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May 3

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How to Break Bad Habits by Creating Good Habits

By Nate McCallister

Last Updated May 3, 2019


"Winning is habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."

-Vince Lombardi-

Habits, good and bad, dictate how much success we will have in life and business .

More good habits + Fewer bad habits = More Success

I won't insult your intelligence by explaining why good habits are good and bad habits are bad (DUH!) It's painfully simple.

Or, is it?

If it's so simple, why is it then that we know what to do yet still, most of us aren't world class in our field or living lives that fulfill us? 

Why is it that we STILL have so many bad habits and so few good ones?

Why do so many people (who understand that good habits are good and bad habits are bad) find themselves regularly bingeing on Taco Bell at 2 AM, smoking cigarettes right after watching commercials explaining how they are going to make them lose limbs, watching entire seasons of Fuller House on Netflix in one sitting (shame!), and just generally doing things they know aren't helping them reach their goals?

Well, there are a lot of factors at play when it comes to willpower and habit formation.

In this article I will be talking about just one aspect of habit formation and willpower: creating good habits instead of breaking bad habits.

The topic of willpower and habit formation fascinates me tremendously. I recommend that if it fascinates you too, that you should read the 4 books I share at the end of this blog post for more on the science behind willpower and habit creation.

I want to explain...

  • Why creating a new habit is often just as good or better than breaking an old one
  • Why creating a positive habit can make breaking another habit easier
  • Why trying to break a habit can often times make us (ironically) crave the bad habit even more and worsen it

Let's get started. 

Let's talk about "white bears" for a minute and I'll explain what the hell they have to do with breaking bad habits. 

"Don't think about a white bear"

Starting in 1985, psychology professor Daniel Wegner began a series of unique thought experiments. 

In one experiment, Wegner asked participants to NOT do one, simple thing. Something that none of them were likely to do had he not mentioned it. 

"For the next five minutes, please try not to think about white bears.”

Participants were instructed to press a button every time they lapsed and fell into their new found craving to think about white bears. 

Don't think about white bears

None of the participants were able to keep the thought of white bears out of their minds. Trying to suppress this thought made it nearly impossible to control. 

Wegner coined what participants were experiencing as the "ironic rebound effect."

The ironic rebound effect states simply that when we try to repress thoughts or emotions, it has an ironic, opposite effect and we think about these things more than if we didn't try to ignore them actively...

While this seemingly self-destructive tendency of our brains is a little upsetting, understanding how the ironic rebound effect works can help us find new, better ways to make and break habits.

creating new habits to break old ones

Breaking bad habits often requires an indirect approach. 

Here's an example...

John wants to lose weight. He knows he could easily accomplish this by cutting sugar from his diet (he has done it many times) BUT he always finds himself succumbing to the cravings eventually (sometimes after just a day, sometimes after a month or two) and he ends up gaining all the weight he lost back plus interest. 

John's goal is to lose weight and his attempts to do it by removing things (killing a bad sugar habit) lead him to crave sugar more eventually. 

Sugar is John's white bear. 

He could accomplish his weight loss goals by creating more positive habits that could in turn ALSO help him reduce his cravings for sugar without actively trying to do so. 

Here are three positive habits that John could implement that would help him in a number of ways AND curb his sugar cravings indirectly. He wouldn't have to actively push the thoughts of sugar from his mind and would therefore be able to avoid the indirect rebound effect... 

POSITIVE HABIT #1:

John decides to make a habit of meditating for 10 minutes each morning. Meditation is proven to increase willpower throughout the day in other areas of life. 

POSITIVE HABIT #2: 

John decides to create the habit of eating at least one serving of vegetables BEFORE he eats any other part of his meals. Studies suggest that consuming more vegetables can reduce sugar cravings. This will also leave John more full after each meal and his natural cravings for sugar should decrease. 

POSITIVE HABIT #3: 

John decides to create the habit of exercising 4 days a week. Studies suggest that regular exercise increases willpower and decision making. 

Final Thoughts

Now, we can't always beat bad habits by adopting good ones. Sometimes we do need to call on deeper, inner strength to kick difficult habits like smoking, binge eating and other addictions. 

I do believe strongly (and science agrees) that often times, the best way to kill a bad habit is to create a good one. I recommend you consider shifting your mindset a bit and start focusing on subtraction by addition instead of subtraction by forced distraction (which leads to the indirect rebound effect).

What is your white bear?

Share it in the comments!

References

Wegner, D. M. (1994). White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession, and the Psychology of Mental Control. The Guilford Press: NY, New York.

Wegner, D., Schneider, D., Carter, S., & White, T. (1987). Paradoxical effects of thought suppression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53 (1), 5-13 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.5

Recommended Additional Reading

About the author

Nate is the founder and main contributor of EntreResource.com. He is a lifestyle entrepreneur who spends his time building businesses and raising his four kids Sawyer, Brooks, Van and Lua with his beautiful wife Emily. His main interests include copywriting, economics and piano.

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  1. This is a definite mindset shift we all need to make! If I want to give up soda and drink more water, saying “No more soda!” feels like you are taking something away from me, and I want to rebel, but if I just ignore the soda and focus on drinking more water, I just naturally drink less soda. It seems easier to stay on track that way, too. Let’s say I drink 6 sodas a day and zero water, but on day one I drink one glass of water and five sodas. I felt like I made progress on drinking water so I’m more likely to continue, but if I said no soda, then as soon as I have one I feel like I’ve lost, and I’ll be more likely to give up.

    1. Absolutely! The mind definitely works in both “push and pull” ways. Sometimes energy is best spent creating positive changes rather than focusing all of our energy actively obsessing over bad habits. It ironically, has a reverse effect for so many of us!

      Thanks for reading/commenting 🙂

      -Nate

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