Struggling to Break Bad Habits? Read This (3 “Meta Tips” to Build Better Habits)
In this new article, I’m going to teach you, step-by-step how to break free from your bad habits and replace them with good ones.
- How to overcome your “negative autopilot” and reprogram yourself for success.
- How to demystify and simplify habit change to make it easy.
- 3 principles that make beating bad habits 10X easier
And a whole lot more.
If you’ve been struggling to build the habits you need to achieve your big goals and dreams and create your perfect life…this guide will help you change that.
Let’s dive in.
1. Identify the “Nature” of Your Habits
There’s a fundamental difference between an ‘automatic’ habit like interrupting people mid-sentence or chewing your fingernails…
…And a ‘conscious’ habit like choosing to watch ‘just one more’ episode of your favorite show on Netflix when you know you should be going to bed.
Not all habits are created equal – which means there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to creating (or breaking) them.
Therefore, before you can determine how you should go about changing a habit…you must first understand what types of habit you’re trying to change.
Luckily, almost every habit can be conveniently lumped into one of the three following buckets…
1. Unconscious Habits
Unconscious habits, as the name implies, happen unconsciously–we quite literally don’t think about them until we’ve already done them.
- Sneezing without covering your mouth
- Saying, “You know, like?” ad Infinitum during your conversations
- Using filler words like “Ummm”
- Or reflexively checking or picking up your phone every time it makes a noise
Are all negative unconscious habits.
Inversely, there are several unconscious habits that are beneficial and worth the effort to build.
- Making eye contact with people when you first greet them
- Taking deep breaths when you’re stressed out
- Sitting up straighter at your desk
- Smiling more often
- Ignoring distractions and staying focused on your work
While these unconscious habits might feel impossible to change–after all, we’re rarely aware that we’re doing them– there are specific tools that can help you set (or break) them, which we’ll address shortly.
2. The Compulsive Habits
Any desire you routinely feel compelled to act upon–and do–is a Compulsive Habit.
The psychological urge that my father gets to eat hummus and cashews every night at 9:30 (sorry, Dad – your secret is out now) is no different than the psychological urge some people feel to get out for a walk after work, smoke a cigarette after dinner, watch Netflix at the end of a workday, or go to the gym first thing in the morning.
Compulsive habits that are negative are very easy to identify – they’re the things that you really know you should give up but can’t:
- Eating too much sugar
- Consuming alcohol and other drugs
- Late-night Netflix binges
- Munching on cashews & hummus
Inversely, positive compulsive habits, that you either follow today or want to implement in the future, are equally easy to identify.
They’re typically the types of things you resolve to adopt every New Year (but somehow fail to stick with after the second week of January).
- Saving money
- Reading before bed
- Sleeping 7 hours a night
- Drinking a green smoothie every morning
And the list goes on.
Like ‘unconscious’ habits, there are specific tools and strategies you can use to change your ‘compulsive’ habits more easily. But first, we must address the third and arguably most important type of habit…
3. The ‘Average Day’ Habits
The least obvious form of behavior (because they don’t cause guilt or shame, like Compulsive habits, or sabotage ourselves like Unconscious habits), are ‘average day’ habits…
‘Average Day’ habits simply represent actions or behaviors you repeatedly engage in on an average day that make up the rhythm of your life – for better or worse.
“We are what we repeatedly do – excellence, then, is not an act but a habit”.Aristotle
Although these habits are similar to compulsive habits, they differ in one main way…
Unlike compulsive habits, ‘average day’ habits are tied to the “meta” of how you live your life.
They aren’t necessarily linked to a specific action, but rather a specific pattern that plays out over and over again.
For example, a few negative ‘average day’ habits would be…
- Answering the question “How was your day?” by complaining about everything bad that happened to you
- Hitting the snooze button on your morning alarm and procrastinating on important tasks
- Not giving your full attention to work activities and allowing distractions and temptations to dilute your focus
- Not listening properly when people talk to you
- Getting angry at traffic (or people who walk slowly)
These habits are, in effect, a reflection of the principles by which you live your life.
Procrastination, for example, is an ‘average day’ meta habit that can manifest as hitting snooze, distracting yourself on the web, or putting off an important project until the last minute.
You can see how these habits quickly add up to make your average day more stressful and unpleasant – or turn you from a high-performer into an Average Joe.
On the flip side, it doesn’t take a lot of tweaking to leverage “Average Day” habits into a few keystone actions that make your life more enjoyable (and make YOU more fun to be around) – such as:
- Being a better & more attentive listener
- Keeping your work & living areas clean
- Journaling your thoughts for greater emotional stability
- Scheduling your day so you can be more productive
- Attacking your most important priorities first thing in the morning
If you spent a day or two around a world-class athlete, entrepreneur or high performer you’d probably notice that the main difference between them and everyone else is that they deliberately set – and stick to – a LOT more positive Average Day habits.
We all navigate the day using varying amounts of Unconscious, Compulsive and Average Day habits – and the sum of their impact upon our lives determines (to a large extent) how successful, happy and joyful our lives will be.
The habits themselves aren’t entirely to blame for the results we’re getting, though.
Because, more often than not these habits are perpetuated by a lack of self-awareness.
Which we can solve by…
2. Develop Greater Self-Awareness Around the Traits that Drive Your Habits
Much like habits, humans all have different qualities and quirks that make us, well “us”.
We all exist somewhere along a spectrum with different personality traits that can either aid or hinder our efforts at habit reform.
Being a ‘morning person’ is great if you want to set the habit of exercising before work or devoting time to your most important priorities before you get distracted by other people …
But challenging if you’re trying to set the habit of scheduling one date night per week with your spouse (because romantic dinners are hard when your body clock is telling you to go to sleep at 8:30 pm).
When it comes to the area of habits, there are four personality traits to develop awareness around so you can be more successful in changing your behaviors.
Let’s examine where you fall on the spectrum…
1. The Energy/Income Investment Spectrum
One of the first and most frequently overlooked traits, as it pertains to habit change, is the way you balance investing energy and income to achieve your goals.
On one side of the spectrum are the “hyper frugal”. People who have no problem investing a lot of energy into changing their habits, but are unwilling to fork out the cash that could make achieving their goals or changing their habits 10X easier.
For example, these individuals may hold themselves back from success by:
- Not investing in a gym membership or personal trainer (and then getting injured from bad form or failing to exercise entirely)
- Buying the least expensive foods available (and destroying their sleep, energy, and productivity as a result)
- Refusing to invest in coaching or consulting to fix problems in their business (and wasting years doing things the hard way)
- Doing things the hard way and wasting days of their life on $10/hour tasks instead of paying other people to solve their problems for them.
Sure, these personality types are more prone to take action. But they do everything the hard way because they have a broken relationship with money.
By gaining self-awareness around this tendency, and recognizing those moments when you can “buy speed and ease” by investing in a resource that will make habit change easier, you’ll make it much easier to change your habits over the long run.
On the other side of the spectrum are the “Over investors” who tend to throw more money at their problems than they do time and energy.
If this is you, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
The kinds of people who will buy $2,000 worth of supplements, hire a personal trainer, invest in the nicest gym, buy five different training programs, and invest in ridiculous biohacking gear…without making tangible changes (like going to the gym to meet with their expensive personal trainer).
Once you know where you are on the spectrum, you’ll have a better understanding of how you can best change your habits.
If you’re the hyper-frugal type…bite the bullet and invest in the products, services, or training you need to move faster.
If you’re the over-spending “under-acting” type…STOP buying new-fangled gear and unnecessary crap and instead focus on implementing a minimum standard of action each day.
2. Abstinence vs Moderation
My mother is the most incredible human I know because she is able to open a block of chocolate and eat one piece per day. She’s an excellent moderator.
Personally, I am incapable of using that discipline as a strategy – but that awareness allows me to use a strategy more suited to me:
Abstaining completely (from things I know are bad for me).
If you know that you’re the kind of person who can set a twenty-minute timer and stop yourself from scrolling through social media when it’s done…
Or you can stop yourself after one episode of your favorite show on Netflix per week – then you know the right formula for you to set (or break) habits.
If you’re like me, that’s impossible. There’s nothing wrong with you if you’re no good at self-moderating – but you’ll need to cancel your subscriptions, stop leaving chocolate around the house and leave your phone in the car because it’s simply easier to not face temptation.
Regardless of whether you’re trying to break an Unconscious, Compulsive or Average Day habit, you need to understand your ability to “moderate” yourself to determine how you should handle changing your habits.
3. Complete vs. Acute
The third trait you must understand to successfully change your habits is your proclivity for “complete” or “acute” change.
Now, to begin this conversation, let me make one thing clear.
The science (and all anecdotal evidence) very clearly shows that consistent changes to your habits, over time, tend to yield the best results.
And regardless of your personality traits, you must always seek to make habit change manageable (it’s better to workout 3 days a week for 6 months than 5 days a week for one month).
What is “manageable” varies wildly from person to person.
Some of us are most comfortable stacking small wins in the pursuit of a larger change.
For example…parking in the back of the lot and taking the stairs instead of the elevator to get more ‘incidental’ exercise before even considering a regular weight training regimen.
And others become bored and burned out with such small changes and prefer to drop a nuclear bomb on their lifestyles and make massive changes quickly.
Typically, these traits complement the traits previously discussed.
If you’re a “moderator” you will likely do better making small changes over time.
If you require abstinence to overcome temptation, you’re likely a “change everything all at once” type of person.
Again…neither trait is better or worse. The only thing that matters is that it works for you.
If you prefer to make small changes over time, I challenge you to push yourself to “stack” changes to build momentum faster (for example, drinking a green smoothie, going to bed at 10 pm, and parking at the back of the lot).
And if you have a more nuclear disposition, I challenge you to reign in your intensity just a little bit and focus on making smaller changes to everything (e.g. going to the gym 3 days instead of 5, eating paleo for the first 2 meals of the day instead of every meal, and waking up at 6:00 am instead of 5:00 am).
4. Promotion vs Prevention
When we consider the impact that better habits may have upon our lives, they can typically be lumped into one of two categories.
- Promotional (more money, a better-looking body, greater happiness)
- Preventative (less stress, pain, shame or guilt).
Some of us tackle our habits because we desperately want to have a better future and be high performers – we’re benefit-driven.
Some of us want to get out of debt, avoid a heart attack or escape the embarrassment of driving an old, beat-up car – we’re driven by the desire to avoid suffering.
Despite what may be said in the worlds of personal development and goal achievement, whichever emotional drive is most powerful at moving you to take action is the one you should leverage and attach yourself to.
If you’re driven by the benefits…own it. Leverage your competitive, materialistic, and ambitious qualities to drive your change.
And if you’re driven by fear? That’s fine too. When used properly, it’s a powerful motivator.
Results are the only thing that matters – we’re all equal but not the same and we must find the strategy that suits us.
By gaining greater self-awareness and understanding your unique disposition, you can better understand how to drive change and what specific strategies will work best for you.
And when you combine this self-awareness with the tools I’m about to teach you, you will become an unstoppable, goal crushing, habit-changing machine.
3. 4 Principles that Make Habit Change Effortless
Understanding the nature of the habit you’re trying to set (or break) and your own personality traits are half the battle to making change…
Next, we’ve got to leverage the RIGHT approach for the PARTICULAR habit that you want to modify or start – beginning with:
This strategy is most applicable to building positive Average Day habits (like journaling), and quitting negative Compulsive habits (like smoking).
Essentially you enlist the support of at least one person who you deeply do not want to disappoint and/or is benefitting from your new behavior with you.
In the book, High-Performance Habits Brendon Burchard teaches the idea of performance necessity – an internal, personal, psychological demand to strive to do better because we have to.
Leveraging a social duty to a group of people with the same goal as you (such as your team at work), or a purpose for the people who rely on you (such as those who rely on you to be a healthier or a better financial provider) is our most powerful tool for making change.
Share your plans for the negative Compulsive habits you want to give up with people you trust, and give them permission to hold you accountable.
There are very few stronger feelings in the world than the kind you’ll experience when you are told: “You said you’d do this for us – and you didn’t”.
Being courageous enough to invite that kind of feedback (from someone who you trust to not be judgemental about it) is like dynamite for your motivation to change habits.
You could also join a group of like-minded people in an exercise group, business forum or social circle who are working to develop the same Average Day goals as you and allow the standards of the group to influence yours.
You can take this strategy to another level if you identify yourself as an under-spender who likes to make plans too complex: Consider investing in a trainer, coach or mentor and do exactly what you’re told.
Best deployed for Unconscious and Compulsive habits, this involves making the wrong thing hard to do and the right thing easy – which sometimes requires you to be creative.
My mother-in-law significantly cut down her smoking habit by keeping her cigarettes in her car (ten floors below her apartment) and only fetching them one at a time when she wanted a smoke.
Leveraging ‘Ease’ may involve planning out your day the night before, locking your phone in a cupboard, laying out workout clothes in the morning so you can jump out of bed and immediately get out for a walk, or installing software that restricts your use of certain apps at particular times during the day.
One of the reasons why we live on autopilot, letting our habits create our routines and daily structure, is because the brain loves familiarity.
Quite often the simplest and fastest way to make your brain comfortable with the changes you want to make is to dedicate time each day – in the same place at the same time – to practice the behavior you want to follow.
For an Unconscious habit (such as slouching at your desk), this practice may involve setting a 15-minute timer when you start work and sitting as tall as possible until it finishes.
For an Average Day habit such as stress management, you may use Repetition by giving yourself a ten-minute time-out before lunch every day to journal your thoughts rather than allow them to loop through your mind.
For all the three different types of habits, Triggering certain behavioral changes is the most powerful strategy.
Triggering involves priming your mind to perform in a certain way when exposed to a particular stimulus.
That stimulus might be greeting someone for the first time in the morning (and making eye contact with them while asking genuine questions about their day to set an Unconscious habit of being more engaged)…
It may be reminding yourself to improve your posture when stopped at traffic lights, brushing your teeth, or answering the phone.
Changing automatic, highly ingrained habits and behavioral patterns is very challenging – it involves a physical rewiring of your brain’s operating system…
But with practice and a greater understanding of the nature of different habits, increased self-awareness as well as some simple tools to support your efforts, you CAN become a high-performer and a more successful, happier and healthier human.
There you have it.
Three simple principles to help you change your bad habits and adopt new habits that serve you and your goals.
What did you think about this guide? What are you going to implement first?
Let me know in the comments below.
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