How to Stop Bad Habits Whenever You Want

You pick your nose, right?

Come on, we all do it.

Some do it more than others.

I worked with a guy who would spend the best part of the day picking his nose.

I became transfixed at the wonderment of how far he managed to get his finger up his nose.

Most of the office knew about his habit but nobody ever called him out on it.

Perhaps they were scared of him picking it, licking it, rolling it up and flicking it.

We would often switch people into different teams, to freshen them up. The switch often meant moving to a new desk.

One such desk move was underway and I heard a yelp come from the other side of the office.

I wandered over to see what was going on. The girl, who was moving into her new desk, looked a little green around the gills.

‘Look underneath the desk.’ she mumbled.

Unsure on what was causing her to look ill I crouched down and peered under the desk.


Lots of bogeys.

Most had been there so long they had calcified.

Why did this guy pick his nose, in front of the people he worked with?

What was causing his bad habit and how could he unpick (fnar, fnar) the mess he was creating?

Bad habit

Triggers Behaviours & Rewards

We all have bad habits, but what causes them in the first place?

Let’s take a look at the definition of habits.

“A habit is a learned pattern of behaviour that is repeated so often that it becomes automatic. Often there is a particular stimulus, or trigger, that activates the automatic behavioural response.”

Quite a mouthful, huh?

Habit formation can be broken down into three simple steps:

1) The trigger

2) The behaviour

3) The reward

If the behaviour is repeated over a long period of time it forms a habit.

If you take any habit, whether perceived to be good or bad, the three steps of trigger, behaviour and reward will be clear to see.

For our nose picker it could look like this

1) Boredom

2) Digging around until he finds a big one to stick under the table.

3) The boredom is satisfied and he thinks nobody knows about his secret.

bad habits

Social Acceptance and Rationalism

When we think about our own personal bad habits we know they are bad for us, in some way.

Although we have this knowledge it is not enough to stop bad habits.

On some level we enjoy them.

If there was no reward they would not form into habits.

All three elements must be present and the reward encourages us to repeat the habit.

Social acceptance also plays a big part in the reward section of habit formation.

We find common ground with others and our bad habits.

This acceptance reinforces the reward element.

We rationalise the reason for our unhealthy habits.

Take a look at Facebook and you will see articles on why red wine, Prosecco and chocolate cake is good for you.

We know an habitual chocolate cake habit is bad for us.

We know the articles are tongue in cheek.

Sharing articles and receiving likes from your friends is the equal of social acceptance and reward.

You have found a loophole for bad habits, your friends sympathise and agree.

The cake is yours to have and to eat.

Rinse and repeat.

Knowing about the health risks of any bad habit is also not enough for our monkey brains to stop.

You only have to think about the pictures of damaged lungs, on cigarette packets, to know this will not stop the most habitual of smokers.

Again we rationalise our behaviour. I have a friend who every year would claim he was going to quit smoking in October.

I asked him why October was so special to him. His rationale was because this is the month he started smoking.

His logic, although illogical, made sense to him.

bad habits

Breaking the Cycle

What can you do to break bad habits?

Do hacks exist to help ignore triggers and stop the behaviour?

The good news is yes, you can break bad habits but it won’t be easy (when is anything worthwhile easy?).

A starting point is to reverse engineer the three steps of habit creation.

Trigger Point

Take a look at your habits and work backwards. For any habit it is likely to be simple in identifying the reward.

The behaviour is straightforward as this is the habit itself.

What you need to understand is the trigger.

What happens in your environment and inside you when you start showing the behaviour?

When I get stressed I eat and this often takes the shape of something sweet.

Sometimes I catch it and recognise the trigger so I can do something about it.

Sometimes it is too late and I’m demolishing a chocolate bar.

When you show the behaviour linked to the bad habit ask yourself one question.

“What was happening just before the behaviour?”

bad habits

Did you feel stressed, agitated, upset?

Whatever happens keep a mental note of it, better yet write it down.

Follow this exercise every time you notice the behaviour. What patterns do you see? What is the trigger or cue to the behaviour?

What could you start to do differently?

In reality my craving for chocolate is not the issue.

I actually don’t want the chocolate (well, most of the time) it is just a habit formed over many years.

I have tricked my brain into seeing it as a reward for dealing with the stress.

In reality what I should be doing is noticing the stress and working out the cause of the stress.

Once I know this I can take action against it.

Eating chocolate is not solving the problem, it is only delaying the inevitable.

Rewire Your Brain

Breaking any bad habit is going to be challenging.

The key is to replace it with something more positive.

What could you do differently, when you notice the trigger, until the feeling passes?

You may still lapse but forming a new habit takes some time.

Go back to the definition and think about the three steps of habit formation.

If you make a choice to do something else, at the trigger point, over time it will improve.

bad habits

You will rewire your brain.

By doing so you influence the behaviour.

For example:

You notice you are feeling stressed (the trigger). At this point you would reach for the chocolate bar (the behaviour). This releases a hit of endorphins (the feel good chemical and the reward).

Instead consider the alternative:

When you notice the trigger, you don’t reach for the chocolate bar. Instead you go for a walk around for five minutes, outside if possible. Five minutes allow the feeling to pass.

You have five minutes to notice and acknowledge the feeling. You start to find the cause of the feeling.

The five-minute walk allows you to throw ideas around in your mind. You start to play around with how you will tackle the problem causing the stress.

You have started to develop a new behaviour.

You go back into the office and start to work on the problem focused on creating a solution.

The sense of achievement becomes the new reward.

Rinse and repeat.

You may need to repeat this pattern for several days, or weeks, until the re-wire is complete.

Stay focused on the change you want to see in yourself.

You will wobble, it will be difficult but you can do it.

This is about forming new positive habits. Habits that will last for the rest of your life.

bad habits

Accountability and Encouragement

Your new routine will follow the same pattern as goal setting.

In my post How to Achieve Your Goals and be Successful I discuss the techniques on how to set a goal and how to achieve it.

It will be important to take small steps and tackle the bad habit one day at a time.

Looking to far into the future may discourage you (think about my smoker friend and his fondness for quitting in October).

A simple and effective technique is to tell someone about your goal and the new habit you want to form.

Telling someone holds you accountable. The people around you will help you. They will want you to make the change you want to see.

Tell people, share your story, update Instagram and Facebook, update people with your progress.

Encouragement from others is a brilliant way to help you over the hurdles when trying to crack a bad habit.

Hacking It

One clever hack to break your bad habit is to change your environment.

Just as the people around you can be a positive force, they can also throw a spanner in the works. If they have similar habits and behaviour they may not want you breaking free. This is where changing your environment can be useful.

Evidence suggests changing your environment increases your chance of success in breaking bad habits.

This is why many people find success  when they are on holiday.

The triggers are different and the brain is working in a different way due to the environment and people around you.

You are less likely to show the behaviour and associate the reward with it.

bad habits

Fired Up? Ready to Go?

We have covered a lot of ground on habit formation. We have looked how to overcome bad habits and how to move forward to create good habits.

Let’s have a look at some of the key takeaways:

  • Habits have three distinct steps.
  • The trigger, the behaviour and the reward.
  • Knowing about the risks of a bad habit is not enough to change behaviour.
  • Social acceptance is a powerful force in continuing with bad habits.
  • You can reverse engineer the three steps of habit formation to break the cycle.
  • Notice your thoughts and feelings just before showing the behaviour you want to change.
  • Once you notice the triggers you can swap the behaviour out for an alternative.
  • In doing so you will start to rewire the brain. This is the start of creating a positive habit.
  • Tell people about your goals and ideas. They will help you along the way.
  • Remember, this is not about the next 30 days it is about the rest of your life.
  • Celebrate the success along the way but you have to earn the reward.

I’m excited for you.

You can can break the cycle. You can change the three-step process in habit formation. You can form something much more positive.

  • Your triggers do not have to control you.
  • You can shape the behaviour.
  • You can decide what your new reward will be.

Fired up? Ready to go?

Believe and take action.

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Ian Ruane

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