Why You Can’t Make That Habit Stick (Part One)
Ever wonder why some habits seem so damn hard to change? Most people do, but very few get past the stage of simply wondering “What’s wrong with me?”. Unfortunately, an emotionally loaded question like that will likely stop you in your tracks, locking your focus on uncomfortable insecurities and making you avoid figuring out what the real problem is.
It’s time to stop avoiding the painful truths behind your bad habits and face them so you can start making traction on finally changing them. If there’s something about the behavior patterns you hate, it’s time to start reading and taking notes.
But be warned: I’m not going to sugar coat things for you.
First off, I’m not going to give you the typical positive thinking tripe about how if you just start thinking happy thoughts and follow my 3-step formula everything will come up roses. Life doesn’t work like that. We can’t spray bleach on your self-sabotaging mindsets and wipe them all away. They are deeply ingrained patterns that don’t respond well to magic-button solutions.
What we can do, though, is learn to recognize the root causes and triggers associated with these working-against-you mindsets so that you can see them coming ahead of time, and maybe take some action to avoid letting these patterns continue repeating in your life.
Let’s begin with …
Painful Truth #1: You Say You Want It, But You Really Prefer Something Else
This is a tough truth to internalize, but it’s an inescapable one: When it comes down to it, you will always do what you really want to do. Those bad habits you have are supporting an outcome that in some way is positive to you, whether you want to admit it or not.
In other words, you like the benefit of the bad habit better than the alternative (a good habit that will take that benefit away). You prefer sticking with the buzz that comes with the bad, and you don’t really have a compelling reason to change.
I can give you an example from just a few weeks ago when I quit caffeine cold turkey (I had actually quit before, two Decembers ago, but fell back into it 4 months later). Quitting way back then was easy – I just decided to do it and did it. Quitting a few weeks ago was easy, too – I decided again, and I did it again.
But that space in between, those eight addicted months? That was hard. Damned hard. I tried to quit over and over again, and felt absolutely powerless. Powerless, over a frikkin’ can of soda. (To be truthful, it was more like 4 or 5 cans a day.)
Why was it easy at one time and hard at the others? Well, when it was hard it was because of the payoff. My sweet tooth was satisfied. The buzz seemed helpful at times (though truthfully, the crashes later weren’t worth it). I “needed” to keep going, and the sodas seemed to help me do that – even though they brought on negative effects, like a constant increase in weight.
Quitting was hard because there was so much to lose. Soda tasted good. It gave me sugar highs. It was a good distraction any time I didn’t want to sit still and think about uncomfortable truths. All those payoffs, and I didn’t want to lose them.
Sure, there were benefits to quitting – weight control, overall health, saving money, having more energy … but they would require a hard effort and a physical penalty during the transition, and I wasn’t willing to make that happen. Quitting cold turkey – or even weaning myself off slowly – seemed like a solution that was just too painful to follow through on.
I kept telling myself I wanted to drink better and eat better, and lose weight and feel better, but I was unwilling to admit the real truth: I didn’t really want those things. Or I did, but not more than I wanted to be lazy and addicted. What I really wanted was instant gratification.
Eventually though, the six-packs of soda and the crappy diet I was following caught up with me. A few weeks ago, my body essentially gave me “the finger” and started shutting down on me. I couldn’t think straight. My stomach felt like ashes. I knew that it could be nothing other than the steady stream of Mountain Dew and Ramen Cup-of-Soups that were the cause of it all.
I felt like crap. I couldn’t function. And so I decide that the “payoff” of soda wasn’t worth it. I tossed the cans, and started drinking water and eating actual fresh fruit and vegetables. And unsurprisingly, I felt better immediately.
So as of now I’m what, four weeks caffeine free again. But not because I was strong – it was because I just really made peace with the fact that the “tasty” payoff wasn’t worth it. I admitted I had an addiction to the benefits I was getting and I craved that more than fitness or health; and once I admitted that, I was able to begin talking myself out of it.
Every time I have the urge to tap into that high fructose corn syrup or double-strength Frappuchino, I remind myself that even though I loved the payoff I was getting from those things, they were going to rob me of so much more long term. I don’t tell myself “Soda is bad, I’m going to drink healthy water!” because my built-in bullshit filters will remind me that what I really think is that soda is tasty and the sugar makes me buzz.
I tell myself, “Yeah, that soda tastes good, but when I’m stuck on it I can’t freaking think straight, and I get tired too easily. It tastes good, but it’s just not worth it in the long term.”
Here’s the thing, though – when it comes to behavior, we don’t naturally think of the long-term.
When it comes down to it, unless we’ve built up a healthy level of discipline we’re always going to go to the short term solutions. We’re going to say we want the good-for-us, long-term stuff, but when it really comes down to it, we’re just going to keep doing what’s convenient and easy and in line with our current habits.
We’re going to tell ourselves we “really want” those good things and pretend we don’t really want the payoffs of our bad habits.
And we’re going to keep turning that bullshit filter to “off,” all the while pretending we’re not doing it
How to turn that filter on so you can begin unraveling your bad habit
There’s an expression, “Awareness is curative,” and it’s right on the money. It’s the first step towards getting power and leverage over a situation, and here’s how you can use it to begin killing that bad habit.
First, get honest with yourself about what the benefit of your bad habit is. Quit pretending you’re all noble and wanting to change it and get specific on why you love, love, love what this bad habit is giving you. Is it a physical payoff? Emotional? Financial? Or is it just the relief of avoiding the “fixing” process? Focus on what juicy stuff you’re getting.
Don’t beat yourself up here. Don’t feel guilty for enjoying the relaxation of your smokes or the temporary comfort of leaving those bills unopened. Whatever you’re getting out of that habit, make peace with it. Understand why you want it so much.
Then, start thinking about what this habit is costing you – what payoff you’re truly giving up in order to keep it. Think long term, and add up the total cost to you. Focus on the emotional component, and make it vivid. Will that television habit keep you from writing that novel? Will that beer gut rob you of the energy to play with your kids? Think of what “I’ll regret this” events you’re taking on in order to get the “juicy stuff.”
Focus on how you’ll feel 10 years, 20 years down the road. Internalize the depression that will occur if you don’t change this habit. Visualize kicking yourself again and again, wishing you had just toughened up and done things differently.
Finally, imagine what life would be like if you changed this habit. Picture yourself actually receiving the payoff that comes with the changes, and do so as vividly as possible. See yourself enjoying the new payoffs, thankful that you toughed it out and rewrote your behaviors. Focus on actually enjoying the results of your new, better habits.
Ok, now comes the part where you do the math.
At this point you need to compare things: the honest inventory of “bad habit” payoffs and the vivid imagining of the “good habit” payoffs. Then admit to yourself that if you don’t change, you’re giving up the good future in order to keep your present payoffs.
Then think about the total cost – the regret, the pain, and the remorse you’ll feel in that business-as-usual future. And do the math. Are you happy you held on to your habits, in light of what they cost you?
You’ll likely feel pretty disappointed in your choice. The short term payoffs will feel empty and tasteless compared to what you could be getting. You’ll begin to feel the desire for making this trade begin to fade away – but only if you focus on the math. Only if you make it vivid in your mind.
You see, most people say “yeah, I’ll regret not changing this” and then stop thinking about it. If you want to break a habit, you can’t stop thinking about it. You must always be thinking of the cost of not breaking this habit, so you’ll always be saying “As good as this short-term payoff feels, it’s just not what I really want.”
If you don’t vividly focus on this, you’ll vividly focus on how nice your present payoff makes you feel right now. And you’ll continue to do what you “really” want.
But if you do vividly focus on this on a daily basis, what you “really want” will change.
And so will you.