Diabetes CupcakesI had just finished giving a speech on building habits when a woman in the audience exclaimed, “You teach how to create habits, but that’s not my problem. I’m fat!” The frustration in her voice echoed throughout the room. “My problem is stopping bad habits. That’s why I’m fat. Where does that leave me?”

I deeply sympathized with the woman. “I was once clinically obese,” I told her. She stared at my lanky frame and waited for me to explain. How did I hack my habits?

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

The first step is to realize that starting a new routine is very different from breaking an existing habit. As I describe in this video, there are different techniques to use depending on the behavior you intend to modify.

For example, creating a habit requires encoding a new set of automatic behaviors, while breaking a habit requires a different set of processes. The brain learns causal relationships between triggers that prompt an action and the associated outcome. If you’d like to get in the habit of taking a vitamin every day, for example, the key is to place the pills somewhere in the path of your normal routine–say, next to your toothbrush, so you remember to take it each morning before you brush. Doing so daily acts as a reminder until, over time, the behavior becomes something done with little or no conscious thought.

However, breaking an existing habit is an entirely different story, and the distinction is something many people mischaracterize. For example, Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, describes a bad cookie-eating habit that added eight pounds to his waistline.

Every day, Duhigg says, he found himself going to the 14th floor of his office building to buy a cookie. When he began to analyze this habit, Duhigg discovered that the real reward for his behavior was not the cookie itself but the socializing he enjoyed while nom nom nom-ing with co-workers. Once Duhigg figured out that the reward was connecting with friends, he could get rid of the cookie-eating habit by substituting one routine for another. Voilà!

Duhigg echos the popular belief that the key to breaking a bad habit is replacing it with another habit. I’m not so sure.

Maybe replacing cookies with co-workers did it for Duhigg, but what if you’re the kind of person (like me) that loves the hell out of cookies? I was obese precisely because, among many other delicious things, I love cookies and for no other reason than the fact that they taste amazing! For me, ooey gooey chocolate chewy beats chatting it up with Mel from accounting every time.

“Where does that leave me?” the woman in the audience wanted to know. Having struggled with my own weight for years, there was no way I was going to look her in the face and tell her she should chat it up with her co-workers the next time she has a sugar craving. Not going to happen.

Progressive Extremism

When it comes to gaining control over bad habits, like eating food we know isn’t good for us, I shared with her the only thing that has worked for me. I call it “progressive extremism,” and it works particularly well in situations in which substituting one habit for another just won’t do. Before diving into the method I use to transform my habits, follow me back about 20 years.

I was once a vegetarian. As anyone who has made a dramatic shift in diet knows, friends always ask, “Don’t you miss meat? I mean, it tastes so good!” Of course I missed meat!

However, when I began calling myself a vegetarian, somehow what was once appetizing suddenly became something else. The things I once loved to eat were now inedible because I had changed how I defined myself. I was a vegetarian, and vegetarians don’t eat meat.

Saying no to eating animals was no longer difficult. It was no longer a struggle. It was something I just did not do, much in the same way I’d imagine a Hasidic Jew does not eat pork or an observant Muslim does not drink alcohol–they just don’t.

Identity helps us make otherwise difficult choices by offloading willpower. Our choices become what we do because of who we are.

Don’t Versus Can’t

Recent research reveals why looking at our behaviors this way can have a profound impact. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research tested the words people use when confronting temptation. During the experiment, one group was instructed to use the words “I can’t” while the other used “I don’t” when considering unhealthy food choices. Then the real experiment began.

When people finished the study, they were offered either a chocolate bar or granola bar to thank them for their time. Unbeknownst to participants, the researchers were measuring whether they would take the relatively healthy or unhealthy choice. While 39 percent of people who used the words “I can’t” chose the granola, 64 percent of those in the “I don’t” group picked it over chocolate. The study authors believe saying “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” provides greater “psychological empowerment.”

I was meat-free for about five years, and during that time resisting certain foods was not that difficult because it was consistent with how I saw myself. “I don’t eat meat,” was tied to my identity as a vegetarian.

If not eating meat was easy when it was something I just didn’t do, why couldn’t the same technique be used to stop other unhealthy habits? It turns out it most certainly can.

Here’s How it Works

First, a disclaimer. This technique only works for triggers that can be removed from your environment–for instance, this doesn’t work for quitting a nail-biting habit unless you’re looking to dispose of some digits.

Start by identifying the behavior you want to stop. For example, say you’d like to stop eating processed sugar. Taken all at once, cutting out the sweet stuff is too big of a goal for most people to quit cold turkey.

Instead, think of just one specific food you’d like to cut from your diet. However–here’s the important part–it needs to be something you wouldn’t really miss and it needs to be forever.

Overwhelming research reveals diets don’t work because they are temporary fixes. If you imagine you’ll get to eat Goobers some day when you’re thinner, this technique won’t work. Temporary diets do nothing but train the brain to binge eat.

To become part of your identity, the commitment needs to be forever, just as vegetarians believe they’ll eat the same way for the rest of their life–it’s who they are.

The mistake most people make is they bite off more than they can chew (excuse the pun). The key is to only remove the things from your diet you won’t really miss. For example, do you like candy corn? I sure don’t. As a kid, the stuff was always the dregs of my Halloween haul. For me, removing candy corn for life was no big deal, so it was first on my list. I don’t eat candy corn and I never will. Done!

Next, write down what you no longer eat and the date you gave it up for good. Writing this down marks the shift from a temporary “can’t” to a permanent “don’t.” Remember, the things you give up have to be easy enough to give up for the rest of your life.

The next step is to wait. This method takes time. When you’re ready, reevaluate what else you can do. Find another trigger to remove that meets the criteria of something you can give up for life that you wouldn’t really miss. For me, I decided to never have sugary carbonated drinks at home. I could still have them elsewhere, just not inside the house. Easy peasy.

If the commitment feels like too much, you’re doing too much. Each step needs to feel almost effortless, no big deal, but involve something you can be proud to give up forever.

For example, when I wanted to stop a bad habit of mindlessly surfing the internet and reduce the online distractions in my life, I didn’t quit the Web entirely. I quit one simple thing I wouldn’t miss and intend not to do it for life. I don’t read articles in my Web browser during working hours–ever! Instead, every time I see something that looks interesting, I use an app called Pocket to save it for later (see more about how Pocket works here).

The process of unwinding bad habits takes years, but progressive extremism is an effective way I’ve found to stop behaviors that weren’t serving me. Occasionally, I look at all the unhealthy things that no longer control me the way they once did, and if I feel up to it, I find new bad habits to slay.

By slowly ratcheting up what you don’t do, you invest in a new identity through your record of successfully dropping bad habits from your life. It may start small, but over time, it adds up to a whole new you.

Here’s the Gist:

  • The process for stopping bad habits is fundamentally different from forming new ones.
  • Existing behaviors etch a neural circuitry that makes unlearning an association between an action and a reward extremely difficult.
  • Whereas learning new habits follows a slow progression, stopping old behavioral tendencies requires a different approach.
  • A process I call “progressive extremism” utilizes what we know about the psychology of identity to help stop behaviors we don’t want.
  • By classifying specific behaviors as things you will never do again, you put certain actions into the realm of “I don’t” versus “I can’t.”

Thanks to James Clear for his help with this post.

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  • coolhandgrant

    Nice article. I’ve found that the extremism aspect works well for me. When I am “all in” and employ the words, “I don’t” I find it much more powerful over a bad habit. In this case sugar. However, I can not let up on it even slightly or I end drifting backward. I pretty much exist on the extremes of the spectrum instead of some moderate spot in the middle.

  • Nathan Rofkahr

    Awesome article. Will definitely use this technique.

  • Greg Traquair

    Enjoyed your article Nir.

    It’s funny how we can stumble upon these techniques in certain areas of our lives without recognizing it – but still to great success. For me I immediately think of TV. Since college, “I don’t watch TV.” has been a part of my identity for whatever reason. As a result, I also don’t have a TV. Double whammy – no trigger and support from my identity!

    Now armed with an understanding of why this works, what opportunity awaits!

  • Great article. I used a similar technique to lose around 40lbs without knowing I was doing it! Trouble is i m now down to the really hard stuff to kick!

  • Thanks Nir for the article, I followed you progressive extremism before when I told my mom, that I won’t eat chicken any more and here I’m, I don’t miss them.

    PS: The thing is we are doing an online portal which connects blood requesters with blood donors and we’ve many behaviour contexts from blood donors and people who won’t donate blood.
    How we can for a blood donation habit with them as a healthy habit?

  • So what “are” you now, Nir? 🙂

    • I have many things I am and am not. As far as what I used this technique to change, I’m a now a “no processed sugar” eater.

  • Paul Bright

    Fantastic article on Habits. The best I’ve read.

  • jrfarel

    Could the “positive” of this work too? My dentist told me not to say “I will floss everyday” but rather “I am flossing everyday” – even to write it down and put it on your bathroom mirror. Silly as it sounds (I jokingly say this to my roommate most nights), I really am flossing nearly everyday. Do you think this could be considered progressive extremism in a sense?

    • That’s interesting. I haven’t heard it phrased that way.

    • Mustang

      Golf instructor taught me something similar – told me that the brain doesn’t respond to a negative, i.e. “I won’t put the ball in the water on #3”, that all the brain hears is “put the ball in the water”. Instead, I should tell myself “I will hit the ball over the water on #3”. I found it very interesting and helpful. Don’t know if he knew what he was talking about, but it seemed to work for me.

  • Charnelhouse

    I know you didn’t intend for this to be a ‘diet’ article but here we are. Giving up an individual sugar-based food might be easy and a step in the right direction. But what if that doesn’t speak to the problem? What if the problem isn’t just one sugar-based food, but sugar itself? Or, worse yet, carbs in general? Further, I’d venture to say that unless the habit modification attempt is rewarded with positive results (i.e. – I cut this out, I lost weight as a result) it will fail. Example – last summer I was able to work up to walking 50 miles a week but was sore all the time and only lost 3 lbs. The time it took to walk, plus the constant soreness, wasn’t rewarded with substantial weight loss. Needless to say I stopped walking all that much.

  • Doctor Zil

    I just read Gretchen Rubin’s new book about Habits, and wondered if you had read it – one area where I see disagreement with what you said, and what she said, is that she theorizes that people are either Abstainers or Moderators. Abstainers do well with a “I won’t ever eat/do this thing again” approach, whereas Moderators can successfully cut back on something without giving it up entirely. So for example I am good at keeping an excellent bar of chocolate handy and eating one or 2 small squares per day. I do not need to become a person who will never eat chocolate again. Chips and salty snacks, however, I can’t seem to moderate, so I have decided to abstain from them, at least for a few months to see how that feels (a month in, it feels fine and I don’t miss chips most days) – so I am just suggesting that the extremity of total abstention forever may not work for everyone and that some people may be able to find ways to successfully moderate. Rubin also categorizes people into other groupings, some of which (Questioner, Rebel) would feel very uncomfortable with the “rule” feeling quality of total abstention. Some of us feel boxed in if we feel we “can’t” do something. I recommend checking out her book, overall it’s not as helpful a read on Habits as Duhigg’s book (in my opinion) but still has some value, especially with regard to the abstainer/moderator bit and understanding how what works for some will not work for others.

  • Ḿac Ľowrence

    Since 2010, I’ve been reading and searching for an effective way to break my habits that did nothing to me except making me suffer. I was trying to follow the idea of replacing a bad habit with a good one and it didn’t really work, but I knew that I was close to find the way, I knew that there was something missing in the idea. Finally, for the first time in my life after finding this blog, I did take my first step towards improving my health. Now I don’t drink anything except water. Even when I go to Mcdonald’s I order food with some water instead of other drinks. And this is the very first step, and I know I’m getting the rest. Thank you so much sir for your help and sharing your knowledge. Thank you, thank you..

    • Thank you Mac! You made my day!

  • Anselm K

    This is quite true, I can testify to it. When I started seeing myself as a vegetarian, I just stop eating meat overnight, no struggle or relapse ! But, to be fair people who become vegetarian don’t have meat as a bad habit . So I am not sure if defining yourself differently will really work when it is about something you are struggling with and are trying to give up.