Search online about how to stop a bad habit and one of the tips you’ll find is “replace your bad habit with a good one”.
The idea that you don’t stop a bad habit, you simply replace it with another habit (a healthy one) that gives you the same pleasure.
That’s a good strategy.
However, nobody tells you how to do that. Replacing a bad habit with a good one isn’t as simple as it sound.
After all, if your brain is enjoying the dopamine rush you get from doing that bad habit, why on earth it will consider replacing that habit?
Ask anybody what are those good habits that you can use as substitutions and you’ll get an answer like this: exercise, reading, socializing …etc.
All of these suggestions are great, however they don’t work like most people think they do.
I’ve tried many times to stop my bad habits using the metaphor “you don’t change it, you replace it”, and I’ve failed, I didn’t know how to actually “replace” my bad habits.
Yes sometimes I build good habits, but they don’t necessary help me stop my bad ones.
Why I’ve failed? Let me tell you:
- Any bad habit is there for a reason, it gives you a pleasure and a positive reward or it allows you to escape some pain and discomfort for a while.
- If you can’t provide your mind with the same pleasure, it will come back to its old ways of getting that pleasure: the bad habit you’re trying to stop.
- In most cases bad habits are indicators that there’s something wrong in your life, and they’re there to make you forget about that fact. See: 5 Practical Ideas to Apply When You Feel Stuck in Life
- Deep-rooted habits have many anchors and triggers (as we’re going to see in details).
In fact, we develop bad habits as coping mechanisms because we lack the required coping mechanisms to deal with our situation and problems.
So many people say that emotions like stress and boredom are the main driving forces behind bad habits.
Yes that’s true, and not only stress and boredom, I may add depression, loneliness, frustration and every single negative emotion you think of.
The inability to handle those painful emotions is what makes us develop those bad habits in order to escape for a while.
Some habits are easy to break, and other habits are deep-rooted into our nature that we suffer a lot when we want to change them.
You Don’t Change a Habit, You Don’t Replace it, You Change Your Lifestyle!
In my previous article The Truth About Negative Emotions I said that when you look at negative emotions as messages, that changes everything.
Negative emotions are here to tell you that there’s something wrong, and that you need to do something about it.
And bad habits do the same.
When you look at them as a cry for help from your own mind, you’ll begin to understand why they’re here in the first place.
The golden rule:
Bad habits are here to allow us to escape/numb our bitter reality.
Why do we smoke? Is it because we love nicotine?
Why do we watch porn? Is it because we have a very high sexual drive?
Why do we procrastinate? Is it because we’re interested in screwing up our own lives?
No, no and hell no!
- We want to avoid some discomfort (stress, problems, negative emotions like depression …etc).
- We want to get some pleasure, in other words instant pleasure (that sudden dopamine rush).
- More leads to more, the more we do a habit it becomes our automatic response.
Maybe we have some problems that we can’t handle probably, and smoking works as a stress relief.
Or maybe we want to sound “cool” and smoking is considered as something that “cool people” do.
Maybe we struggle with our social life, and porn provides us with the illusion of love, connection or maybe even revenge.
Maybe procrastination is just a way to escape the discomfort that comes from doing the task, we don’t have the proper coping mechanisms. See: The Real Reason You Don’t Take Action (And What to Do)
You need to understand that the bad habit is here to indicate a bad lifestyle, and you need to replace that bad life style with a good life style.
What is a “lifestyle”?
It’s a combination of:
- The things you do (your behavior).
- Your thoughts and beliefs (your attitude).
First you need to understand the bad lifestyle so you can come up with a specific lifestyle that will replace it.
If your bad lifestyle is fire, your good lifestyle needs to be water, not gasoline!
In brief, whenever you struggle with a bad habit, you need to:
- Figure out what’s wrong with your lifestyle.
- Figure out what kind of lifestyle that you need in order to fix that.
- Figure out the habits needed to create this kind of life style.
And that’s what we’re going to discuss in the rest of this article, in details.
1. Figure out What’s Wrong with Your Lifestyle
It might be a little bit painful to admit that there’s something wrong with your lifestyle.
But if you’re struggling with a bad habit, there’s a big possibility that there’s something wrong.
If you want to fix that, you must admit it and acknowledge it first. (Read: How Does the Process of Change Look Like)
How to examine your lifestyle and figure out what’s going on?
There’s only one area that you need to examine, here’s it and here’s how to examine it:
Your Life Problems:
This is where we all screw up, when we have a big problem in our lives but we keep running away from it.
A problem that is causing us pain and we try to escape this pain, and what’s a better way to escape it than a bad habit which will give us a nice dopamine rush?
I believe that this is the only reason we develop bad habits, our inability to deal with our own problems.
I’ve recently faced some problems with this site, and unfortunately I’ve indulged in some of my own bad habits.
Instead of working on a solution, I’ve spent so much time trying to forget about the problems.
And as you can guess, that only made things worse.
With every bad habit that your brain considers “wrong”, every time you do it, you’ll feel bad about yourself, which makes it harder to work on solving a problem. See: How Doing Good Things Can Boost Self Esteem
Let alone that you’re adding another problem to your already existing problems, a habit that you can’t break.
And the more you put off working on a solution for your problems, the bigger your problems will get.
But the negative emotions like depression, stress and frustration were so intense that I gave in and indulged in bad habits to numb them.
So, the only reason I was doing my bad habits was because I wanted to escape the pain of facing the problems, I wanted to feel good immediately.
And here’s the thing: sometimes your own mind can deceive you and hide those problems from you.
In my case it was obvious what were the problems I was trying to run away from.
But sometimes it could be painful to admit what problems you’re running away from, especially if they will hurt your ego and especially if you were running for too long.
Be honest with yourself. Is it a problem related to your financial situation? Or is it a problem related to your love life?
Come on, we all have our own problems. We either deal with them or run away from them.
If you deal with them, you’ll win.
If you run away your mind will send you negative emotions, and you either deal with these negative emotions by working on a solution, or you try to numb those emotions with the bad habits, which will result in more problems and more negative emotions.
So, just have a sense of awareness about what problems you’re trying to run away from, awareness is the first step towards change.
Below I’m going to show you the most problematic areas that lead us to feel bad about our lives.
1. Social Life:
This area is a problem for so many people. Problems in your social life can cause negative emotions and bad habits as well.
Your social life can suffer in many ways including lacking social skills, not being able to make new friends, not having intimate relationships (just superficial ones) or even not having a social life in the first place.
We use the bad habits to avoid social situations or to numb the negative emotions like loneliness.
Watching porn is one of the bad habits that may indicate that there’s a problem in your social life.
In brief, social life is an important life area, and if it’s giving you pain then it’s very wise to examine it and solve the problem.
Further Read (epic guide!):
2. Your Self-Image:
Your self-image is how you see yourself. And it’s not only about your looks.
How confident you think you should be, how attractive you think you should be and what kind of person you really want to be.
If there’s an inconsistent between your reality and your self-image, or if you just don’t like that self image for whatever reason, pain will visit you very often.
And most probably we’ll just try to numb the pain and forget about it.
In other words running away from the problem, which is not being who you want to be. Your reality and self-image are totally different things, that’s painful.
In brief, major problems in your life that bring you pain, like your self-image of course, may lead to bad habits and even addictions if we failed to deal with them probably.
3. Negative emotions:
Negative emotions are usually results of your life problems, especially when you ignore your life problems.
But I had to mention negative emotions because they’re the triggers. The inability to handle them can lead you to many bad habits.
So pay attention to your emotions and see if you’re trying to run away/avoid a certain negative emotion using a bad habit.
If there’s an emotion that you can’t handle and you always use a bad habit to numb it, you need to work more on your coping skills.
Face your negative emotions and deal with them, you’ll never be able to escape them; they’ll only intensify when you ignore them.
And also sometimes random emotions like stress or anger can trigger you to do some of your bad habits.
So learning how to handle negative emotions is a must if you want to stop any bad habit.
Examine your negative emotions, and also see how do you handle them. Numbing them using a bad habit isn’t an option anymore.
2. Figure out what kind of lifestyle that you need in order to fix that.
That’s easy as soon as you figure out what’s wrong with the current lifestyle.
However, it does require some courage to figure out the new lifestyle and pursue it.
Simply the new lifestyle should be a fix to the problems we identified in the previous step.
If you found out that you’re running from problems, you need to develop your coping skills, become more resilience and start facing your problems.
Whatever those problems are, whether they’re related to your social life, your work or your self-image, you must face them and fix things.
For this step, you just acknowledge what’s wrong and what’s needed in order to fix it.
Details are not important here; just get an idea about how you’re going to solve the problems you figured out in the previous step.
3. Figure out the habits that you need to create this kind of life style:
Most people start directly from this step by trying to choose habits to replace their bad ones.
That might work for some people, especially if the habits they’re trying to break are simple habits like watching T.V. or biting their nails.
But for those who struggle with serious bad habits like excessively playing video games, smoking, watching porn, or even drinking, things don’t work that way.
You must make a change in your lifestyle in order to overcome those bad habits.
Again, your lifestyle is the combination of your behavior, thoughts, beliefs and attitudes.
First you identify what’s wrong with your lifestyle and then you figure out what you need to do in order to fix your lifestyle.
Finally you need to choose habits that will build your new lifestyle, and work on building them.
Think about your new healthy lifestyle as a building, every single brick is a good habit that you need.
Sure this is just a metaphor; you may find 10,000 bricks in one building. You don’t have to build that many habits, in most cases two or three habits are enough to build a healthy lifestyle.
Usually the new habits are solutions to the problems you’re facing, as simple as that.
And those habits can be anything from physical habits (like exercising) or mental habits like a change in the way you think.
As soon as you start changing your lifestyle, the cause and the motivator for the bad habit will start to go away, and that’s the best way to permanently stop a bad habit.
For example working on solving your major problems is going to be painful, but facing this pain is what will help you overcome the bad habit and also improve your life.
Another example is working on your social life, this is huge! I don’t know why but from my own experience, and other people’s experiences as well, this area is a major reason for developing bad habits.
Having a healthy social life, having great communication skills, being confident in social gatherings …etc. Check those things, figure out what needs to be fixed and build habits that will help you do that.
For example if someone watches porn because his social life sucks, especially with the other sex, and porn gives him a sense of connection, love and being accepted by the girls he sees in the screen.
Will exercising or reading help him stop watching porn?
In other words, will the habits of exercising and reading replace the habit of watching porn?
Not in a million years.
He needs to develop habits that will solve the real problem for why porn exists in his life.
That means he needs to work on communication skills, go out there more regularly, talk to people more often, build self-confidence …etc
He also has to develop some mental habits (ways of thinking) like not being needy, interrupting people’s reactions the right way, dealing with rejection, working on his coping skills …etc.
As you can see, this is not just a change in one or two habits, it’s a lifestyle change. And it may sound scary to some people, but it’s a must if you’re serious about overcoming a bad habit that is ruining your life.
Wait, Let’s Talk About the Urges
Last but not least, I want to talk to you about a very important subject.
As you can see, the road neither a short road nor an easy one, and it’s going to take a while until you be able to replace an unhealthy lifestyle with a healthy lifestyle.
And during that road, urges will hit you.
I used to freak out whenever I get an urge because I thought that if I’m really on the right track, then I shouldn’t crave my bad habit[s].
I was wrong.
For sure we sometimes get urges because we’re not 100% convinced that we should stop.
But there are times when we get an urge because that’s what we’re used to.
Let me explain.
There’s a term in NLP that’s called anchoring, it means that there are certain things on the outside world (sounds, objects, touches …etc) that our mind links them to certain emotions and feelings.
For example, do you have a song from your childhood for your favorite show that whenever you hear you remember all the sweet memories from your childhood?
When a feeling reaches a peak, during that time your mind will link anything that is around you with this feeling, a song, a touch, a word or whatever.
Whenever you hear that song or see that object again, your brain will immediately go back to that state you were in.
And the same happens for the bad habits.
Usually activities like smoking, binge eating or drinking will result in releasing chemicals like dopamine, which will make you feel good for a while.
During the peak of the dopamine rush, you’re at the risk of attaching whatever around you to that “high-feeling” you get from your habit.
For example, the people you go to the bar with, the glass you drink from, or even the chair you sit on.
For a smoker it could be a certain time of the day, seeing an ad for a cigarette or seeing someone smokes …etc.
The problem is that this happens on the subconscious level, you unconscious mind recognizes the anchor/trigger and gets an urge.
Away from the scientific language, you see something that reminds you (unconsciously) of your bad habit, and you get hooked up.
Those reminders are noticed by your subconscious mind. And those reminders are more than you can ever imagine because they can be anything that you see/experience during the peak of your dopamine rush.
And this is the reason why people fail to stop their bad habits, the old anchors everywhere remind them of their bad habit, unconsciously, and they find themselves battling an urge out of nowhere.
So you have to realize that you already have many and many anchors, depending on how long you’ve been doing that bad habit, and they will result in so many urges.
The solution? Push through it. Don’t give in. Because when you give in you’ll be strengthening the already existing anchors and you’ll be creating more and more anchors that will result in even more urges in the future and possible relapses.
Last Words (A Must-Read)
Yes replacing your bad habits is important, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.
You don’t just pick up a new habit and start doing it hoping that you’ll be able to quit your bad habit.
What you have to consider is that you’re changing your lifestyle, not just a bad habit. Because this bad habit is there to indicate that there’s something wrong with your lifestyle.
Your lifestyle includes your behavior and your attitude, what you do and how you think.
Nothing will change unless you first change.
Your habits will stay the same if you don’t want to make some changes in your lifestyle, sometimes major changes depending on the bad habit its self.
The change you make in your lifestyle isn’t random as well, you decide what change you need to make based on what’s wrong with the current lifestyle.
As we discussed above, your life problems in areas like social life and self-image, to mention a few, are among the most problematic areas which lead us to develop bad habits.
Also the inability to deal with negative and uncomfortable emotions can lead us to develop bad habits as coping mechanisms.
Put all these points together and you’ll reach the conclusion that in order to stop a bad habit you need to change your lifestyle altogether. In other words develop new habits that will create that new lifestyle.
Use the information in this article to help you do that.
Last but not least, I have to be honest with you, sometimes when you read articles like this you get excited and think that your bad habits are gone forever.
And after a while you make a mistake and return to your bad habits, and as a result you unconsciously lose hope in overcoming that bad habit.
So you have to realize that this process isn’t an easy one and it won’t happen overnight.
I do hope that you never do that bad habit again, I really hope that you be able to quit from the first time once and forever.
However, if you’re anything like me, mistakes will be a part of the process, relapses will be part of the process too, not because you don’t really want to quit, but because we make mistakes.
If for whatever reason you relapsed, don’t lose faith in the process, don’t lose faith in yourself.
Get back up as soon as possible and get back to work. Changing your lifestyle won’t happen overnight, destroying the anchors we talked about won’t happen overnight also, it takes time.
The feelings of helplessness you feel when you relapse and feel like you and change will never meet are worse than the bad habit its self.
So, get back on it, examine your lifestyle again, tweak things a little bit and keep on changing your lifestyle to something that you like.