Most of my writing on habit change has focused on creating habits. This post covers how to “stop” a habit. This is not easy. In fact, BJ Fogg, (a leading expert on habit change), offers “stopping existing habits is the hardest behavioral change task to undertake.” Habits are hard to change because, by their nature, they are unconscious. However, there are some strategies.
This post is based on Stephen Wendel’s Designing For Behavior Change. I’ll share the 5 common tactics used to change an existing habit. I’ll give an example of each tactic by applying it to my addiction of checking social media. There is a summary and reading list at bottom.
The main lesson to extract from this post; motivation is fleeting, and willpower weakens. To stop a habit; leverage the science to make the right choice the easier choice.
#1) Avoid Cue
The structure of a habit is cue triggers routine that causes reward. We are addicted to the reward. The cue is the trigger that sparks the unconscious dance. The simplest way to stop a bad habit is to redesign your environment to avoid the cue that triggers the negative behavior.
Social Media Example: I try to limit my social media checking to a 30 minute window around 4 pm, and another 30 minute window around 7 pm. My morning is chunked into a 4 hour block I call “deep work.” When I engage in deep work, I leave my phone on silent in another room, and the computer I work on is not linked to any of my social media accounts. I’d have to manually enter my username and passwords to log in. And since I’m lazy, I won’t do this.
My phone is my cue. (Or at least I thought it was.)
#2) Replace Routine
A popular “golden rule” of habit change is to replace the routine of an existing habit, because the cue and the reward of the habit loop are almost impossible to neurologically “delete”. This is the basis for Competing Response Therapy, which has demonstrated significant effect in scientific controlled experiments.
This tactic takes a little, (ok, a lot), more effort to perform.
FIrst, you have to accurately identify your cue (I thought my cue was my phone but I was wrong). Next, you’ll need to accurately identify the reward. The routine you are switching in will need to generate the same reward. This may require experimentation.
Social Media Example: After some failures, I found that my cue was actually getting to the point on a project where I didn’t know what next to do.
When I don’t know exactly how to proceed, like a fucking zombie, I find myself on reddit or youtube (even though my phone has been removed from my environment.)
The reward I’m seeking is a subtle release from my anxiety. It’s so fucking subtle, but when I hit a point in my workflow where I don’t know exactly what the next actionable step is, I assuage that feeling by seeking social media notifications.
Once I accurately identified my cue, I was able to pick a simple and effective competing response.
I write longhand on a notepad, “What is the next actionable step?” If I don’t know, I ask “How can I find out?”
It’s comical how simply this works, yet how often I don’t fucking do it lol.
#3) Cleverly Use Consciousness to Interfere
Habits are unconscious. If we can get ourselves to think about the habit during the habit, we disrupt the habit.
If you play a sport you’ll want to learn this.
Say you’re playing basketball; ask the person you’re guarding if they breath in or out when they shoot, or ask them if they use their middle finger or pointer finger to guide the ball.
By asking them to think about a part of their movement that is unconscious, the conscious mind disrupts the habitual movement. I’ve used this for years and it works 85% of the time. (Some people are ice-cold lizard hybrids and laugh in your face as they stare into your soul while hitting the game winning shot and then drive off with your lady.)
Social Media Example: I downloaded the chrome extension Momentum. I fill in what my main task is. It provides just enough buffer between my zombie-brain addiction and the dopamine hit. (I’ll admit that practically, this one has helped me the least.)
#4) Use Mindfulness to Avoid Acting on the Cue
This is one of my favorite tactics.
When you feel the cue create the urge to engage in the behavior you want to change, wait a minute.
Close your eyes and feel what it feels like to have that urge. Where is the urge in your body? Is it hot or cold? Is it a growing sensation? Is it sharp or round? Sit with it as long as you can.
Kelly McGonigal calls this tactic “Surfing The Urge.” I wrote an in-depth post about this.
Social Media Example: If I still feel the urge to check social media during deep work hours, I’ll surf the urge.
I find that the urge is right above my stomach, and I feel dry almost, or empty. (It is normally mid afternoon when I start feeling the temptation and I’m likely hungry and low on glucose.)
If I still want to check social media after a minute or so of surfing the urge, I set a timer for 2 minutes and I get my addiction on.
#5) Crowd Out Old Habit By Seeking New Habit
This is my favorite because it is the most effective. Instead of focusing on changing a habit, focus on acquiring a new habit that will, by default, make the old habit undoable.
It is a function of our minds that they will focus where we point them. When you actively try to not do something, you don’t realize it, but you are focusing your mind on the thing you don’t want to do.
We leverage this instinct by putting a new habit that will “crowd out,” the habit we want to get rid of.
Social Media Example: I was thinking about this last night, but the habit I am seeking that is, almost by default, replacing the social media addiction is my cultivation of deep work.
When I engage in deep work I can easily go hours without thinking about social media. For more on deep work, check this out.
To stop a habit, you can avoid the cue, replace the behavior, add consciousness, or practice mindfulness. However, the most effective way to stop a habit is to cultivate a new habit that will by default inhibit the habit you want to stop.