8 Easy Ways to Kill Bad Habits, According to Research

14 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Bad habits; we all got’em. You know what they are. You know you should stop. But… it’s hard. In fact, sometimes you feel downright powerless. And you’re not crazy…

Research from Duke University shows 40% of what you do every day isn’t a decision — it’s a habit.

From Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

Yeah, you spend almost half the day on autopilot. And changing bad habits isn’t just “kinda nice.” If you want to be a success, studies show habits really do matter.

People who have career momentum are 53% more likely to have good habits.

Via The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:

Comparing middle management employees, researchers have found that those whose careers continue to have momentum are 53 percent more likely to engage in healthy life habits than those whose careers are stalled. – Roberts and Friend 1998

If we’re on autopilot for half the day, we want those routines to be good ones. So what really works for ditching bad habits? And isn’t horribly difficult? Let’s get to it…


1) Change A Bad Habit. Singular.

At one time we have all felt as if our lives are a constellation of bad habits. You get home from work, you’re exhausted and you go from one “I should not be doing this” to the next.

It’s like you need to change everything. And you need to do it tomorrow… No. Bad. Wrong. Does not compute.

Do less. Just focus on fixing one thing at a time. When I spoke to Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg, he said that’s the key to lasting change. Here’s Charles:

If you try to transform everything at once, it tends to be very, very destabilizing. In general, what people should do, is they should think of change as a project. It’s a project that takes a while… Now, it might feel frustrating to say, “If you have ten habits you want to change, that means it’s going to take eight months or nine months.” The truth of the matter is if this is a behavior that’s really important, changing it will have this huge impact on your life. It’s worth spending a month to change one behavior permanently. You’re going to be reaping the benefits of that for the next decade.

You don’t need to overhaul your life. Just kill one bad habit. Give it a month and then move on to the next.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

Okay, you’re focused on one thing. What’s a painless way to start?

Eric Barker: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert


2) Don’t Stop. Just Count.

Whatever it is you shouldn’t be doing, you don’t have to stop yet. (Doesn’t that sound nice?) Don’t try to reduce the habit, reduce the variability in the habit.

In other words, don’t even try to quit smoking; try to smoke the exact same number of cigarettes each day. Or only check Facebook your usual 90 times an hour.

This tiny effort toward self-control can lead to a decrease in bad habits over time, unconsciously.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Behavioral economist Howard Rachlin proposes an interesting trick for overcoming the problem of always starting a change tomorrow. When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself. He has shown that smokers asked to try to smoke the same number of cigarettes every day gradually decrease their overall smoking— even when they are explicitly told not to try to smoke less.

Just paying attention to those numbers can make a big difference. Merely looking at the calorie counts on food labels before eating was more effective for weight loss than exercise:

Label users who did not exercise displayed a slightly greater likelihood of weight loss than those who exercised but did not read food labels. Additionally, those who only read labels were more likely to improve their chances of weight loss by adding exercise to their routines rather than abandoning label usage in favor of exercise.

You don’t have to deny yourself at first. Just notice the numbers and continue to behave badly — butconsistently.

(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)

That’s not hard. You don’t have to change. How else can you beat bad habits without changing yourself at all?


3) Don’t Change You. Change Your World.

Every day I download Instagram on my iPhone and every day I delete Instagram off my iPhone. Does it sound like I have a problem? Nope. It’s a great way to make sure I only check it once a day.

The app isn’t there tempting me to check it 600 times. And it’s a pain to keep downloading it. And this is a big secret to beating bad habits.

Don’t change yourself. Change your context. We engage in habits because of “triggers” in our environment. Remove the triggers or make them more difficult to reach and you’re less likely to engage in the behavior.

When I spoke to behavioral economist Dan Ariely he said context affects your behavior much, much more than you think. Here’s Dan:

One of the big lessons from social science in the last 40 years is that environment matters. If you go to a buffet and the buffet is organized in one way, you will eat one thing. If it’s organized in a different way, you’ll eat different things. We think that we make decisions on our own but the environment influences us to a great degree. Because of that we need to think about how to change our environment.

So get the tempting stuff away from you. Bestselling author Shawn Achor recommends “the 20 second rule.” Make bad habits 20 seconds harder to begin and you’re far less likely to engage in them. Here’s Shawn:

Watching too much television? Merely take out the batteries of the remote control creating a 20 second delay and it dramatically decreases the amount of television people will watch.

You don’t need to change yourself just yet. Change the things around you.

(To learn an FBI behavior expert’s secrets for getting people to like you, click here.)

Pretty simple, right? Good. And let’s keep it that way. Do you need to put pressure on yourself and be a demanding taskmaster to eliminate bad habits? Nope. Neuroscience says do the exact opposite…

Eric Barker: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy


4) Chill, Dude.

What makes you more likely to engage in bad habits? Stress.

UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb says staying relaxed helps your brain make the right choices. Here’s Alex:

I have a friend who always says, “Stress takes the prefrontal cortex offline.” Stress changes the dynamics of that conversation. It weakens the prefrontal cortex. That part of your brain doesn’t have infinite resources. It can’t be eternally vigilant and so while it’s not paying attention, your striatum is like, “Let’s go eat a cookie. Let’s go drink a beer.” Anything that you can do to reduce stress can help strengthen the prefrontal cortex’s control over your habits.

Don’t pressure yourself. Stay calm and you’ll behave better.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

Alright, the tips so far have been plenty easy. Time for some black belt methods. And we also need to correct some myths. How do you really eliminate those bad habits? It’s easy: Don’t.


5) Don’t Eliminate Bad Habits. Replace Them.

Ironically, studies show saying, “I’ll never do that again” makes you even more likely to do that again.

Charles Duhigg wrote the book on habits. And he says the research is clear: you can’t eliminate bad habits but you can replace them. Want to stop shoving donuts in your mouth?

When you feel the urge, put some sugarless gum in your piehole. The “trigger” stays the same and you still get a nice reward but you’re replacing the bad behavior with a good one.

From The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

We know that a habit cannot be eradicated— it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted.

Notice what triggers your bad behavior and then replace your usual response with a new one that gives you a different (but still pleasurable) reward.

(To learn a Georgetown professor’s secrets for managing your time like an expert, click here.)

Am I making this all sound too easy? Don’t worry — I know you’re gonna screw up. We all do. In fact, I bet you know when you’re most likely to screw up. So here are the two words that can make sure you don’t blow it…

Eric Barker: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful


6) “If” and “Then”

Plans are good. And with a very simple one you can resist temptation. When do you always perform that bad habit? For instance, “Whenever I sit on the couch I surf the internet endlessly.”

Okay, now use two words to make a teensy weensy little plan:

If I sit on the couch, then I will pick up a book.

From Nine Things Successful People Do Differently:

It’s called if-then planning, and it is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal. Well over a hundred studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., “If it is 4 p.m., then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.

Sound too simple to be true? Wrong.

From Nine Things Successful People Do Differently:

The results were dramatic: weeks later, 91 percent of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39 percent of nonplanners! Similar results have been shown for other health-promoting behaviors, like remembering to do monthly breast self-exams (100 percent of planners, 53 percent of nonplanners), and getting cervical cancer screenings (92 percent of planners, 60 percent of nonplanners).

Two words. Big changes.

(To learn what Yale research says is the lazy way to an awesome life, click here.)

But what happens if you still blow it? Don’t worry, buddy. I got you covered…


7) Forgive Yourself.

You’re going to screw up. And that’s okay. In Richard Wiseman’s study of people who achieved their goals he realized we should:

Expect to revert to your old habits from time to time. Treat any failure as a temporary set-back rather than a reason to give up altogether.

So you say you’re not going to eat cookies. Then you accidentally eat a cookie. That’s not when the diet is blown.

The diet is blown when you eat the one cookie and say, “I give up” — and then devour the rest of the bag.

What does science say we should do when we lose self-control or procrastinate? Forgive yourself and move on.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion— being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure— is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

In trying to do anything to better your life, it’s okay to stumble. It takes time. You learn.

(To learn how to be more compassionate with yourself, click here.)

Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it up and learn the eighth tip — which is the easiest and most fun of them all…


Sum Up

Here’s how to get rid of those awful bad habits:

  • One at a time. Beat one bad habit per month and in a year you’ll be awesome.
  • Don’t stop. Just count. Don’t eliminate the bad behavior just yet. First, be consistent in your awfulness.
  • Don’t change you. Change your world. 20 second rule. Make it harder to engage in bad habits.
  • Chill, dude. Stress makes the bad stuff tempting. Relax and you’ll behave better.
  • Don’t eliminate. Replace. You can’t kill bad habits but you can swap them out for new ones.
  • “If” and “Then.” A simple plan for how you’ll beat temptation helps you beat temptation.
  • Forgive yourself. Beating yourself up makes you behave worse. Self-compassion keeps you going.
  • And what’s the final tip?

    Peer pressure is a good thing — when you use it strategically. Mom wanted you to hang out with the smart kids in school because they provided good examples. Mom was right.

    It’s simple, really. Hang out with people who you want to be. Procrastinate a lot? Spend more time with uber-productive friends. Want to get in shape? Hang around those healthy-eating gym addicts.

    When I spoke to Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are, she said:

    Research shows over time, you develop the eating habits, health habits and even career aspirations of those around you. If you’re in a group of people who have really high goals for themselves you’ll take on that same sense of seriousness. And conversely, if you’re in a group of friends who are not that ambitious, then you too will lower your standards.

    Okay, enough talk. Right now, email or text one of those friends you want to be and set a time to hang out.

    Friends don’t just make us happy. They can also make us better people.

    Join over 255,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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