Breaking bad habits



What kind of habits do people struggle most with, and what can we do?

In this article I’m going to share three types of habits, and the best strategies to use with each.

A few years ago I wrote a book called The How of Habits, and since then I’ve provided a free “habits inventory” tool on my website that people can fill out to self-assess areas they’d like to improve.

I get the de-identified, aggregate data that indicates what people would most like to get on top of.

Before I share what those habits are and what to do about them, I want to say that there is no judgment from me about what people do.

I refer to these behaviours as “bad” only to label things that people themselves don’t regard as healthy or sensible. For one person drinking coffee is “bad”, for another it’s the best thing they can do. Putting off housework might seem bad to some people, but not if that time is used to do something more fulfilling.

So, what do the data tell us and what can we do to break bad habits?

Habits we struggle most with

We’re going to tackle this in reverse order, starting with the habits we seem to struggle least with.

I call these Choice habits. 

Choice habits are about WHAT we choose to consume. Things like choosing soft drink rather than water or making unhealthy food choices.

I’m not surprised people don’t think of choice habits as particularly bad because we’re experts in rationalising our decisions.  “Drinking wine is a great way to unwind”, for example. Or “everyone else drinks wine so it's not a problem”. 

That means these habits can fly under the radar and be a bit of a blind spot, particularly when we’re filling out a survey like a habits inventory! 

But they can also be the habits that we feel most disquiet or dissonance about, particularly in moments of self reflection, because our choices may not represent who we want to be.

Next on the list comes Time (or timing) habits 

Time habits are about WHEN we choose to do (or do not do) something. 

The core issue here is procrastination which most of us experience in regard to some task or other that we don’t really want to do. 

Things like putting off exercise, work or chores, texting while you drive, going to sleep too late or drinking alcohol at inappropriate times. 

If you hear yourself saying or thinking “I really should get on to that”, you’re in the realm of Time habits.

Topping the table of habits we struggle most with are Quantity habits. 

Quantity habits are about HOW MUCH (or little) we do something, like how much time you spend on the Internet or watching TV, spending too much money, not drinking enough water, or how much or little you eat.  The big problem here is knowing how much is the right amount.

What can we do about these habits?

By categorising our behaviours as either a Choice, Time or Quantity habit, we can tailor strategies to suit.

For Choice habits, the core issue is the decision process. 

That means we can architect better choices by having alternatives available. I’ve swapped out drinking wine at night with flavoured soda water, and switched from coffee to green tea, for example. I have a standing desk as my default so I end up sitting fewer hours.

It’s really about having better options available at the time you need them, and making these the easiest or most appealing to select.  As a rule, make the better thing, the easier thing to choose.

For Time habits the core issue is procrastination - getting things done rather than leaving it till later.

For that you will need to convince your “now me” to bother rather than leaving it for “future me” to worry about.

Here are a few things to get you started:

  1. Minimise the task by breaking it into small chunks. Rather than planning to swim 40 laps at the pool, tell yourself 10 is ok, for example.Or instead of cleaning the whole house, which might seem daunting, clean as much as you can in 5 minute sprints throughout your week. 
  2. Remove any points of friction that get in the way of starting. Putting your exercise clothes out at night means you will be less likely to find going for the run in the morning all too hard.
  3. Make it fun. This is where Katy Milkman's idea about Temptation Bundling can really help - coupling something you should do (like exercise or doing paperwork) with something you want to do (like listen to a podcast or meet a friend). 

For Quantity habits, the core issue is knowing how much is the right amount and sticking with that.

If you’re doing too much of something, start by setting yourself a cap.

If it’s digital media that is a problem, look for tools that limit your usage and lock you out after a certain period of time. Nir Eyal’s Indistractable will have some good ideas on this.

We’re talking about “commitment devices” where in your “cold state” when you are thinking clearly, you commit your future self to a certain course of action. 

When you are in the moment, in your ‘hot state’ and wanting to be distracted or amused, you have preemptively protected yourself from the bad habit. Here’s a timed lockable storage container, for example, in which you can put your phone or tablet so you won’t get tempted. 

If you are overspending, use only cash rather than credit to make it less convenient and more psychologically painful for you to spend.

With food, try using smaller containers and buying single serve packages. 

Here you’re looking for cues to tell your brain that enough’s enough, using your environment to moderate your behaviour. For example, a “fun size pack” of chips is a better bet than trusting yourself to know when to stop dipping into the family bag. 

Calorie counting Apps can also be of use to keep you accountable, but should be used with caution if you have a history or predilection for disordered eating.

My last tip for managing quantity habits is to know whether you are a moderator or eliminator. In other words, do you do better moderating your consumption or eliminating it entirely? 

I tend to be more naturally an eliminator which means I am better using an all or nothing approach. I either have chocolate in the house or I don’t. I might drink on the weekend but not on weekdays. 

Moderators are better at having a little at a time, and will tend to make poorer decisions if they deny themselves entirely. 

You may find you are a moderator in some situations and an eliminator in others, so work out what works best for you. 

Your aim is always to rely as little as possible on willpower, and make doing the better thing, the easy thing.

Because it’s not up to you whether you have habits, it’s up to you which habits you have.


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 Music by Sarah the Illstrumentalist via Epidemic Sound


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