Day 56: How to break a bad habit

When I started this blog, I thought that by my experience I might be able to help someone else attempting to do the same thing. Although my motives weren’t entirely altruistic – the blog helped me stick to my goal at the beginning, when the mountain still seemed too huge to climb on my own. Perhaps because of this blog, things have been super easy and, as you may know, I decided to up the ante a bit and give up sugar for the last 40 days. Today I realised that means I’ll celebrate my birthday without bubbles or cake. I was ok with the no bubbles but no birthday cake?! Ugh.

Anyway, with 44 blogs left, I thought best to make a concerted effort to write something that might actually help someone since having me oscillate between, “I’m finding it really easy”(wine) and “I’m freaking out”(sugar) for the remainder of this 100 day period is hardly going to make for thrilling reading.

So I thought maybe I’d geek-out a bit and share some of the things I find fascinating about the mechanics of the things we do in the hope that it helps you tinker with your own life and see what works for you.

One of the most helpful things I’ve learned about habits is that they have a specific structure. So when you break a habit, part of the original structure remains in place part of it changes.

According to Charles Duhigg in “The Power of Habit”, a habit consists of three parts:

  • cue – the thing that triggers you to run the habit,
  • routine – the behaviour or habit,
  • reward – the “positive” result you get from doing the habit.*

In its simplest form, habit change involves changing the routine and leaving the cue and reward in place. In my case, before I stopped drinking, I would experience a trigger (cue), pour a glass of wine (as long as it was later than 5pm) and feel more relaxed. After I stopped drinking, I would experience the cue, do something else instead – write a blog, do a puzzle, read – and feel more relaxed.

The trouble comes when simple behaviour replacement doesn’t work – because the new routine leaves you feeling unsatisfied or antsy. This usually happens when the purpose of the habit is to mask something else – which is the case with most alcohol and food related habits. In my case, alcohol wasn’t relaxing me, it was masking my feelings of anxiety or stress. My alternative habits often worked because they interrupted my thinking pattern for long enough to allow the stress to subside. However, when I replaced wine with chocolate or some other sweet treat, I didn’t experience the same reward.  It neither interrupted the stress pattern nor numbed my mind so the anxiety remained – and if I ate enough, I’d feel guilty on top of it all.

When you’re breaking a habit, it is important to work out whether the reward is genuine or whether the habit is actually masking something else – you need this information before working out the best way to break the habit.

If it’s a simple switch of one routine to another, the steps I’d follow are:

  1. Take time to identify all the cues that trigger you to run the habitual behaviour
  2. Identify the rewards you experience as a result of the behaviour
  3. Create a new routine to run in place of the old one
  4. If the replacement works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, try something else until you find something that works.

When the purpose of the habit is to mask or deflect negative feelings, a slightly different process works better:

  1. Take time to identify all the cues that trigger you to run the habitual behaviour
  2. Identify the rewards you experience as a result of the behaviour
  3. Determine the purpose of the reward – what is it covering up, replacing or deflecting?
  4. Determine what you’d need to do deal with the underlying issue – and negate the need for the covering reward.

Of course, it looks simple, written like this. It isn’t. The role of our subconscious mind is to keep us safe and stop us experiencing pain. Breaking habits whose purpose is to cover pain causes pain so you’ve got to be prepared to take on your subconscious – which is an incredibly challenging task.

That is why I spent so long developing a plan that would allow me to do it.

That’s what I’ll share with you in “How to Shape a Habit” tomorrow.




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