The Science Behind How I Quit my Two Toughest Habits, Cold-Turkey

Habits never really disappear. They’re encoded into the structures of our brain, and that’s a huge advantage for us, because it would be awful if we had to relearn how to drive after every vacation. The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards. (Charles Duhigg,The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business)

Quitting a bad habit tends to be one of those things that are always put off for tomorrow. Yet, what are we but a massive collection of habits? Habits are the way we respond to a situation without thinking, so in some sense they are the best gauge of who we really are. More practically, bad habits can be limiting, even as good habits can encourage success.

After reading Charles Duhigg’s book, I set out to eliminate two of my worst habits, cold-turkey. These are things which I have not stopped doing my entire adult life, yet in the last 6 weeks I have not done either of them even once.

Identifying the Habits

biting

nail biting

There are plenty of habits that could be targeted; for the purpose of my experiment in getting rid of habits, I decided to pick two. You could equally use the techniques below for other habits, of course.

The first habit I chose was nail-biting: it has been a habit of mine whenever I am stressed or nervous. In the book, Duhigg cites a specific patient with a nail biting problem (albeit far worse than my own). The main reason I wanted to quit this habit was that it is very public: I’d do it at my desk, and the results of my shortened and jagged nails were available for all to see. I had wanted to quit this habit forever but never seemed to succeed. When my torn nails were embarrassingly called out during a date, I finally decided that something had to be done.

The second habit I decided to target was drinking coffee, not because I think it is a bad habit per se, but because it would be especially challenging. I used to take 1-week breaks from caffeine every 3-6 months, but recently (when working on my startup) I had crept up over 18 months into the 2 pots of coffee per day range.

Replacing the Habits

 

This is how willpower becomes a habit: by choosing a certain behavior ahead of time, and then following that routine when an inflection point arrives. (Charles Duhigg)

 

Take a look at the quotation I started this blog post again: at first it sounds ominous (we can’t actually get rid of a habit) but the news is actually positive (we can replace the behavior, instead). Habits are formed via a habit-loop, where a cue triggers a routine, which results in a reward (CHIRr.gov describes it similarly). We’ve essentially been conditioned to respond to the cue in a specific way, and the reward reinforces that conditioning each time we execute the habit. Sometimes this is a good thing: a health advocate is rewarded by the endorphins after an exercise, creating a benevolent loop, and these “good habits” are even more successful when they’re accompanied by a specific cue. The problem comes when the routine triggered by the cue is a bad one (like biting nails).

Slide11

 

My first job, then, was to identify what my cues were. For nail-biting, the answer was stress and/or nervousness. I had known for some time that I bit my nails much more frequently while working than any time else, followed by times when I was pensive or under pressure. For drinking coffee, at first glance it seemed like the culprit was tiredness/fatigue, but upon further introspection I realized that this was not the case. The real cue for coffee was simply waking up: it was part of my morning routine, and even if I awoke refreshed and alert I still automatically made a pot of coffee.

The next step, then, was to find a new routine to insert in the place of these cues. For coffee, I took another hint from the book and instead chose to brush my teeth first thing in the morning. Not only did this help my oral hygiene and the whiteness of my teeth, but the “zesty” feel actually serves as an effective reward. For nail biting, I decided to simply smile whenever I found my fingers near my mouth (which obviously required a bit more self monitoring, but the good news is that recent MIT research shows that some small level of conscious control is involved even with deeply ingrained habits). So in both cases, I decided to replace a bad habit with a good one.

The last step in my self-treatment is a bit more subtle: I identified with the person I wanted to become. The ideal version of myself is someone with a pearly-white smile and healthy fingernails. It is subtle, but surprisingly important. Duhigg takes this a step further and calls this part “identifying with a higher power.” Though I personally have my qualms his examples (like the 12 step program), he makes a strong case that there must be something which transcends the simple desire to succeed. For me, the idea was to visualize this person who I could become, and what life would be like if I became that person. It may have not been quite so transcendent as identifying with a higher power, but for the purposes of simple habits (as opposed to addictions) it worked  fine for me.

More Resources

I can’t express enough how surprised and happy I am that these techniques worked so completely and instantly. I’m actually excited to think about other habits which I might want to replace (or create). Charles has plenty of other free resources available on his site, including the following video:

Do you have a habit you’ve recently kicked, or want to kick? What’s been the toughest habit you’ve ever faced? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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2 Comments

  1. Leon -  July 29, 2013 - 10:46 am

    The one habit I’ve identified that is really causing me problems is procrastination. But I haven’t gotten round to doing anything about it yet…

    🙂

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