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How to Break Bad Habits That Hold You Back

Last week, I spoke with Stanford behavior scientist and habits expert Dr. BJ Fogg on how to create a habit. In this episode, I discuss how to break the bad habits that hold you back.

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The process of creating a habit is different from stopping or reducing that behavior. It’s not just doing the reverse. The idea of ‘breaking’ a habit sets up the wrong expectation. ‘Break’ implies that you can stop the behavior if you put in a lot of effort into a single moment, but that’s not how it works. Think of it not as breaking a habit but untangling the habit.

Most habits people want to break (e.g. snacking) is a combination of behaviors that you need to untangle. Snacking in the morning and snacking at night are separate behaviors. Start at the easiest knot and untangle that. Don’t work on the hardest one first. Many habits are hard to stop. But there is a systematic way that you can use to reduce these behaviors.

How to Untangle A Habit Using the Fogg Behavior Model

What is triggering you to to do the behavior?

  • If you can remove the trigger, you’ve solved the problem.
  • Sometimes, you can’t remove the trigger.
  • Maybe someone else asking you to go get ice cream is the trigger.
  • Looking at your phone might be the trigger for you to check social media in the morning.
  • Don’t touch your phone for the first of your day. Focus on your vision/purpose and self-care instead of reacting to other’s fires.

If you can’t remove the trigger, look at your ability to do the behavior

  • How can you make the behavior harder?
  • If you’re spending too much time on social media, bury the app in your phone or uninstall it.
  • If you’re eating too much junk food, don’t bring it into your house.
  • It’s easier to say no once at the grocery store than it is to say no to yourself at home 20 times.

If you can’t make it harder, can you de-motivate yourself?

  • For most behaviors we want to stop, there’s something very compelling about the behavior.
  • Can you replace the motivation by thinking of something else?
  • How motivated you are to do a behavior is an internal measure, not an external one.
  • Dr. Fogg used to eat popcorn all the time because he came from a family that worked all the time and associated popcorn with relaxation. Now, instead of thinking about how relaxing popcorn is, he thinks of his dentist saying how bad popcorn is for his teeth.

If you can’t de-motivate yourself, what other behavior can you do that also scratches the itch?

  • You can stop a behavior or swap it with something else.
  • Pick a reasonable alternative that satsifies your motivation.
  • Dr. Fogg stopped eating ice cream. Now, he eats yogurt with apples and cinnamon.

What’s the difference between a routine and a habit?

  • A habit is a behavior you do with a high level of automacity.
  • A routine is a behavior you do not automatically but reliably (like working out).
  • A routine has the same elements of a habit (motivation, ability, and trigger), but you need to be especially explicit about what will remind you to do the behavior. Routines are all about triggers.

Behavior change is a skill. The more you practice, the better you get. Develop the superpowers you need to determine the future of your life.

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