As you might remember, we recently discussed habits, how they work in our brains, and how we can create new habits that will make us more productive.
Basically, it comes down to this:
You have a cue, which triggers you to perform the behaviour.
Then there is the behaviour itself, which is what you want to do on a regular basis.
Finally, there’s the reward, which implants the desire to perform the behaviour in your brain.
Over time, the reward will create a ‘craving’, which will make you want to perform the behaviour. One good example is smoking. Even though nicotine isn’t physically addictive (at least not in the same way drugs like heroin are), it’s still very habit-forming.
This craving stays, even if you stop providing a reward at the end.
Last week, we discussed how you can use this knowledge to create new habits. This week, we’ll look at habits from a different angle. More specifically, we’re going to teach you how to get rid of old, bad habits.
A song of booze and fire
Unfortunately, habits have a downside. There are bad ones, and they can have nasty consequences. Some people get into the habit of drinking alcohol regularly. Others start smoking. Both of these habits are detrimental to your health. Drinking and smoking, over time, cause damage to your body and can lead to serious disease, such as liver damage, lung cancer, and psychological problems.
Just like with any habit, habitual smoking and drinking consists of a cue, a behaviour, and a reward.
The cue can be just about anything. Maybe it’s when you feel a bit down, or every time you enter a bar, or just some time of day that tells your brain it’s ‘time to light up a smoke’ or ‘time to have a drink’.
The behaviour is the smoking and drinking itself.
The reward is the high you feel from smoking a cigarette, or the blissful intoxication that being drunk makes you feel.
Wolverine, but with cigarettes
Over time, both smoking and drinking induce a craving, where merely the anticipation of the actual reward causes the ‘neurological reward’.
Once that happens, you’ve got yourself a bad habit.
Now, the main question is: can you ‘delete’ bad habits from your brain, so there remains no trace of them in your basal ganglia?
How Alcoholics Stop Being Alcoholics
Unfortunately, they don’t.
This thought might be a depressing one, but once you’re addicted to alcohol (which means that you’ve made a habit of drinking), you will stay an alcoholic for the rest of your life. This is not a controversial opinion, it’s more or less an established fact. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.
The repetition of a habit firmly enshrines it into your brain, and someone who has once been addicted to alcohol can’t drink a single drop, because the risk of relapse is immense. If someone who has been sober for years suddenly has a beer at a barbecue, chances are big that they’ll be downing entire bottles of whiskey every day by the end of the month.
Okay, I might be dramatizing a bit, but I’m just trying to make a point: you can’t delete habits from your brain.
But there are ways to work around this. Alcoholics Anonymous has gotten hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, to stop drinking, so the question is: how do they do it?
They told me the devil would be attractive
It’s simple: they talk about it.
In AA meetings, there are no special treatments or pills. There’s no methadone, and there are no electroshocks. All they do is talk. And it works.
You see, it’s what they talk about that is important. In AA, people discuss why they started drinking, and what makes them drinking, and how drinking makes them feel. Notice anything here?
In essence, they gain insight in the cues, the behaviours and the rewards of their habitual drinking. AA also serves as a social replacement to ‘hanging out with your buddies in the local bar’. Instead of going to a place where everybody is supposed to drink, they go to a place, where it’s the opposite: nobody is supposed to drink there.
So when it’s Friday or Saturday evening (the cue), instead of going to the bar (the behaviour) for social contact (the reward), they replace the bar with an AA meeting.
The cue and rewards are kept, it’s only the behaviour that changes.
That is why:
YOU CAN’T EXTINGUISH A BAD HABIT. YOU CAN ONLY CHANGE IT.
By keeping the same cue and reward, but substituting the behaviour, you can trick your brain into getting rid of a bad habit, without actually ‘removing’ it.
So, to summarize:
USE THE SAME CUE
USE THE SAME REWARD
CHANGE THE ROUTINE
Bad habits in the digital age
These days, smoking and drinking aren’t necessarily the most common bad habits anymore. The negative consequences of tobacco use are known far and wide, and cigarettes have lost the aura of ‘cool’ that they have enjoyed in past decades. Finding pictures of musicians and movie stars with a smoke in their hand is actually hard to do these days. And every year, the number of people that smoke cigarettes drops..
Fair enough, alcohol use is still a common thing, but then again, more and more people are becoming more conscious of their health in general.
But there are new addictions on the horizon, that have made their introduction with the rise of the internet. These days, people are more likely to be addicted to checking their smartphone, hanging out on Facebook, Instagram, or venting their paragraph-long opinions on Twitter.
Instead of gorging on fast food, we gorge on YouTube videos, checking out one after the other, clicking through to find new music clips, movie trailers, video blogs and playthroughs of video games.
We don’t have to go all the way to the store to buy a new video game anymore. Just open Steam, click a few times, and you’re good to go.
We also have access to a nearly unlimited amount of TV shows on Netflix, and a more or less unlimited amount of music through Spotify. It used to be that you had to wait a day or a week for a new episode of your favorite show. Today, you can just watch the entire season in one go. After that, you can do the same with hundreds of other shows.
Desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone. Wherever you are, at any time of day, you’re able to expose yourself to the whole range of digital habits, high rewards included.
But above all, there’s the number one offender: internet pornography. In the past we never had the massive amount of exposure to lots of naked women (or men), let alone the extreme stuff that goes on in some of the videos that you can find online. We’ve grown so accustomed to this extreme stuff that it’s become hard to get aroused by normal looking people and by normal situations.
Watching porn is possibly the worst and most unhealthy habit that you can acquire through computer use. Science has documented that frequent porn use can lead to:
- Erectile dysfunction
- Poor real-life relationships
- Reduced self-esteem
Porn (ab)use has actually gotten so bad that it has gotten it’s own version of Alcoholics Anonymous, an online community called NoFap. And it’s not a small subculture either. The Reddit NoFap community alone has over 400.000 active users, and lots of people report that their quality of life has massively improved once they have stopped watching porn.
All of the above habits (but especially pornography) kill your productivity and cause you to miss out on life. All of them provide a constant barrage of massive novelty and reward, and keep you hooked to the screen.
Simply put: we’re not addicted to smoking and drinking anymore. We’re addicted to information.
And just like with tobacco, this comes with physical health consequences. Because you’re sitting in your couch or behind your desk all the time, you’re hardly ever moving throughout the day. Sitting is often called the new smoking, because it’s been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, as well as diabetes.
How to implement all of this in daily life
Most of the time, our bad habits are little things. Nonetheless, they can have a major impact on our life. They can wreck our productivity and stop us from realizing our true potential.
I can’t list ALL possible bad habits, but I can show you a few common ones and some ideas on how to turn them into something positive.
Snacking on junk food: If you’re feeling bored or down, it’s common to get some snacks out of the cupboard and stuff yourself. Once you’ve made snacking a habit, it can be hard to quit. One simple solution is just to keep eating snacks, but replace the M&M’s with a piece of fruit, a handful of olives or chocolate with 80% cocoa (which is a lot healthier). You could also eat protein bars instead of Snickers or Mars. Although protein bars are still considered junk food, they’re not nearly as bad as other candy bars, and they’re much less fattening.
Spending the entire evening behind your computer: We get it. It’s fun watching cat videos on YouTube, checking out your favorite streamer on Twitch, or playing video games. You need something to fill your evenings with. Nevertheless, sitting behind a screen at night isn’t very healthy and can seriously mess with your sleep. So, do this. First, set up some scheduled breaks in FocusMe, to prevent you from getting on your computer the entire evening. Then find another routine. Read a book, do some creative work or spend time with your friends and family. Lots of options to create habits that are infinitely more fulfilling than staring at a screen.
Eat all the olives you want, your heart will thank you later
Watching Netflix as a study break: Imagine, you’re studying for your exams. You’ve just studied for two hours in a row. Sure, you’ve earned a quick break. Now, a lot of students will turn on their TV/laptop and binge watch their favorite TV show. A better habit would be to change your routine from watching TV to going for a walk. It’s healthier, you’ll feel better, your mind gets some real rest, and you’re not likely to extend your walk to three hours like you would when watching television.
Checking your e-mail all the time: E-mail is very habit forming. It starts small. You check if anyone has sent you a message. Then you subscribe to a few newsletters. Over time, you start opening your e-mail whenever you see the icon on your screen (that’s probably your cue), as we tend to get mails at every hour of the day. First of all, we advise you to use the FocusMe e-mail limiter, which limits the amount of time you’re able to start your e-mail. Once you’ve done that, replace e-mail with something more productive. You could also make sure your e-mail link is hard to find, so the cue is out of sight.
Drinking too much coffee/caffeinated drinks: Although coffee has a ton of health benefits, there’s such a thing as too much. A daily overdose of caffeine will wreck your sleep and send your heart rate skyrocketing. Drink a few cups in the morning, but replace the others with a variety of herbal teas. My favorite is rooibos. Ginger tea is also great. Decaf coffee is disgusting, so only use that as a last resort.
We all have bad habits, but as you can see, it’s possible to get rid of them and even transform them into positive behaviours. The most important thing to do is to first do some quiet introspection: what triggers your bad behaviour, and what is so rewarding about it? Without figuring out the cue and the reward, it will be hard for you to be able to change your bad habits.
Once you’ve figured out the components of your bad habit, figure out a new behaviour to replace it. And really try to find something that has the potential to change your life in a major way.
Habits are powerful, because we are what we do.
So do the right thing.
All the best,