Break Bad Habits In The New Year

Break Bad Habits In The New Year

FYI, playing guitar is not a bad habit according to Joonas. But this guy seems to think otherwise. Or maybe he’s just navigating his inner Jimi Hendrix. Yeah, that sounds good. Let’s leave it at that.
Photo by Ali Yahya on Unsplash

You know who’s a prolific writer? To date, he’s written 83 novels, 5 non-fiction books and over 200 short stories [1]. He has sold over 350 million copies of his books, and at least 24 of his books or stories are made into movies. How is this sort of productivity even possible?

In the morning he aimlessly wanders around his house, knocks back a few cups of coffee while trying to figure out what to do with his time. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a whoof of inspiration and starts writing. Or, if the inspiration doesn’t whisper stories to him that morning he might just take it easy and play non-alcoholic beer bong (he’s been sober since the late 80s) with his buddies. 

Of course not. When he’s working on a story, he sets himself a daily target of 2000 words and writes until he’s completed it. The writer has a set space, free of distractions where he does only one thing, his writing. It’s all about the habit of writing while eliminating distracting bad habits.

So, instead of making a vague and super lame New Year’s resolution this year, like “I will drink less alcohol”, use the science of habits to sort it out.

The simple science of habits

In Atomic Habits James Clear goes balls deep into how to become a master of good habits (or slave of bad ones). By recognising the power of the habit loop and learning to use it to your advantage you’ll figure out how not to suck with your New Year’s resolutions this year. Here’s what the habit loop looks like when typed instead of drawn. Because, no time to draw on New Year’s Eve.

  • Cue 
  • Craving
  • Response
  • Reward

(Not much of a loop, but bear with me.) Let’s go through them one by one.

Cue

Cue is something that alerts your brain of the start of the habit loop. A bit of information predicting a reward at the end of the loop. Things like:

  • Seeing your phone on the table
  • Meeting a specific person
  • Seeing a bottle of water

A rule to remember is to make cues for bad habits invisible. If you have a habit of checking your phone as soon as you notice it on the table, put it in the draw. To not let things escalate with a specific person, don’t meet up with them (makes sense in a second). Or, buy a bottle of water so you don’t have to steal it from an old lady (will also make sense in a second).

Craving

This is a sense that something is missing after the cue kicks in. It’s the interpreter of the earlier cue. You don’t crave alcohol itself but what it gives you, “a desire to change your internal state” and an attempt to address your underlying motives. Usually a feeling that brings immediate pleasure, or makes your feel you better about yourself or the situation you’re in.

  • Seeing your phone on the table (Cue) 
  • You’re bored and want to check Facebook. I mean, maybe someone’s liked you earlier post about what you ate for breakfast because your life is so fucking interesting (Craving)
  • Meeting a specific person (Cue) 
  • You get the urge to have an alcoholic beverage, because this specific person is too heaaaaaavyyyyy to deal with your sober self [2] (Craving)
  • Seeing a bottle of water (Cue) 
  • You want a gulp of water (Craving)

Response

To no one’s surprise this is the action you take to relieve the tension of craving.

  • Seeing your phone on the table (Cue)
  • You’re bored and want to check Facebook (Craving)
  • You check your phone embracing it like your long-lost lover who went missing when his boat capsized in a heavy storm so long ago that you’d almost forgotten about him but now he’s back and you can’t believe it because apparently he was shipwrecked on an island and lived there with his only companion, a baseball named Sergey (Response)
  • Meeting a specific person (Cue) 
  • You get the urge to have an alcoholic beverage (Craving)
  • You slam down three Black Tooth Grins while everyone in the bar stares at you in despise (Response)
  • Seeing a bottle of water (Cue) 
  • You want a gulp of water (Craving)
  • You steal the bottle off a nice old lady who was carrying it and her small dog and now you take a big gulp of water (Response) Also, you make me sick. How could you do that to such a lovely lady?

For a bad habit you want to make the response as difficult as possible. Meet in a coffee shop instead of in a bar. Make a deal that you pay your friend $100 each time you have a drink. Or book an important meeting right after the meeting where you can’t turn up sober. 

Reward

Satisfying the craving floods your brain chemistry with immense pleasure and joy.

  • Seeing your phone on the table (Cue)
  • You’re bored and want to check Facebook (Craving)
  • You check your phone (Response)
  • You’ll get an instant gratification and a jolt that briefly dissipates your boredom. Checking your phone becomes associated with killing boredom (Reward) 
  • Meeting a specific person (Cue) 
  • You get the urge to have an alcoholic beverage (Craving)
  • You slam down three Black Tooth Grins (Response)
  • You can tolerate your companion’s bullshit stories about how great they are. Black Tooth Grin becomes associated with meeting your companion (Reward)
  • Seeing a bottle of water (Cue) 
  • Your mouth suddenly feels dry and you want a gulp of water (Craving)
  • You drink a gulp of water (while the old lady is disgusted with your behaviour and about to call police) (Response)
  • The water hugs your mouth like a bowl of milk hugs yellow fruit loops. Drinking water becomes associated with a dry mouth. (Reward) But you’ll also go to jail. And rightfully so. What’s wrong with you??!.

What is immediately rewarded is repeated, we humans love love loooove instant gratification. Try to make the reward of a bad habit as unsatisfying and ungratifying as possible. 

In the Black Tooth Grin example you could bust out reverse psychology and act boring and dull so your annoying “friend” would not want to hang out with you anymore. Or, alternatively, you could also ask a random person to punch you in the knee cap each time you have a drink. 

Start by creating awareness

It’s hard to change the things you do when you’re not aware of them. Start taking notes of your bad habits. When you notice something that doesn’t align with whom you want to be, write it down and try to answer these questions:

  • What’s the habit?
  • What was the cue?
  • What did I crave?
  • What was my response?
  • What was the reward?

If you’re like most of us, you’ll soon come up with a solid list of habits you’d rather change. What you’ll probably notice is that any habit that brings immediate pleasure, and you hadn’t implemented purposefully, is usually not good for your long-term goals. Watching porn, drinking alcohol, smoking, sleeping in… 

Except coffee. Drinking coffee feels amazing and is definitely good for your long-term goals. And yes, I am biased because I love coffee and refuse to change my coffee drinking habits.

Set your environment

Instead of using your limited resource of willpower to stop doing bad habits, use your environment to your advantage. 

As mentioned earlier, putting your phone out of sight makes it easier to stop checking it. Meeting your annoying friend in a cafe (or not at all) makes it easier to avoid drinking. Buying a bottle of water makes you less tempted to steal it from an old lady.

Summary

The habit loop: 

  • Cue – Alerts your brain of the start of the habit loop. Make cues leading to bad habits invisible.
  • Craving – The interpreter of the earlier cue and an attempt to address your underlying motives. A feeling that brings immediate pleasure.
  • Response – The action you take to relieve the tension of craving. Make the response difficult.
  • Reward – Satisfying the craving floods your brain chemistry with immense pleasure and joy. Make the reward of a bad habit unsatisfying and ungratifying.

Start breaking bad habits by bringing awareness to them. Make a note each time you do a habit that doesn’t align with whom you want to be. Then deconstruct the habit by finding cue, craving, response and reward.

Instead of abusing your limited willpower set your environment to support good habits and avoid the bad ones. Hide the phone, meet in a cafe, buy a bottle of water.

About that prolific writer…

It’s Stephen King. Highfive if you knew.

Next step

Why Your Habits Don’t Work
Habit Change Made Ridiculously Simple
Reflecting on 365 Days Without Alcohol


Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones by James Clear

[1] Wikipedia
[2] Come on, we all have one. Or seven. But really, I have none.

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