“Many men and women in the world demonstrate great willpower and self-discipline in overcoming bad habits and the weaknesses of the flesh.” — Ezra Taft Benson
Quitting Your Bad Habits
Ever wonder what it really takes to quit your bad habits? How much effort is actually involved? What amount of work is required to stop doing something that’s been almost ingrained in us?
If you’ve ever tried to quit a major bad habit before, then you likely know the answer already.
Quitting any bad habit takes an enormous amount of vigor. There’s a monumental task ahead of you. Blood, sweat, and tears might aptly describe the experience. It’s a complete change in something that’s nearly basal and instinctive to us. It’s akin to redefining who we are.
For those very reasons, it’s easy to see why we might say we want to quit a bad habit, but when it comes down to following through, we revert back to old ways. And it usually doesn’t take all that long. And according to one study, it only gets harder with age.
People in their 50s have just a 14% chance of achieving their goals of quitting a bad habit, whereas people in their 20s have a 39% chance. As we grow older, it’s harder to make significant changes in our lifestyles, manners, habits, and demeanors. We become set in our ways.
You know, just as well as the next person, that bad habits can take a toll on our lives, no matter what age we might be. From smoking, to excessive drinking, procrastinating, nail biting, screen scrolling, couch surfing, and an addiction to anything, bad habits can oftentimes all but ruin us.
So how do we get rid of our bad habits? How can we actually say, enough is enough already, and help them meet their untimely demise? Why is it that sometimes we can follow through with eliminating a bad habit and other times we falter and fail?
If you’re anything like me or the next person, then these questions have surely plagued you. You have some bad habits and you want to know how to get rid of them. I can tell you right now that it’s not going to be easy. But it is quite doable.
With a little bit of understanding, planning, and persistence, anyone can quit their bad habits over time.
Where do Bad Habits Come From?
Before we launch into a discussion on quitting your bad habits, let’s look at where those bad habits originate from. How do they turn into full-blown habits?
The formation of any habit, whether good or bad, starts small. No habit is formed overnight. They take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to form. The longer a behavior is repeated, the more deeply etched it becomes in the neural pathways of our minds.
In a study conducted by Phillipia Lally, a health psychology researcher from the University College of London, it was determined that habits take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form, with an average formation period of 66 days.
All habits take time to form, and often, they begin very small.
For example, the cigarette smoker who’s now up to two packs per day, didn’t start that way. He started small. He began by smoking a cigarette or two here or there. It helped to alleviate his stress. Then, he began smoking after every meal and during breaks at work.
Over the months and years, that one-or-two-per-day habit of smoking cigarettes progressed into something far greater.That bad habit was linked to pleasure centers, as the nicotine provided immediate relief of stress and a sense of relaxation, albeit very short-lived.
The neural pathways in the smoker’s mind were etched deeper and deeper with each passing day, solidifying that bad habit into place.
The neural pathways are links between different groups of neurons that help to create a routine or behavior. With over 100 billion neurons in the brain, the complex and intricate structure can seem overwhelming.
What’s important to note here is that the longer a routine or behavior is performed, the deeper the neural pathway is etched, and the more difficult it becomes to eliminate that habit.
So obviously there’s a real change that occurs in the mind due to whatever habit we decide to form. That bad habit, which might start out small, ultimately balloons into something far greater.
But why do we engage in a bad habit when we know that it’s bad for us?
To understand that, we have to understand the basis for all human nature. Humans will do more to avoid pain than to gain pleasure. Our minds are constantly weighing things on this pain-versus-pleasure paradigm scale.
The cigarette smoker can’t quit, even after trying profusely, because quitting causes physical pain. That’s because of the body’s addiction to the nicotine and the effects of withdrawal.
However, the biggest problem about that pain-versus-pleasure paradigm is that the mind only thinks of it in the short term. It does more to avoid pain than gain pleasure in the short term, not the long term.
If the mind were always thinking long term, then it would be a non-issue. Every single person would quit their bad habits, especially ones that caused massive physiological changes in their bodies, because they knew how bad it was for them in the long term.
The reason the mind thinks in the short term is the concept of instant gratification. The adult mind, very much like a child’s mind at times, wants what it wants when it wants it. It’s a basal and instinctive part of us that lives in the three-part psychic apparatus of the mind called the Id.
The Psychic Apparatus
To understand our bad habits better and how to get rid of them, we have to take a closer look at the mind and just how it operates. Sure, we’ll do more to avoid pain than we will to gain pleasure in the short term, but there’s far greater forces at work there.
Sigmund Freud, the late father of Modern Psychology, envisioned a three-part psychic apparatus living in our minds. Through his research, he determined that there are three forces constantly vying for our attention in both our subconscious and conscious minds.
Considering that we have upwards of 60,000 thoughts each day, the resultant interaction of these three forces can have a strong sway on our daily behavior. This is likely where the old adage, “thoughts are things,” stems from.
Your very thoughts produce neurochemical reactions, sending electrical impulses shooting across the synapses in your neurons. Those thoughts produce resultant emotions, and subsequently, resultant behaviors. “What we think, we become,” as Buddha once said.
The first force in the psychic apparatus is the Id, which lives purely in our subconscious minds.
When we’re born, as babies, our minds are solely Id-minds. No other parts exist. The Id gives us the natural urges to eat, sleep, defecate, and procreate. It’s the basis for our libidos and aggression. It’s completely basal and instinctive, woven into the very fabric of our DNA.
The Id makes us want what we want when we want it. If you have any experience with toddlers and small children, you know just how powerful the Id can be. There’s no arguing with an Id-mind. There’s no reasoning or convincing it otherwise.
The Id is also defined by the pleasure principle. It’s that part of your mind that’s constantly seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, looking for instant gratification. If we only had Id minds as adults, we would be hard-pressed to follow societal rules or have any patience for the achievement of goals.
In Freud’s own words: “[The id] is the dark, inaccessible part of our personality, what little we know of it we have learned from our study of the Dreamwork and of the construction of neurotic symptoms, and most of that is of a negative character and can be described only as a contrast to the ego. We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations… It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.” (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud — 1933)
When we think about bad habits, it’s the Id that’s likened to the little voice in our heads telling us to go ahead and give into temptation. If the Id is strong in us, then we act as pleasure-seekers, doing, saying, or behaving how we want regardless of the repercussions.
This is one of the reasons why some of us are so quick to give up on quitting bad habits. That nagging Id-voice in the mind has powerful sway in the things that we think, do, and say.
The Super Ego
As we age, our minds split into other forces, one of which is the super ego. The super ego acts as our moral compass, instilled in us by our parents, guardians, teachers, and general societal rules. The super ego works to reign in the powerful forces of the Id.
The super ego lives in both the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. It helps to inflict feelings of remorse and guilt after we’ve done something wrong, and helps us to travel on the right path in life. Depending upon our upbringings, the super ego may or may not be strong.
When it comes to our behavior, when we’re trying to quit any bad habit for example, it’s the super ego that inflicts those feelings of remorse and guilt when we cave into temptation. If the super ego wasn’t strong enough to deter us from engaging in the behavior in the first place, it inflicts its damage after the fact.
When the super ego isn’t strong, we have a hard time counteracting the powerful and instinctive forces of the Id, which is constantly vying to help us get what we want, when we want it. But, without this morality component in the mind we would end up bending and breaking the rules on a constant and ongoing basis without the fear of repercussions.
If the Id were likened to the devil on our shoulders, the super ego would be likened to the angel on the other shoulder, helping to guide us along the right path.
The final part of the psychic apparatus is the ego. The ego, as we know it, works as the mediator, acting on the reality principle. It wants to help us get what we want and to pleasure the Id, while also maintaining the demands of reality.
The ego, which also lives in the conscious and subconscious minds, is the organized part of the psychic apparatus, which includes the perceptual, intellectual, cognitive, and executive functions of the mind.
It works through a means of psychic functions that includes reality testing, tolerance, judgment passing, controlling, planning, synthesizing of information, acting defensive, intellectually functioning, deducing, and memorizing.
If we were to liken the Id to a horse, we would liken the ego to the rider who’s constantly vying to hold back the strong urges of the horse.
In Freud’s own words: “One might compare the relation of the ego to the id with that between a rider and his horse. The horse provides the locomotor energy, and the rider has the prerogative of determining the goal and of guiding the movements of his powerful mount towards it. But all too often in the relations between the ego and the id we find a picture of the less ideal situation in which the rider is obliged to guide his horse in the direction in which it itself wants to go.” (New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud — 1933)
The ego acts as the referee, since it’s constantly working to balance the demands of the real world with both the urges of the id and confinements of the super ego. It has to please all three, and often is said to give in to the demands of the Id.
This constant interaction creates a sense of anxiety about the external world, moral anxiety about the confinements of the super ego, and neurotic anxiety about the strong sudden urges of the Id. Our resultant behavior is a product of this very interaction.
Getting Rid of Bad Habits
It’s no easy feat to get rid of your bad habits. Considering all of the forces that are vying within our minds, it’s clear to see that there’s a convoluted push-and-pull working to help us get what we want, while also trying to maintain some semblance of reality.
However, there are methods and techniques that will make the process a little less painful. By leveraging our understanding of psychology and the mind, we can employ a few tactics that will help to illuminate the process and bring some of those subversive and counterproductive thoughts in check and hold them at bay.
You can think of the expulsion of your bad habits as any goal to achieve something. When you set a goal, you follow a few simple steps that help to set yourself for success. Getting rid of bad habits is much like achieving a goal, albeit with a little twist.
One of the biggest problems with some bad habits is the physiological shift that occurs in your body, and not just in the mind. This is applicable for anyone that has a physical addition to something. Smoking. Over eating. Excessive alcohol consumption. Pills. Drugs. And so on.
When a physical change occurs in the body, there isn’t just the mental or emotional hurdle to overcome, there’s also that physiological hurdle. If the human body acquires a physical addiction to something, breaking through that requires far more effort.
It doesn’t just become a question of understanding and leveraging modern psychology to help us get rid of bad habits, it becomes the necessity to battle a physiological change in the body, which can oftentimes be far more difficult.
But either way, no matter what the bad habit is nor how bad of an “addiction” there might be, change is feasible and quite possible as long as you understand the process and stick to whatever plan you put into place.
Step 1 – Illuminate Your Bad Habit
The first step in eliminating your bad habit, is to illuminate it to the mind. Often, our minds work to conceal our behavior in an effort to get what we want. It’s that constant interaction between the components in our psychic apparatus.
In order to remove part of that process from the subconscious mind, we have to illuminate the bad habit. When you don’t do this, it’s easier for that three-part psychic apparatus to mask your behavior and allow you to revert back to your old ways after some time has passed.
To illuminate our bad habits, we have to write them out in all of their detail. What’s your bad habit? When did it first start for you? Can you recall how it started? Where does it arise from? What effects has it had on your life?
Although it’s hard to admit our shortcomings at times, it’s an important part of the habit-removal process. The more time you spend on this, the easier you’ll find the removal of the bad habit in the long term.
Step 2 – Calculate a Cost
Once you’ve illuminated your bad habit, calculate the cost that it’s taken on your life. What’s the mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, or financial cost it’s taken. How much money have you spent on your bad habit? What’s happened to your mind, body, emotional and spiritual well-being as a result of it?
Has the bad habit resulted in the loss of things that you once cherished in your life? Did you lose a relationship due to a bad habit? Possibly a home or a car? Maybe you lost a job due to some very bad habits. Whatever it is, write it out and calculate the cost.
If the bad habit in question is something like smoking, you could add up the financial cost it’s taken on you over the years. How much have you spent on buying cigarettes per week, month, or year? What you’ll come to find is that this number is usually rather significant.
This step is an important one. By calculating the cost of our bad habits, we further remove the shroud of anonymity placed on it by our subconscious minds. Since our minds are designed to help us get what we want when we want it, without calculating the toll, it’s far easier for the mind to reason and hide its behavior behind excuses and lies.
Step 3 – Redefine Who You Are
One of the hardest parts about quitting a bad habit is in the definition of who we are. How we define ourselves has a big influence on our behaviors in life. We say things like, “I’m a smoker,” or “I’m big-boned,” or “I’m a party animal.”
How do you define yourself? By shifting the language in your mind, you can work to make an enormous impact on your success in eliminating your bad habits.
In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by researchers Vanessa M. Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt entitled, “I can’t” versus “I don’t,” our definition of who we are has a large impact on our behavior.
In the study, which tested temptation and its resultant behavior, two groups of people weren’t instructed to define themselves, half with “I can’t do X” and the other half with “I don’t do X” when considering their choices for unhealthy food.
Then, the researchers conducted their experiments by asking them a series of questions to determine their thoughts and responses related to unhealthy foods. But the real experiment was conducted just as the participants were leaving the room.
When they left, they were thanked for their time and offered two choices of snacks: a granola bar or a chocolate bar. The researchers wanted to know if how they defined themselves within the study would have an impact on the choice they made upon departure.
64% of the participants who had used the “I don’t do X” language picked the granola bar over the chocolate bar. The language that the participants used to define themselves and their choices provided psychological empowerment in goal-directed behavior.
So, instead of saying, “I can’t smoke cigarettes anymore because I’m trying to quit.” You could say “I don’t smoke cigarettes,” or “I’m not a smoker.” Remove any limiting language and redefine who you are and what you represent.
Step 4 – Find a Strong Enough Reason
In goal setting, I talk about finding a strong enough reason to help you accomplish your goals. The reasons should come first and the answers second. When you have a strong enough reason, you can literally accomplish anything.
But how many of us stop to come up with powerful and profound reasons when we’re trying to quit our bad habits? I’m not talking about superficial reasons. We don’t want to be skinny just so that we can look good, because that won’t help us lose weight and keep it off.
We want to be skinny so that we can be healthy, have energy to enjoy the company of our children, and so on and so forth. We need profound reasons, not flimsy ones.
Come up with profound reasons on why you must quit your bad habits and you’ll see yourself following through. Write these out and don’t leave them in your mind.
How do you come up with profound reasons? Keep asking yourself why you want to quit your bad habits until the answer equals the question. For example, you want to stop over-spending so that you can save or have more money. But that’s not the profound reason.
You want that extra money because of the feeling the money will give you. Freedom, security, and the ability to care for your family. Those are profound reasons.
Step 5 – Start Small
If you’ve found yourself giving up in the past when you tried to quit a bad habit, start small. Instead of doing something cold turkey, begin by limiting the behavior little by little. Create a schedule with a deadline to quit that bad habit.
This is important because of the neural pathways in the mind that are so deeply etched, that trying to completely cancel out a behavior, especially without replacing it with another behavior, might result in catastrophe.
This is why you see people who go on crash diets, only to gain all the weight back and then some. Start small. If you eat fast food 4 times a week, limit that behavior to 2 times per week for the first two weeks. Then just 1 time per week for the next two weeks. Eventually, eliminate the habit altogether.
This technique works great when you’re building up good habits, but also for when you’re eliminating bad habits. Any bad habit starts small and builds over time. It doesn’t form overnight. So, trying to eliminate it overnight can also be next to impossible.
This isn’t to say that going cold turkey, so to speak, doesn’t work. It works for some people that have strong enough reasons. For example, when there’s an impending death or other health related issue, quitting some bad habits cold turkey is far more possible. But usually not in ordinary situations.
Since neural pathways form and etch deeper over time, it’s important to modify your behavior little by little over time.
Step 6 – Track & Analyze
Quitting a bad habit is akin to other goals, and in order to accomplish what you set out to do, you must track and analyze. The more detailed you track things, the more likely you are to win.
For example, if you’re trying to quit the bad habit of consuming food or beverage with an excessive amount of sugar or fat, you should track your results on a daily basis. What’s going into your mouth? What are the feelings associated with your behaviors?
By tracking, we can get a better sense of how well we’re doing. This is especially true when we use the start-small approach to eliminating our bad behavior slowly over time.
Find a system that you can use to track and analyze your results and do it on a daily basis. Use a notepad, a smartphone, or a spreadsheet program on your desktop or tablet. Whatever it is, pick one system and stick to it.
Keep in mind that it takes 18 to 254 days to create habits with an average of 66 days, and that also goes for bad habits. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t happen overnight. Give yourself room to breathe and stay committed by tracking your results over time.
Step 7 – Stay Persistent
Persistence is the art of not giving up. It takes a lot to stay persistent towards our goals, whatever they might be. And, quitting your bad habits is no different. Even if you find yourself stumbling and falling, or failing repeatedly, don’t give up. Pick yourself back up again and keep going.
Some time ago, I wrote a book called The Art of Persistence. In it, I explored just what it takes to achieve your goals, and how some of the most famous people to succeed have failed numerous times. And achieving anything really does take an undying level of persistence.
Bad habits not only alter our neurochemistry and neural pathways, but also our physiology, making some of them far harder to overcome. But, like anything else in life that’s worthwhile, it won’t come easy. Quitting your bad habits will take effort.
Seek out like-minded people that are on the same journey as you. Use Facebook or other online forums to seek groups that you can join to share the ups and downs of your progress and possibly inspire one another.
If you’re still having problems, seek out a mentor. Find someone who’s quit the same bad habit that you’re trying to get rid of and seek their advice and lean on them for guidance when you need it.