I 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.
Whether it’s changing our penchant for eating unhealthy food or reining in our predilection for distraction, starting a new routine is very different from breaking an existing habit. 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 instance, 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 one 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 fourteenth 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 coworkers. 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 echoes 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 coworkers did it for Duhigg, but what if you’re the kind of person (like me) who loves the hell out of cookies? I was clinically obese precisely because I love cookies (among many other delicious things)! For me, ooey gooey chocolate chewy beats chatting it up with Mel from Accounting any 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 coworkers the next time she has a sugar craving.
The ‘Progressive Extremism’ Technique
When it comes to gaining control over bad habits, like eating food we know isn’t good for us or succumbing to distraction, I shared a technique with the women in the audience that worked wonders 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.
To apply this technique, start by identifying the behavior you want to stop doing. For example, say you’d like to stop eating processed sugar. Taken all at once, cutting out the manufactured sweet stuff is too big of a goal for most people to quit cold turkey. Instead, think of just one specific sugar-laden food you’re able to cut from your diet and remove it from your life—sort of like the way a religious adherent or vegetarian gives up pleasures others might enjoy. Make your first elimination choice something you wouldn’t really miss and can be gone forever from your diet; that’s critical because starting with something relatively small and easy to quit begins the process of changing your habits and your identity for good.
To Be a Better You Takes Time
Unfortunately, the mistake most well-intentioned people make when attempting the “I can’t” to “I don’t” metamorphosis is biting off more than they can chew (excuse the pun). 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 to ditch forever. I don’t eat candy corn, and I never will. Done!
The same practice goes for stopping other behaviors that don’t serve us. When I decided to stop reading articles in the web browser of my laptop and started using the Pocket app instead, I found it to be an easy elimination I’ll never go back to.
After picking the behavior you want to give up, be it eating an undesirable food or indulging in a distraction that doesn’t serve you, the next step is to write it down, along with the date you gave it up for good. This on-paper action marks the shift from a temporary “can’t” to a permanent “don’t.”
Once you’ve achieved that milestone, the final step is to be patient. This transformation takes time. Every few months, review your list of the things you’ve given up. I have a reminder set in my calendar to review my items every six months. Then, when you’re ready, reevaluate what else you can do. Find another unwanted behavior to remove that meets the criteria of something you can give up for life that you wouldn’t really miss. For me, after I kicked candy corn to the curb, I decided to never again have sugary carbonated drinks in my home. Easy peasy. When it came to digital distraction, I decided to take Facebook off my phone and commit to only use it at my desk instead. No biggie.
If the commitment feels like too much, you’re doing too much. Each step needs to feel almost effortless but involve something you can be proud to give up forever. It doesn’t matter whether the behavior is related to what you eat or how you use technology. This technique works for any distraction that gets in the way of our values and goals.
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 making them something I just don’t do as part of my new identity. 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.
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