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.

2 Quick Tricks For Watching Your Weight – Combating Your Sweet-Tooth

The two primary factors involved in gaining weight are lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet. The former takes a lot of physical effort and a modicum of mental effort, the latter takes a larger amount of mental effort but essentially no physical. Physical effort is unavoidable, but mental effort can be extremely variable based on the individual and the techniques used. T

An unhealthy die usually stems from either A. unhealthy meals and / or B. too much supplemental junk food. Adjusting your meals really doesn’t take too much willpower, just an initial expenditure of effort in figuring out how to adjust your meal content. Limiting junk-food intake, however, can be very difficult, especially for those like myself who are cursed with a strong sweet-tooth.

Here are two simple techniques that will greatly reduce the level of willpower needed to control your junkfood intake: (and, as we now know, willpower is not an infinite resource)

Technique #1: The Miser Method

I don’t know about you, but one thing that I definitely value more than my junk-food is my money. Even if you are really craving a chocolate bar, if you see that the cheapest one they have at the restaurant you are in is $10, odds are you will be able to resist buying it fairly easily. Even if you just shelled out $60 for a fancy steak.

Why is this? Because you know that you could go right across the street and buy the same bar from CVS for only $0.99. Even if you know that you probably won’t end up actually buying it from across the street, the fact that you could lets you resist the urge to buy now.

The Technique

Get out a piece of paper (or open a text document) and write down a list of all the unhealthy food that you enjoy eating. Now, figure out the cheapest place in your neighborhood that this food can be purchased. Usually this will be a big supermarket or wholesale store. Now write down on the paper the cheapest unit price of each item on the list. Familiarize yourself with all of these numbers (you can carry it with you too, but that’s not so important as long as you have a general sense of all the prices).

From this point on, use this list as your baseline. If you’re at school and feel an urge for something sweet from the vending machine, look at the prices. It will be a lot easier to stop yourself from buying that small Snickers bar for $0.75 when you know that you could easily get 3 or 4 for the same price.

One of the situations where this technique has helped me the most over the past three years is with buying ice cream. On my campus there is a Coldstone Creamery less than a five minute walk from my apartment. And I love ice cream. Yet I have only ever been to Coldstone once in the entire time I’ve been here. Why? Because I know that for the same price as a milkshake at Coldstone I could go next door to CVS, buy a whole tub of ice cream, and get many, larger milkshakes for the same cost.

The next problem is preventing yourself from buying too much when you’re at the cheaper place, but if you give yourself a monetary cap for those excursions it shouldn’t be too bad. (I’ll probably talk more about that technique in a later article.)

Technique #2: Stretching Sweets

If I offered you $50 to down a milkshake in 30 seconds, would you do it?

I’d be willing to bet that most of you just thought “yes.” But do you think that you would get the same enjoyment out of that milkshake drinking it like that vs taking your time to down it? Probably not.

Food stimulates your taste buds and can induce pleasure. Yet the enjoyment you can get from a small amount of food in your mouth is fairly similar to what you would experience from a large amount of the same substance. Two M&M’s may be a little bit more satisfying than a single one, but definitely not doubly so.

Next time you’re about to eat some junk-food, stop for a second. Take only half of what you were going to, but make a conscious effort to eat it at half the speed. This may take some getting used to, but once you do you will find that that small Crunch bar really did satisfy you just as much as the king sized one would have (as long as you’re not using candy as a meal replacement, which I hope not…).

I have friends who constantly remark on how I can stay so thin while at the same time seeming to eat so much candy. The answer is really very simple: I can spend two minutes eating a single peanut M&M.

What methods do you use to control your sweet-tooth?