“The greasiest leverage you can create for yourself is the pain that comes from inside, not outside.”
“Idleness is the root of mischief.”
The key to breaking a bad habit is to replace it with a better habit.
Almost everyone has heard the story of Jared Fogle, the guy who lost 100’s of pounds by eating Subway sandwiches. Jared’s story has been studied and celebrated in numerous business journals and self-help books. In Made To Stick, Chip and Dan Heath describe the story of Jared’s transformation as one of the stickiest stories ever told.
When Jared started his junior year of college, he weighed over 420 pounds and wore size XXXXXXL shirts, the largest size available off the rack. Eating food was Jared’s response to everything, including hunger, boredom, loneliness and stress.
Jared’s father, a clinician in Indianapolis, had warned him about his weight for years without much success. Then, one day in December, Jared’s roommate noticed that Jared’s ankles were swelling. Jared was diagnosed with edema, a condition in which the body retains fluids because the blood cannot transport liquid properly. Since edema is a precursor to diabetes and severe heart problems, Jared went through a series of hospital visits. A few months later, Jared decided to slim down.
Motivated by Subway’s “7 under 6” campaign, Jared had his first turkey club. He liked the sandwich, and eventually he developed his own diet: after waking up he would have a cup of coffee, then at noon, he ate a six-inch turkey sandwich from Subway and around 5pm, he ate a foot-long veggie sandwich from Subway. That’s it. No other snacks. No cheating.
Exercise was not part of Fogle’s plan, but after a few months he noticed he had more energy, and started walking to class. Toward the end of his diet, Jared was walking over a mile a day and finding other physical ways to enjoy life more. Jared stopped trying to magically increase happiness and started figuring out how to enjoy life.
After three months of the “Subway diet,” as Jared called it, he stepped on the scale. It read 330 pounds. He had dropped almost 100 pounds in three months by eating at Subway; he ended up losing almost 250 pounds total. Here’s one of Subway’s first commercial spots featuring Jared:
How did Jared break his bad habit of overeating? How did he radically change his behavior?
First, Jared felt massive pain. His weight problem became enough of an issue to him personally that he decided to do something about it. He made a decision to change and immediately took action. Next, Jared replaced his habits. Instead of gorging on whatever food was in front of him when he felt hungry or stressed, he ate specific items in response to certain cues.
Change can be studied.
Previous research suggested that it takes 21-28 days to form a new habit. In the 1960’s, Dr. Maxwell Maltz, author of Psycho-Cybernetics, noticed that amputees took, on average, 21 days to adjust to the loss of a limb. He argued that it takes the average person 21 days to adjust to any major life change and to learn how to enjoy life again.
More recently, a 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology concluded that it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to replace a habit. Phillippa Lally and colleagues from University College London, the authors of article, also concluded that the length of time it took to break a bad habit depended on the type of habit.
However, new research is suggesting that bad habits can be broken in as little as two days. Once you understand how change is initiated and how habits are formed, you can transform your life at will. Here’s how:
1. Create Leverage.
Massive pain is the unifying factor that links every great story of personal change. It is the first step in achieving your goal of breaking a bad habit. This pain can be caused by a health scare, a financial loss, a job loss, a relationship break, or other personal failure. The pain that initiates change is caused by disappointment – failure to live up to your own or someone else’s standards. Disappointment is the cause, pain if the effect.
Why do people get back in shape before their weddings or high school reunions? They do not want to experience pain, most often in the form of shame. Shame is defined as a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong behavior.
Understand: shame is a ferocious motivator. Creating leverage with shame is a very successful psychological technique that is promoted in numerous professional and personal development books and seminars. The key is entertaining shame, even unjustified shame, without accepting it.
The next time you give into a bad habit, no matter what it is, take 10 minutes to sit down by yourself and focus on the shame you feel. If you don’t feel any shame, make yourself feel ashamed. Now magnify your shame. Use your resentment towards this beast as leverage to initiate change.
Create a King Kong-sized shame monster in your head, and then throw it off of the Empire State building. Don’t be afraid of shame and don’t give it too much respect; it is merely a shadow used to define the light of transformation.
2. Take A Stand.
Cut yourself off from the option of ever giving in to your bad habits again. Achieving your goal of breaking a bad habit requires that you apply so much leverage to yourself that you clarify and force a decision – the decision to change. No Magic-8 ball or App (see below video) can do this for you.
Meet your pain with the wild resistance of an absolute resolution to never feel that way again. Be narrow-minded and stubborn. Take a stand.
Add substance to your decision by taking drastic and immediate action. This does two things; first, it creates a pattern interrupt that snaps your brain to attention. Studies with mice have shown that the first time they are put into a cheese maze, their brain activity is robust and intense. The mice sniff and claw the walls, analyzing every part of the maze as they race through it to find the cheese.
If the mice are put in the same maze day and after day, something funny happens – they find the cheese faster but their overall brain activity decreases.
This is because the mice have formed a habit – using the same route to find the cheese. A tiny part of their brains, called the basal ganglia, have taken over the routine. This is also how our human brains conserve psychic energy, by creating habits and storing them in the basal ganglia. Here’s the important part: if any one thing is changed in the mice’s routine (i.e. the cheese is moved, a different maze is used) their brain activity dramatically increases. The mice are once again on high alert.
Start sniffing and clawing the walls of your life again. Interrupt your current pattern with immediate action. Robust brain activity is required for breaking any bad habit.
The second thing that taking immediate action does is turn your decision into a conviction. A conviction is a fixed or firm belief, and it is the strongest human force on the planet. Taking action amplifies your decision into a conviction by providing your brain with physical references. This generates momentum.
After meditating on your shame and making a definite decision to change, write down on a piece of paper that you will never submit to your bad habit again, then sign it. Next, go somewhere you’ve never been and do something you’ve never done. Drive to the other side of town and walk through a new neighborhood. Hike through an unfamiliar park, hill or mountain. Go to an amusement park, museum, aquarium, zoo, or planetarium.
Experience something completely new and completely sensual. During your pattern interrupt, focus on your decision to change. Be present but take brief timeouts to mentally tie your new resolution to your new experience.
3. Replace Your Routines.
In the book, The Power Of Habit, Charles Duhigg provides profound evidence in support of the idea that bad habits can be broken in 48 hours. The key is understanding the “habit loop”. The habit loop includes three things, the cue that initiates a routine, the routine itself, and the reward of completing the routine. You can quickly break any bad habit once you figure out your cues and rewards.
In the book, Duhigg tells the story of a 24-year Graduate student named Mandy. Mandy is a chronic nail biter; she gnaws her cuticles uncontrollably until they bleed and has done so for so long that the nails have pulled away from the skin underneath. The ends of her fingers are blunted and constantly itch due to nerve damage. This bad habit affects Mandy’s entire life; she keeps her hands in her pockets in social settings and balls her hands into fists on dates. She was trying to figure out how to enjoy life with her bad habit.
Mandy was able to radically change her behavior through a process called “habit reversal training”. She worked with a therapist to identify her cues and rewards.
Right before the biting began, the tips of Mandy’s fingers would begin to tingle. This usually happened when she was studying or watching television. In response to this cue, Mandy would rub her thumb across the tips of her fingers looking for hang nails, then she would start to bite. After she worked through all of her nails, she would feel a brief sense of completeness – that was her reward. She fooled herself into thinking that the increase in happiness she felt after biting her nails would last forever.
To break her bad habit, Mandy and her therapist replaced it with a competing response. The next time Mandy felt her cue, the tingling in her fingers, she was instructed to put her hands in her pockets, or under her legs, or to grip a pencil – anything that would provide a quick physical stimulation in her finger tips. She was also instructed to annotate a note card with dashes and check marks after the urge had disappeared, which helped her feel a sense of completeness. Her cues and rewards stayed the same but the routine between the two changed. A few days later Mandy had broken the habit.
Cold turkeys are mythical creatures. Habits are never just dropped, they are replaced. Replacing routines is the final step in achieving your goal of breaking a bad habit. All smokers’ who quit successfully replace their smoking routine with something else. They may not replace smoking with chewing Nicorette, but they do replace it with some activity. Many smokers will eat, drink coffee, workout, or call a friend when they are triggered to have a cigarette.
Likewise, members of Alcoholics Anonymous replace their drinking routines with weekly meetings, reading the Bible, and talking with their sponsors. Habit replacement therapy is effective because our brain uses if/then rules to make decisions, not if/nothing rules.
The first step is deconstructing your cues and rewards. Focus on how you feel right as you initiate the routine of your habit and how you feel as you complete the routine (before guilt takes over). Think deeply about your cues and rewards. Brainstorm until you pinpoint the primal source, or primary emotion, behind each one. Then, write down your cues and rewards on a piece of paper, leaving a large gap between each set.
Next, replace your destructive routines with productive routines that feel the same. On your piece of paper, write down your current routines (bad habits) in the gaps between your cues and rewards. Draw bold lines through these old routines and fill in the spaces above them with your replacement routines. Here are some personal examples:
Keep this piece of paper in your pocket for the next 2 days. Read through it when you wake up and before you go to bed, and read through it every time you sense one of your cues. After 2 days, post the note on a wall or mirror in your house.
The process of creating leverage, taking a stand, and replacing your routines will help you radically change your life, any way you choose. This sequence will also enhance your self-awarness and help you find ways to enjoy life more. Recall that lasting growth doesn’t come by asking yourself how to increase happiness temporarily, but by asking how to enjoy life.
The momentum created by taking the above steps will turn your decisions into convictions that will make your changes stick. As you continue to build momentum with determination and persistence, your will-power will become superhuman.