Quitting Bad Habits

by Bob Walsh

Quitting bad habits isn’t easy – especially if you don’t do it the right way. Simply using willpower to try to quit a bad habit is an almost futile attempt, because you’re employing a limit resource (willpower) against something which has infinite momentum (a habit).

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So the first step is to have a very clear understanding of the answer to the following question: What is a habit?

Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit says that habits are made out of “habit loops”, which consist of three parts:

  • a cue
  • a behavior
  • a reward

In order to break bad habits you should clearly understand: What’s the clue that triggers the behavior of my bad habit? What (exactly) is the behavior? How am I rewarded for that behavior?

Your Brain The Dog

The reward is what helps your brain to re-engage in the behavior in the future. In that regard our brain really kind of functions like a dog who’s learning tricks. If you train a dog to perform a certain trick, you’ll have to reward him every time when he does the trick. A reward can be anything that makes the dog feel good: food, attention, a friendly pat on the head, any kind of positive reinforcement. But admittedly, for dogs food works best in many cases 😉

This will create an association in the dogs brain:

see (or hear/smell/feel) the clue -> do this action -> feel good!

Since brains are hardwired to search for positive emotions, they’ll remember that association very well and will perform that action (the trick you taught the dog) again and again.

Quitting Bad Habits Just Got Easier!

Even though we have much higher cognitive abilities than dogs, but the basic underlying brain mechanism is surprisingly similar.

Autopilot Brain

Once this kind of habit-loop has been established, you don’t even need to think consciously about it. Your brain does it all on autopilot. It’s a subconscious behavior.

And that’s actually a ver useful function of the brain: the ability to make certain behaviors automatic. Because as soon as your brain has automatized a behavior, it frees up a lot of mental RAM. You don’t need to think about doing each step consciously, you just do it.

It’s kind of like when you learned to drive for the first time. It was very challenging and felt almost overwhelming. Just driving and steering the car through traffic required all your conscious attention. But after driving daily for a couple of months your brain has automatized all these behaviors and you don’t need to think consciously about them anymore. You can easily switch radiostations or talk on the phone while driving.

When scientists did brain scans with volunteers they found that habits require very little activity in the brain – whereas comparably complex, but not yet automatized behaviors show a lot more brain activity. Highly skilled musicians also use less of their brain when they’re playing music than novice musicians do.

However, the same positive function can actually turn negative when we’re talking about bad habits.

Interrupting The Habit Loop

So how can you interrupt that automated behavior? That’s really one of the keys to quitting bad habits.

One thing is to change environments. Most of the cues that make us engage in bad habits are things we perceive (see/hear/feel/smell/taste) in our everyday lives.

Want to know the best time to give up smoking? On vacation!

Yes, you might think that it’ll “spoil” your vacation, but it’s a lot easier to quit on a holiday than it is to quit in your normal everyday life. Your old cues and rewards aren’t there in a holiday, and that makes it a lot easier for your brain to form a new pattern. Also, in the case of smoking cigarettes – many of the everyday stress factors aren’t there on a holiday, and stress is one of the most common “cues” which lead to the behavior (smoking).

But we can’t always change our environment. And even if we do – at some point we usually return to our old environment, and we want to be protected against falling for the old clues again.

Fortunately you can change your internal environment too! With hypnosis for quitting bad habits you can train your brain to perceive cues differently, and thus change how you react to them too. It breaks up the habit loop and makes it easy to replace bad habits with positive behaviors.

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