Deconstructing a few success stories from my life.
The difficulty level depends on the habit very much. I’ll give you a few examples.
1. Gaming Habit
I played computer games since I was exposed to the computer at the age of 12. I played my whole adult life till I was 33 years old. It was my escape mechanism. I loved strategy games. I could engage my whole brain into the gameplay and feel a pang of dopamine when I won, of course.
It was a bad habit, no doubt about that. I didn’t play a lot by modern standards, just 24–48 hours a month. But I stole those hours from my life — my sleep, my family, my job. I even played during work hours sometimes.
How hard it was to kick my gaming habit? Pretty easy. I decided to change my life. I already knew this habit doesn’t contribute any good to my life.
I had been tracking my time for two weeks, every single minute. I played only for 4.5 hours during those two weeks. Just the awareness that I would’ve needed to put my gaming into my time log made me back off.
After that experiment, I deleted games from my computer and never played again.
Success in Kicking Bad Habits
That was a success story. I can vivisect it for you, so you understand where the success came from.
The trigger for my gaming was a pang of escapism. Whenever I felt bored, tired, and most importantly — purposeless, with no meaning in my life — I played. Getting new levels and killing artificial opponents was a substitute for achieving something in my life.
When I got rid of the trigger, I got rid of the habit. When there was no pang of escapism, the habit couldn’t arise.
(Hacking the habit loop — created by author)
To make it even harder for me to indulge, I installed some environmental firewalls between me and the habit. I deleted my computer games, so even if I’ve felt the pang, I needed to reinstall them first.
However, the nature of the trigger (and my escapism pangs) is very short-lived. When you pull the trigger and there is no shot, you just toss the gun. When you have a pang of escapism and cannot immediately soothe your mind with your escape mechanism, you stop escaping.
So, I created some space between me and the habit, but the thing that helped me most was that I eliminated the trigger for this bad habit from my life. I had seen little sense in my life and that’s why I wanted to escape from it.
When I created my personal mission statement and started pursuing it for real, I had plenty of meaning and purpose in my life. I didn’t need to escape from it.
2. Tougher Cases — Installing Boundaries
We are habit sponges. We go through life and pick habits on autopilot, many of them bad. I’m sure you can think of one or two behaviors you repeat while knowing they aren’t beneficial for you.
I still have quite a bunch of bad habits I cannot quench for good. My sweet tooth is a prime example. I can eat sugar in any form and quantity. I can consume a whole cake in one sitting, no problem.
(… or a giant pancake)
To add insult to the injury, my metabolism seems to magically convert sugar into fat tissue. I can eat meat or carbs and gain little to nothing. But it seems every ounce of sugar I eat turns into an ounce of fat.
I managed to reduce this habit significantly. I almost never eat sweets, I have specific limits for the sweet things I allow myself to eat (homemade cakes, honey, and a few other products).
But I didn’t kick the habit. Every time I’m around sweets there has to be conscious processing of my consumption decisions or I’ll end up indulging in sweets.
3. Reading Fiction — Avoiding the Trigger
My favorite pastime as a teenager was reading. I could read one to three books a day. I developed a habit of finishing books ASAP. It is a bad habit.
It may work for a teenager with no obligations. If you are an adult with a day job, kids, and family responsibilities, it’s a terrible habit.
I just cannot help myself when I get my hands on a good book. I read. I skip meals or sleep. I delay other responsibilities. I read, and read, and read.
I reduced this habit mostly by not having any books immediately available. I don’t shop for new fiction books. I don’t search for them. I stopped going to libraries.
It’s a great example of apparent success. If I don’t have a book nearby, I create the space between the impulse and the habit. Even if I want to read something, I cannot because I have nothing to read.
But I still cannot let a good book sit on a shelf. When I have one, I wolf it ASAP.
Answering the main question: it’s pretty hard to kick a bad habit. It’s imprinted in your brain and we are so poorly equipped to fight off anything that comes from within.
It’s especially hard when you have no clue about habits and attack down the wrong path: you try to mobilize your willpower and kick the bastard.
You may succeed once, twice, or a dozen times. But this is a tireless opponent and it has a camp right in your brain. The habit will come back again and again. Dozen times, a hundred times. The clash of forces is not the right tactic.
The best tactic is to analyze what triggers the bad habit and put walls and layers between you and this trigger or between the trigger and the habit. Like I with a gaming habit, try to get rid of the trigger itself. It will freeze the habit in your brain. It will never have a chance to activate itself.
“In the space between stimulus (what happens) and how we respond, lies our freedom to choose. Ultimately, this power to choose is what defines us as human beings. We may have limited choices but we can always choose. We can choose our thoughts, emotions, moods, words, our actions; we can choose our values and live by principles. It is the choice of acting or being acted upon.” ― Stephen R. Covey, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
Or like with my fiction reading habit, put some space between the trigger and the habit. Make it harder to indulge. It will allow you to step between the stimulus and reaction. Most of the time, if you turn on your thinking, you will choose the right thing.
The last option is to painstakingly rebuild your habit, turn it from a bad one into a good one, which is the master option. Why? Because your new “program” will become the default one. Your old trigger will release a new, good behavior.
This is the best way to kick a bad habit for good.