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Fixing Bad Habits

by Jennifer Margulis

erasing the words, bad habits, from a chalkboard

You know smoking is taking years off your life. You wish you would stop checking your phone first thing in the morning because looking at Instagram photographs of your friends’ beach vacations is making you miserable. You’re determined to start taking a daily walk but no matter how firm the resolve the night before you just can’t bring yourself to get out the door in the morning.


We all have things about ourselves that we wish were different: habits that niggle at us, actions we take that we know aren’t good for our health and well-being.


We want to change, sure. But how do we do it?


Why Do We Get Into Bad Habits In The First Place?


“Writing is a habit,” Mark Bauerlein, Ph.D., professor emeritus, used to tell his students when I worked as his teaching assistant at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, “and a habit is something you do without thinking.”


A habit is a repeated behavior that you do so often that it becomes automatic. As annoying as our bad habits are, habits serve a crucial function: they put our brains on autopilot so we no longer have to make conscious decisions about what to do. While this doesn’t sound good, it actually is.


“Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks,” explains James Clear in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.


The reason we human want to automate, Clear writes, is because we have a limited amount of conscious attention and we need the space to use it on the most important tasks.


“Your brain,” Clear contends, “is always working to preserve your conscious attention for whatever task is most essential.”


In other words, according to Clear, the more our everyday behavior is habitual, the more energy our brains have to focus on and solve the bigger problems that come our way.


Good Habits Pave The Way to Better Health


What this means is that habits aren’t bad in and of themselves.


In fact, James Clear argues, good habits can give you better health, more financial freedom, and a greater ability to learn new things.


According to Clear, “If you’re always being forced to make decisions about simple tasks—when should I work out, where do I go to write, when do I pay the bills—then you have less time for freedom. It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.”


So the issue is not that you don’t want to have habits—routines that help you live your life more smoothly—but that you don’t want to engage in habitual behavior that reduces your health and well-being.


Becoming Aware Of What You Want To Change


The first step to fixing bad habits is awareness, says Kate Hanley, author of How to Be a Better Person: 400+ Ways to Make a Difference in Yourself—And the World who also hosts a daily podcast by the same name.


“The simple truth is, you can't change a habit you don't know you have,” Hanley says. “That means that you need to raise your awareness of the habit itself, as well as what it's costing you.”


So how do you do that?


Hanley recommends you write down three lists:


  1. Things that precede the bad habit (the triggers)

  2. Circumstances that make you want to indulge in that bad habit (the context)

  3. Negative effects of the habitual behavior you want to change (the costs).


“When you’re making these lists, don't think too hard,” she tells me. “But don't limit yourself, either.”


For example, if your bad habit is eating unhealthy snacks in the afternoon, the triggers could be a growling stomach and a dip in your energy level and your ability to focus after lunch; the context might be that you skipped lunch or you didn't sleep well the night before; and the costs could be that the unhealthy food upsets your stomach, you're not hungry at dinnertime so you miss out on a chance to eat more nutritious foods, you chastise yourself for your lack of willpower, and every time you weigh yourself you see the numbers going up.


Once you can see these three factors clearly, Hanley says, your new awareness will help you develop a strategy that works: eating a healthy lunch, preparing a nutritious snack (like carrot sticks and almond butter, cucumbers and hummus, or a handful of nuts and dried fruit) to anticipate your late afternoon cravings; taking a walk to recharge yourself and refresh your mind instead of wolfing down a doughnut; and making a point of going to bed at a decent hour so you’re not so exhausted in the afternoons.


“It’s less about willpower and more about giving yourself what you truly need so that you're don’t need to fall back on your bad habit to help you get through the day,” Hanley explains.


Automating Cues To Trick Your Brain Into Good Habits


What Hanley calls a “trigger” is what James Clear refers to as a “cue”: a signal that sets off a craving, leading to a response, and then to a reward. Clear believes one of the most effective ways is to break a bad habit is to eliminate the cues that start a cascade of bad habits while simultaneously giving your brain cues to implement good behavior.


An example: you feel like you are drinking too much caffeine and it’s impeding your ability to sleep. Once you’re aware of the problem, you also realize that you always buy a double espresso when you walk by your favorite café on your way home from work.


Now that you’ve gained this awareness, you can take eliminate the cue by changing the route you take home.


At the same time, you also realize part of this bad habit of drinking coffee late in the day is because you enjoy the aroma of the coffee, the satisfaction of wrapping your hands around a warm mug, and the moment of pause in your otherwise busy life.


To give yourself the same reward, first you need to find a non-caffeinated beverage that’s as tasty and satisfying as coffee (try golden milk or rooibos tea or a less-caffeinated drink like matcha).


Now you need your cue. In the mornings before you go to work, leave your favorite mug on the counter. The mug will serve as a visual reminder for you to brew yourself a cup of non-coffee when you come home from work, helping you replace your bad habit with a good one.


Be Accountable To Someone Else


I’ve found that having an accountability buddy—someone who helps you gain awareness of the habits you are trying to fix and keeps you on task with your new, healthier behaviors, can also work wonders.


Even without a buddy, sometimes just the act of committing to something out loud to several people who love you can help you change.


An accountability group is also an excellent idea. Or, if you you’re already in a book group that meets weekly or monthly, a suggest that you read some books about better habits for your upcoming meetings.


I have another trick that works, though I’m not sure if behavioral experts would approve. My teens and I like to do weekly, or sometimes monthly, bets. We each commit to the habit we are trying to cultivate (exercise, creative endeavors, spending X amount of time on summer homework assignments). We draw up a contract and sign it.


Then we add a monetary penalty if we don’t meet our daily commitment.


Sometimes we do “roll-over” bets, which means if we mess up one day and don’t do the 20 minutes of reading or math, we’re allowed to make it up with 40 minutes the next.


Sometimes we do “sudden death,” which means that we must complete our self-imposed assignments (aka good habits) by midnight that night or pay the other person the fine.


Perhaps this playful approach doesn’t result in lifelong good habits, but it certainly helps everyone in our family spend more time doing the things we love but often don’t prioritize.


Tiny Changes Lead to Remarkable Results


As Harvard professor of Chinese history Michael Puett, Ph.D., and his co-author, Christine Gross-Loh, Ph.D., explain in their book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, the Chinese philosopher Confucius explores the minutia of life in the Analects, the collection of conversations and stories that his students compiled after he died in 479 B.C.


The book details how high Confucius held his elbows, who he talked to when he walked into a room, and how he ate his meals.


While attention to these small details hardly seems of great philosophical importance, Confucius believed that the question of how you are living your life on a daily basis was the key to finding the answers to big philosophical dilemmas.


Confucius taught his disciples that small things matter.


“How you do anything is how you do everything,” is how my friend Dave Nourie, an internationally known trick cyclist, puts it.


Whether you agree with this idea or not, there’s no question that fixing bad habits and cultivating better ones—making small upgrades to your life every day—will help you lead a longer, healthier, happier life.



Jennifer Margulis, PhD

About the author: Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is co-author (with Dr. Paul Thomas) of The Addiction Spectrum and The Vaccine-Friendly Plan. A frequent contributor to The Epoch Times, is also an award-winning science journalist and sought-after speaker.


Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net. A different version of this article first appeared in The Epoch Times.


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