How to Kill Any Bad Habit

How to Kill Any Bad Habit

A week ago, a nefarious co-worker dropped a Tupperware of caramel-sea-salt-chocolate-chip cookies onto a table.

"Oh boy, this means trouble." I thought to myself.

Call me psychic McLim. 3 hours later I'd shoveled half the container down the hatch before I could even say "COOKIE COOKIE COOKIE!"

Be it cookies, Netflix, or Tik Tok binges, there are 1,000+ ways to ruin your day.

Humans like to indulge and consume, not abstain or refrain.

Fortunately, cookie black holes don't happen too often (and MAN will I be glad when the Holiday baking dies down).

But ill confess to another regular vice: Since starting the blog, I've struggled with social validation worse than ever.

After publishing, I check my likes, google analytics, newsletter open rates, fanatically. Somehow, because it's on my own domain, a post that falls flat cuts deeper now than any regular social media post. I someone picture them rejecting my intellect.

Here's how this plays out.

  1. I wake, blink sleep from my eyes.
  2. I SHOULD be getting right up, heading to the meditation cushion for a wholesome 30 minutes, and then start writing.
  3. Instead, a rush in my stomach and a tightness in my throat, accompanied by a voice "What did they think?".
  4. I pick up my phone, swipe down from the home screen, find the relevant app and check its stats.
  5. Unfortunately, my diversion doesn't stop there. Once the dopamine Ganges has broken open, it's full-on monsoon season.
  6. I find myself 30 minutes later, still in bed, checking my work email, spam folder, Facebook feed, workout videos, and bugging my mom for photos of Maggie.

I churned in this  cycle for a long time, helpless to escape my urges.

Until I discovered a secret weapon

You know the saying "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em"?

My paradigm shift:

I don't have to quit checking my social media notifications, I just have to couple the powerful urge with a healthy habit.

E.g. I can ONLY check social media after I have 5-minute journaled and time-blocked my day.

Here's the script now

  1. I wake up to a desire for adoration and validation from the Internet
  2. I say "I will get to you, lizard brain, but not now"
  3. Fueled by dopamine, I journal and meditate, THEN I check social media.
  4. At this point, the productive momentum snowball of my day has started rolling.

All the while, I chuckle at my dark brilliance like a Sith Lord.

Nir Eyal calls a variant of this mindful process "surfing the urge": when you feel a habitual itch, you pay attention to that feeling, and surf the wave of the urge until it passes.

I like Nir's book a lot. But I think just"letting the intention pass" is an enormous waste of human biology.

Instead, I prefer to jiujitsu my psyche. Direct enemy momentum for my own benefit.

Don't take it from me, listen to the YCombinator founder. Paul Graham, in an amazing essay on life lessons high schoolers should know, says:

"don't disregard unseemly motivations. One of the most powerful is the desire to be better than other people.

So... wanting to eat that cookie or check Insta? Unseemly motivations.

Suppressing them? Near impossible.

Use them to your advantage? Way more productive.

Here's why this works.

In his groundbreaking book, "The Power of Habit", Charles Duhigg presents a universal model for what keeps habits going.

  1. Cue: we receive an signal that we've been conditioned to crave(like hearing an ice cream truck)
  2. Habit: We follow the urge and do the thing. (eat the ice cream)
  3. Reward: We receive some (mostly biological) satisfaction for said thing. (Sugar on taste buds/full stomach).

The cycle continues; rinse and repeat.

This is why breaking bad habits is so difficult: this loop gets wired into a rich web of neural connections in a brain region known as the Basal Ganglia.

The other real danger (as I mentioned before), bad habits are almost universally more compelling than good habits.

Here's the trick; we can change what that HABIT is. (the middle part)

The same person, feeling an "uncontrollable urge", can surf that urge into something productive.

For example, stick-figure dude could take 3-5 sprints across the street and back and 10 ten burpees, and THEN assault the ice cream man and devour both his payload and his soul--I mean, buy a cone.

Bam, you get EXERCISE... AND ice cream

You essentially use an EXISTING cue and piggyback the reward towards the second, "healthier" habit.

How you can apply this

Contingency 1: your "bad" behavior has to be "delayable". The morning journaling surf only works because I have all app notifications turned off by default, so because check Instagram likes, Linked in comments, website views, etc can be funneled into a manual payload instead of a steady drip stream.

Perhaps it means you keep the cookies on a high shelf, which gives you a buffer to go and "do the healthy thing" before opening Pandora's jar.

Surfing the habit would be harder if they were laid out in plain sight and within reach. The bad habit can't be TOO accessible.

Contingency 2: your "bad" behavior can't be THAT bad. There are several categories of harmful habits:

1) Life-destroying ones like shooting up heroin

2) "White lie" habits, which aren't great but innocuous in small quantities.

This technique works for #2, not #1 so much...

I have struggled for a LONG time to stretch and foam roll in the evenings. A past-time I also love which often competes with this idea: looking at League of Legends youtube videos. My workaround: indulge in Tyler1 but ONLY while laid out on the floor foam rolling out my hamstrings, pec minor, or lats.

The technique is certainly a work in progress, and I continue to develop further iterations in different domains, but so far, happy to continue riding these waves.

Let me know how this works for you! Happy surfing.