Habits are a funny thing. If we don’t pay particular attention and ask why exactly we do certain things, they will cement themselves in our daily routines. We have written before about creating and fostering good habits, but most of us, like it or not, have our fair share of bad ones too. It is especially hard if we don’t even know we have them.
The million dollar question is how can you identify an unconscious bad habit and how should you go about breaking it. This blog post will be divided in three parts. First, a quick recap on how habits (including bad ones) are formed. Second, I’ll identify the most common bad habits most of us unconsciously suffer from. And third – I’ll briefly touch upon how you can go about breaking a bad habit. So let’s jump right into it!
Generally, habits form through a three-step loop. Continue it long enough and you’ll have yourself an ingrained and continuous behavior.
First step is having a trigger that pushes you towards starting a habit. Now this may be something as benign as a deliberate goal you set yourself. When it comes to bad habits, however, there will be other, less pleasant or high-minded triggers. For instance, most bad habits are born out of conditions that affect you somewhat negatively, for example, boredom, stress, overworking, insecurity, or even disease.
Second step is routine i.e. the particular action or behavior of a habit. In case of good habits that stem from well-intentioned goals, these actions or behaviors will most likely be well thought-out and have positive short and long-term impact. Since bad habits are often formed without much thought or consideration, the actions and behaviors associated with them are, at best, with no added value or, at worst, with direct negative impact on our lives.
Finally, the third step is rewarding a particular routine. In case of a good habit, the rewards tend to be positive all around. Mostly, however, the greatest rewards for deliberate, self-improvement goals materialize over the long term. Conversely, rewards associated with bad habits are usually instant gratifications with little to no positive effect on your quality of life over the long haul.
The more you repeat the aforementioned three steps in a loop, the more ingrained a habit gets. Eventually it becomes so automatic that our brains don’t even need energy and effort to maintain them. The challenging thing is that bad habits tend to form automatically from the outset if the right conditions are present. Meanwhile good habits more often than not require genuine initial effort. Therefore, almost any one of us is likely to unwittingly succumb to a bad habit at one point or another in our lives.
We have plenty of bad habits. And there are plenty of things we do unconsciously. Mix these two together and you get a particularly unpleasant combination that is fiendishly hard to erase from you every day routine.
Probably the most obvious unconscious habit that negatively affects us on a daily basis is our absolute obsession with all sorts of screens either to numb or entertain ourselves. All too often, when the going gets tough or dull, we resort to seeking instant entertainment on our smartphones, be it through social media, news feeds, or games.
Now this is not to say that either social media or technology is bad in and of themselves. Humans are social creatures and we need interaction. Likewise, many of us work in environments that require the use of computers, while phones and TVs offer some of the best entertainment for evening rest. The problem starts when our life without them starts to become unimaginable and our productivity and well-being is affected.
Say what you want about screens, but they at least provide some relief and rest, albeit temporary and fleeting. Another persistent and less benign habit of the 21st century life is bringing our work home with us. Sure – every once in a while there might be a need to work overtime. However, what we see more and more is people obsessing over work, checking their emails, or doing anything from writing reports to designing a product long after their workdays are over. This brings all sorts of pernicious side effects, including (but not limited to) increased levels of stress, loss of sleep, damaged relationships, and poorer physical health.
Speaking of which, the two aforementioned behaviors tie in and directly exacerbate another unfavorable habit – not getting enough sleep. We all know someone who boasts about getting only a couple hours of sleep and being tip-top. A word of advice – don’t take a page out of their book! If this becomes a habit, as it does for too many people, you’ll be physically and mentally weaker over the long term and far more susceptible to disease. After all, no one’s immune system ever got weaker from getting enough sleep.
You know another bad habit that by its very nature is destined to hit you back hard – procrastination. The more you fall into this habit, the more daunting your to-do list becomes. In no time you’ll be overwhelmed and stressed out of your mind.
Inactivity can also turn into a very harmful habit. Most of us have come to accept that some level of activity is good for us. So we walk, exercise, go to the gym etc. However, biologically we are wired to always look for the easy way out. Therefore, turning into a couch potato may have a powerful draw to it. But don’t forget – it also has a steep price tag over the long haul, leading to cognitive and physical decline.
All of the five aforementioned habits are particularly vicious, as they tend to reinforce one another. The good thing is that practically all of them have the telltale signs of a bad habit – they are born out of a certain unfavorable condition, they get entrenched through repetition, and they provide some immediate gratification at the expense of a long-term benefit. And if all of these scourges have the same characteristics, it will take the same steps to get rid of them.
If you take the following steps and stick with them, your bad habits can go the way of the dinosaurs. Unlike with dinosaurs, however, they will not stay gone unless you continuously put some effort into keeping them away.
First, identify the bad habit. Normally identifying bad habits should not be a major problem, however with the unconscious sort it may take a little while. This is important, as before you tailor a recipe for breaking a particular habit, you first have to identify what it is. It’s true that the general steps are the same, but getting rid of each particular habit has its own twist to it.
Second, figure out the trigger. This is a must because understanding when and why the habit started will help you avoid falling into the same trap later. In addition, while generally I do not recommend avoiding certain conditions (as they will occur anyway and you won’t be prepared), if the cause of your bad habit is stress, it is generally a good idea to reduce your overall stress levels. After all, high levels of stress is probably the source of a great deal of our problems.
Third, replace that bad habit with a good one. If you know the conditions in which a particular bad habit forms or flourishes, you can make a conscious decision to go on offence. As I said – best not to avoid certain conditions as it is not sustainable. Better to build solid mechanisms that genuinely lead to an improvement. For instance, when boredom hits, don’t reach for your phone, but do something beneficial – cook, exercise, read. Or if that stressful day is getting to you, don’t binge eat, but go for a short walk.
Fourth, find the right motivation and chart your way forward. Some bad habits linger for so long or make a sudden comeback because the reasoning behind getting rid of them was not the right one. Don’t do something just because an influencer told you to or because a fleeting New Year’s resolution made you. Understand what matters to you and see how getting rid of a particular bad habit will help you to be happier. If quality time with your family is what you value, leave your work at your desk. Don’t do it solely because a blog post said that burning out is no fun thing.
Finally, if you have started to break that bad habit and if you have found your motivation, make a determined and sustainable effort to make your life the best it can be by setting better goals (or goals to begin with). Often it is lack of goals and a clear path forward that allow bad habits to creep in.
So there you have it! A path to identify and break some of your unconscious bad habits. Now for the hard part – actually doing it!