How to Break a Bad Habit: Start a Better One in its Place

Hands Cracking Knuckles

“Don’t crack your knuckles! You’ll end up with arthritis!”

I’ve long since lost count of how many times I heard some version of this phrase while growing up. I don’t even know if it’s a true statement. For every study or article that I’ve read pointing in one direction, another seems to show up contradicting it. But never have I seen a single study saying that claims cracking your knuckles is beneficial. So I decided to try and kick the habit.

The Problem

Eliminating bad habits is difficult.

As a general rule, it is easier to remember to do something than to stop doing something. This is because the way your brain works is through triggers.

  • You hear an alarm and remember to take out the trash.
  • You open up the door and instantly check for your keys.
  • A scent of hot dogs on the breeze reminds you that you were supposed to be eating at the in-laws for dinner.

In each of these cases, something happens that triggers a response in your brain, reminding you to do something.

Bad habits work in a completely opposite fashion. They are things that you do without thought. This means that while you usually only remember not to do something at the trigger, here the trigger is you having already done it. This is why they can be so difficult to eliminate.

The Solution: Positive Overlap

In her blog over at Snack Girl, Lisa Cain talks about the NoFizz challenge. This is a general challenge for people to start drinking water instead of soda. She quotes Bobby DeMuro, the executive director of NoFizz Charlotte, saying how when they started by just telling people what to avoid soda, it didn’t work so well. But, as soon as they started telling people to drink 60 oz of water instead, response skyrocketed.

This is an excellent example of a broad technique for eliminating bad habits. Rather than just deciding to stop doing something, find a positive action that you can do in its place. In the NoFizz challenge, that positive action is to drink water. For this positive action, it is easy to remind yourself to do it with simple triggers such  as leaving three water bottles spread around your house in obvious locations. Then, once you are drinking the water, that in itself reminds you of your goal to not drink soda while at the same time quenching your thirst and thus actually reducing your desire to drink it.

For some habits, finding an action with a suitable positive overlap can be more difficult.

When I was trying to stop cracking my knuckles, I first stopped to think: “why do I crack them in the first place?” I decided that it was because I tend to get restless and need to always be doing something with my hands. Working off of this, I decided to start carrying around a little stress ball, and any time I started to fidget i would just pull it out and start squeezing.

Yes, there were still times where I would catch myself cracking my knuckles. Once I trained myself to really start using the ball, however, not only did it remind me about my knuckles whenever I was using it, but it’s amazing how much harder it is to crack your knuckles with a ball in your hand.

And so I was able to kick the habit. And build up my forearm in the process.

To recap:
  1. Think about what caused the bait in the first place.
  2. Come up with some action that will both make performing the bad habit difficult and constantly remind you not to do it.
  3. Use triggers to train yourself to do whatever action you decided upon.