There are two famous books, The Power of Habit and Atomic Habits, that go into detail around how to break or change a habit. This won’t be a rehash of those books, though I do recommend reading them if you’re interested in how habits are formed and how they stick. All that is needed to know for this post is that a habit involves a trigger that leads to a desire to perform the habit that leads to a behavior on your part that leads to some sort of benefit or reward as a result. Trigger->Desire->Behavior->Result. If you want to change your habits, you can change what a trigger causes you to desire, change what you crave, change your behavior, or change the result (i.e., punish yourself vs. reward yourself for the behavior).
Since those books do a perfectly fine job of explaining all of that, I’d rather talk about what causes them so that you can understand the underlying emotional situations you’re facing and address them. You see, behind all bad habits are an attempt to “hack” or influence/control your emotional state. There’s a famous saying that the reason that anyone does anything is so that they feel good. That includes eating and drinking to working a 12-hour day to earn money to maintain a certain quality of life. Yes, humans typically prioritize the short term over the long term feeling good, but the important part is the feeling good. Freud’s Pleasure Principle covered this, famously stating that it is our fundamental psychology to seek pleasure and avoid pain.
But how do specific bad habits like picking your nose, biting your nails, or smoking form? After all, it’s not like you experience bliss when you do those activities—most people do them unconsciously and not for a noticeable benefit. To understand this, we have to break down what causes our emotional state:
Emotions = Desire + Belief + Experience
The raw cause of our emotion is basic stimulus->response that you learn in psychology 101: something in your environment happens, and you react. You get poked, and you jump away. You eat food, and your brain chemicals tell you that it’s delicious so that you continue eating more. In this case, it’s pure action->reaction causing your emotions.
But human emotions are much more complex. We want things. We believe things. And it’s that relationship between those desires and beliefs that, on top of the experience, cause emotions that the immediate stimulus would not cause by itself. That’s why you can be doing anything from laying on the beach to laying in a dental chair getting a root canal and feeling good or bad: you will feel bad laying on the beach if you’re worried about your children, and you will feel good in a dentist chair if you are looking forward to the procedure alleviating the pain you’ve been having recently in your mouth. So your desires and beliefs are just as important in human psychology as the experiences themselves.
So that brings us back to habits. While many habits, such as eating too many cookies, form because you eat cookies, feel pleasure, and so keep eating them until your stomach tells you that you’ve eaten too much, there is more to it than that. Why did you seek cookies in the first place? It could be that you always had cookies growing up and so you believe that it’s just what you do when you’re hungry in between meals. Or maybe you believe that you should always have dessert and just get carried away because you bring the whole container of cookies instead of just taking the few you should actually be eating. In any case, your desires and beliefs are influencing your habits as much as the immediate stimulus->response is.
Let’s take biting your nails. There are two main underlying emotional situations that cause this habit: boredom and stress. If you’re bored, it gives you something to do to alleviate the boredom. If you’re stressed, it provides a nervous outlet. Therefore, given the emotional formula, you are taking the Experience part of the equation and altering it to alter your emotional state. People do this all the time when they turn away from something they don’t want to see or go out with friends if they want to forget about their troubles. When you change your experience, you can change your emotional state.
But there are three total things that you can change: desire, belief, and experience. First of all, you can pick another experience; this is what people mean when they say that you can’t eliminate a habit but only replace it with something else. If you bite your nails when you’re bored, you’ll have to find something else to do when you’re bored or you will keep doing it. But you can also change your desires and beliefs. You can want nice-looking nails more than you want to bite them, or you can believe that it’s okay to be bored. These are both examples of using things other than the emotional crutch of a bad habit to change your behavior. People go for a walk, take deep breaths, and do all kinds of things to manage stress better, but they can also just practice mental exercises to reinforce positive beliefs that will reduce their stress without a physical behavior. No matter which you choose, it will allow you to influence the underlying emotional state behind the bad habit.
This applies to any bad habit that you might have: drinking too much alcohol, taking your anger out on a family member when something stresses you out, or even pornography addictions. Your influencing of these three factors are key to tackling your bad habits.
I had a life experience that all but eliminated my sense of boredom: my first job. I started working when I was 15, and I sometimes worked and/or went to school 7 days per week for a full day’s work (6 am wake up time for school to midnight when I got home from work and went to sleep). When I was working hard and always needing to do something else to learn or earn, I had an immediate realization that I would never take my free time for granted ever again. From that day on, I never really experienced boredom associated with having nothing to do. I’ll think about something, play a game, sleep, or do anything that keeps myself productive. Yes, I can still perform tedious tasks, but I won’t feel boredom from having nothing to do because I will immediately focus on something else. This was before Netflix, smartphones, etc., so we all know that it’s even easier to keep yourself occupied at all times nowadays than it was then. It’s not that I’m incapable of boredom now; it’s that I now adjust my desires, beliefs, and experiences in real time when a boring situation might arise so that I will never really feel it. I can now get lost in thought and an hour can go by without me noticing.
So if you have a bad habit that you want to get rid of, I definitely recommend those two books for the full addressing of each part of habit-forming. But the strongest source of a habit is your emotional state, and so you should use this system to regulate your emotions so that you don’t form as many bad habits in the first place. If you have a bad habit when you’re nervous, you can practice ways to adjust your desires (“this isn’t a big deal”) and beliefs (“it’ll be okay”) to be less nervous or find a healthier outlet for the nervousness (“I’ll exercise instead of eating junk food”). When you address your emotional state, your behavior will change. After all, an emotional state is both a call to action and a reward for beneficial actions, so you can prevent the emotional state to avoid the call to action or trigger the reward in a different way to avoid the habit from being the go-to mechanism to get there.
On a final note, I will acknowledge the famous quote from Seinfeld, “Why fly a kite when you can just pop a pill?” as being an issue: bad habits are usually more convenient than good habits. Atomic Habits talks about this using an example of keeping a gym bag next to the door to make it more convenient to exercise. Yes, it’s generally easier to do the easy thing than the harder thing. But I mention this because I came up with a belief-changing mechanism that uses the truth to break through your false beliefs about the easy way out. The truth is that the “easy” solution is usually not actually the easier solution.
For example, if I want to eat, Fast Food seems to be the most convenient option if I’m strapped for time. But that’s actually not true unless it is literally right off the road during your drive and there are no other options that are remotely as convenient. If you’re at home, for example, and think that’s the case, you’re wrong: it’s a lot less time-consuming to steam vegetables or grill a hot dog on the stove than it is to get dressed, drive to the restaurant, order, get it, and come back. You can make a healthy meal if you have 5 minutes of time to put the food on the stove and 10 minutes to wait for it to heat up. So even a 15-minute trip to a fast-food restaurant would be less convenient than the 5 minutes of effort and 10 minutes of waiting while you watch TV or do whatever else you want.
So when you remember that eating poorly now requires hours at the gym later, that making a healthy meal is actually more convenient than driving somewhere and waiting in line for someone else to do it, or that going out for a beer or coffee is more effort and you pay more for it later than if you did something else like have sex, eat a cookie, or whatever else would boost your mood and not have said side effects, you can change your beliefs and, therefore, make changing your habits easier. I know that I ran into this in my own life when I was raised on cartoons that told me that vegetables were yucky and so I never ate vegetables…only to find out when I got older that they’re not bad at all. It was only my beliefs that caused me to form worse dietary habits than I would’ve had otherwise.
So build your desire for positive outcomes, change your beliefs so that good habits are more tempting than bad habits, and use better habits to supplant bad habits so that you address the underlying reasons why you have bad habits in the first place. Yes, it’s hard to overcome the impulse that your brain sends to your body to behave in a way that you have many times before, but once you form the new one, that will fade away. Happy habit-breaking! (or, should I say, “habit-replacing”?)