We Don’t Extinguish Bad Habits

How many times have you started a sentence with the words, “I’ve got to stop . . . ”? Whether it’s checking social media ten times per hour, eating a big lunch that drains the afternoon’s energy, or binging on Game of Thrones until 2AM, those four words are a sure sign of a bad habit. People spend millions every year learning how to extinguish the behaviors that steal our time, money and health. But here’s a secret – no one ever extinguishes a habit, good or bad. You substitute one habit for another.

Here’s the reason why – Once your brain has developed a routine for doing something, it can never be erased. These “schemas” become a part of your long-term memory. When you are placed in circumstances that stimulate recall of these memories, your brain brings them to your attention. If you’ve had a good time playing softball with friends, you will recall those memories the next time you head out to play softball. If you’ve gotten into the habit of walking a couple of miles first thing every morning, your brain will remind you to do so every time you get out of bed. Musicians don’t think about how to play a particular chord. Their fingerings are the result of muscle memory.

The same is true for habits you’d like to overcome. To do so, you have to establish a more dominant schema or routine that overrides the cues for the established one. But this can be especially difficult if the habit is something you’ve enjoyed in the past, feel pressured to do so, or are living/working in an environment where you are constantly reminded of it.

Here’s an example. A while back, I got into a habit of snacking just before going to sleep. Over time, this had two impacts — I gained weight and slept restlessly. Perhaps you’ve been there. Part of the problem was environment. I couldn’t just remove reminders like the fridge, the pantry full of cereals and that favorite chair in front of the TV. I needed develop a replacement routine. So what to do?

First, I asked my wife to stop buying cereal. She rarely eats it and there’s only two of us in the house at this point. Second, I collected a pile of the books I’ve wanted to read and placed them on the table next to my favorite chair. This way, I would feel compelled to pick up a book rather than flopping in front of the TV (another crutch after 9PM). Finally, I moved the cereal bowls from one shelf to another. While they were still within easy reach, I was reminded every time I saw them that I shouldn’t be snacking just before bed. Granted, this is not rocket science. But changing or removing the environmental cues have done the trick.

Your bad habit may not be snacking in the evening. But these principles are universal. Consider a habit you’d like to override and come up with a simple strategy for doing so. Note: Only try one at a time. Each one of these attempts will be a source of stress until it has overcome the old routine. Attempting several of these changes at once is a recipe for failure.

By the way, don’t measure the duration of the habit change. A lot of made of the myth that it takes 21 days to establish or extinguish a habit. But every time you think about how long it’s been since you began a shift in behavior, you reinforce the neuropathway you’re trying to de-emphasize. This, of course, comes down to mindset. (It’s the same thing as someone saying to you, “Don’t think about elephants.”) The next time you catch yourself saying or thinking, “I’ve got to stop . . .” ask “What habit or practice should I replace it with? Then step away right then and begin to establish that new routine.

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