Habits are powerful factors in our lives. They can make us or break us. They can be beneficial or detrimental. Most of the time we’re not aware that we have them. And because we are continually repeating the same habits over and over again, often unconsciously, they define who we are; they express our character, for better or worse.
Psychology holds that in order to get rid of a bad habit, you replace it with a good one. That may sound easier said than done. Some habits are inherited, some acquired through frequent repetition. Some are life-threatening, some are springboards for excellence.
American inventor and politician Benjamin Franklin said, “Your net worth is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” And Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”.
The science of breaking a habit is predicated on three basic principles: Knowledge, Skill, and Desire, with desire being the most predominant. Knowledge represents the “what” to do and the “why.” In other words, what is the habit and why do I own it. Skill represents the “how” to do. How do I change it? And desire is the motivation factor, the “want” to change. In order to break a bad habit, you have to have all three principles, and consequently, you’ll need all three principles to develop good habits.
Let’s delve a little deeper into the negative aspects of habits, the bad ones. Do you have any that are harming your work career, your standing in the community? Maybe you check your email while driving or while in a meeting. Are you constantly late for service appointments? Are you watching too much television or perusing the Internet while you could be learning new skills.
Bad habits like these can not only jeopardize your outlook on life, they can damage it and limit the possibilities of living more productively; living a life rooted in excellence. It’s important that we learn how to deal with bad habits, so we can reconstruct them into habits that lead us to prosperity and growth.
Let’s look at what constitutes a habit and explore why certain behaviors become habits in the first place.
What is a habit? A habit is an acquired behavior or thought pattern that has been repeated so many times that it becomes an unconscious act. As you may well know, habits can be both harmful, like smoking or over-eating, or helpful, like checking the quality of your work before finishing a job or thanking each customer for choosing you over your competitors.
Habits are automatic. We engage them without thinking, which frees our brains to focus on other things. When we have good habits, like rising every morning on time or calling our customers beforehand, we create a productive atmosphere, which drives us towards accomplishment. This allows us to use our energy to focus on the things that need special attention.
However, the same automatic function can be said about bad habits. We engage in these behaviors without much thought, and they can disrupt our personal lives and careers without us ever being aware of them.
Here are just a few generally accepted examples of negative habits:
Making rash decisions
This is a short list just to make a point. There are more damaging habits than these that can affect our health and well-being.
Habits are subjective, a bad habit for you can be a good habit for someone else, it depends on the context. For example, over analyzing can be a good habit in jobs where safety is important, but not so helpful when it comes to decision making.
The reason why bad habits are so hard to break is due to “cognitive script”. These are the unconscious, automatic thoughts that arise when we encounter a situation. These unconscious thoughts are rooted in previous experiences. So if the situation is one that we’ve encountered before, on a repetitive bases, we engage in “ingrained behaviors” without thinking about what we’re doing. Our actions have become habitual.
Some bad habits are hard to break because we enjoy them, and when we do pleasurable things, our brains release dopamine, a chemical that activates the brain’s reward center. This encourages us to repeat these acts again, and the activity becomes a habit. Sitting in front of a television while watching a program when we should be mowing the lawn is an example.
You can break bad habits by first admitting that you have ones to begin with. This is the knowledge factor of the three principles mentioned before. You should then replace it with positive actions that erase the negative behaviors (the “skill” factor),. This requires effort and tenacity. Then you have to get into the habit of breaking your habit, that’s the “desire” factor. Research shows that breaking a habit could take some time; on average three weeks to seven months, depending on the behavior and the person. This can seem overwhelming at first, but stop to think about the last time you kicked a bad habit for good. It felt rewarding, didn’t it?
Overcoming bad habits starts with having a conscious plan. You can’t just tell yourself to stop procrastinating or oversleeping and expect to succeed. You have to have a (plan), a road map. A great way to start, as I said before, is by getting into a habit-breaking mode. Start first with an easy habit that you’re confident you can change, and then, after building up some confidence, move on to the more difficult ones. Each little bad habit that you break builds confidence in tackling the more difficult ones.
Once you come up with a plan, keep track of your progress as a reminder of what you want to achieve. Studies have shown that constant self-vigilance is necessary to break a bad habit. This means being cognizant of slip-ups and reminding yourself of why you want to break the habit in the first place.
Some people find it more effective to quit a negative behavior “cold turkey”, while others have more success easing-off slowly. That’s why it’s important to choose the right approach. You can try placing obstacles to impede yourself from carrying out negative behaviors says Positive Psychologist Shawn Achor, author of the “The Happiness Advantage.” Let’s say you have a habit of stopping at a certain coffee shop every morning where you engage in heated conversations about the latest sports event and wind up being late for your first appointment. One possible way to avoid this is by changing your route, or getting a coffee to go.
When you do break a bad habit, reward yourself. By engaging in positive behavior, you’ll get that all important surge of dopamine. Over time, your brain will associate this new behavior with a positive experience, and the dopamine will start to flow. How you reward yourself is up to you, but make sure it’s something you truly enjoy. Rewards will be the most beneficial when you give yourself a reward instantly at the time you demonstrate the good behavior. Once you establish the new pattern of positive behavior, you won’t need to reward yourself so often.
You are more likely to achieve worthwhile goals in life when you have good habits. Begin with identifying what you want to achieve. Write down your personal and professional goals. It’s important that you’re clear about what they are. Choose one goal and think about the habits that you’ll need to incorporate into your schedule to reach it. What do you need to start doing every day to make this vision a reality?
- Find ways to build your new habit into your routine. Block out a regular time for it in your schedule, so you can give your positive habit your full attention. When you decide to establish new habits in your life, focus on one at a time. Each victory strengthens your resolve. If you try too much too fast, you’ll likely get overwhelmed and quickly revert to old behaviors.
- Reflect on your habit. As you progress with your new habit, reflect on how it’s working for you. If you’re struggling to stick to it, think about why this is. Were you too ambitious? If so, consider setting a more manageable short-term goal to build confidence. Or, if your new habit isn’t delivering the change you expected, reflect on what’s gone wrong. You may need to tweak your habit to make sure that it’s delivering real change.
- Develop self-discipline. One way to do this is by creating a visual representation of what you want to achieve. Paste a photo of it on your dresser mirror. Visualization is a very powerful tool, it can be extremely useful in your effort to change a habit. This will act as a reminder of why your new positive habit is so important to you. This can be just what you need to get motivated on days when your enthusiasm is waning.
- Get support. It can be difficult to stick to a new habit when you’re on your own. So share your goals with co-workers, family and friends and ask them for support by reminding you if you slip back into your old ways.
- Get the Stickk App. The Stickk App was designed by Yale economists to support people trying to develop new habits. It allows you to log a goal, and to appoint a mentor to monitor your progress. A quick search online will reveal similar tools.
Let’s review what we’ve just said: A habit is an established custom, a behavior or thought pattern that is repeated so often that it becomes automatic.
Some habits are positive and can help us achieve success in our lives and careers. Bad habits inhibit growth and success and sometimes create unfavorable conditions that effect not only our professional life, but our way of life.
Again, to break a bad habit, commit to replacing it with a positive behavior. This requires a plan to develop self-discipline and self-awareness so you can stay on track.
Choose the right approach, this requires contemplation. Contemplation is a form of meditation. The more you put into it, the more chance you’ll have in conquering it. And don’t forget to reward yourself and involve others in your quest.
Finally, habits are powerful forces. Forces can be directed. A good approach to ensure that these changes become part of your life is to incorporate them into your everyday routine and never lose sight of the end goal, which of course is Excellence.