roots.
A US-army major stationed in Baghdad was given the task of curbing the violent riots in the local plaza. Instead of sending his troops in “gung-ho” with gunfire, the major simply had the food vendors removed. And the riots ceased.
When the major was asked how he knew removing the food vendors would put an end to the riots, his answer was, “understanding habits.” The food vendors attracted people; crowds would gather and after they ate, the socializing became hostile. By removing one simple aspect, he broke the chain of events and broke the cycle that led to the riots.
You can break your bad habits with the same strategy. Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains the three key stages of habit-formation:
The cue: This is the trigger that initiates the behavior, which becomes the habit. It could be a time of day when you drive past the donut shop or a social-media notification that leads you to procrastination. It is the spark that leads to the routine.
The routine: The routine is the actual behavior. Duhigg gives a personal example — at 3:30 pm each day, he’d look at the clock and get a craving for a cookie. He’d then go to the cafeteria, buy a cookie, and eat it while chatting with co-workers. That was his habitual routine.
The reward: The reward is the release of brain chemicals following your specific routine. This is what reinforces your “bad” behavior. Your brain is experiencing “happy chemicals” even though you’re doing something you want to stop doing.
Related: How to Break a Bad Habit — for Good
Now that we have deconstructed the habit, here are two steps to break them:
Using the three stages of cue, routine and reward, you need to deconstruct your bad habits. Uncover what your triggers are, take a step back and look at the automated routine you’re engaging in, and then realize that you’re giving yourself a false reward.
You need to pinpoint your moments of weakness. This means being honest with yourself. Keep in mind, removing just one of the three key factors can be enough to break down the entire bad habit.
For Duhigg, his real reason for getting the cookie was not that he loved sugar, but simply that he enjoyed chatting with his coworkers. When he realized that he could socialize without buying a cookie, he broke the bad habit.
2. Replace or redeem
Some habits need to be stopped, cold-turkey. Other habits can be replaced with healthier options or redeemed with slight alterations. Rather than snacking on Reese’s Pieces, have some dark chocolate. If you chew on your nails when you are nervous, carry some chewing gum with you. Instead of checking your social media accounts, read an intellectually stimulating article.
Start today. Now that you know the three key stages of habit-formation, you can work on breaking down your bad habits immediately.