How To Break a Habit For Good

Habits, They are the things that bind us to our identity. They are the things that often give us signals about who we are. They are the things that will often create or destroy a destiny.

One of the most powerful quotes about habits comes originally from an old Chinese proverb, stating:

  • Sow a thought and reap an act;
  • Sow an act and reap a habit;
  • Sow a habit and reap a character;
  • Sow a character and reap a destiny;

So how do you indeed sow a habit? Is it possible to redefine who you are not simply by the thoughts you think, but by the actions you take consistently?

Indeed it is, and it starts with a few basic steps.

We are going to focus on the middle two aspects of the aforementioned quote; sowing an act and reaping a habit, and sowing a habit and reaping a character.

If you have ever tried to study pop or new age psychology, you know there is a lot of talk about changing your thoughts and subsequently your feelings. But if you’ve ever tried to do this in order to break a habit, you know that sometimes it can be as futile as trying to think your way out of a cardboard box.

After all, if you are hopelessly in love with someone, you cannot simply change the way you feel, or if you crave a cigarette every 2 hours, you cannot simply abolish the feeling that comes with that.

But there are things that you can control in this scenario, if we use the cigarette craving as an example. You may not be able to control your thoughts, and you may not be able to control your feelings, but you can certainly control your actions.

Do you have any doubt that you control the act of going out, buying cigarettes, and then lighting one up? Of course not. You simply have a trigger; the feelings, thoughts and emotions, and then you act out a habitual response to these triggers, the lighting up of a cigarette.

This habit cycle in humans is no different from the habit cycle first identified by Ivan Pavlov with his famous salivating dogs experiment in the early 20th century.

This cycle, as identified by Pavlov, had 3 components:

  • The Cue
  • The Response
  • The Reward

In Pavlov’s case the cue was the bell, the response was the dog expecting a reward and his lips salivating, and the award was the food.

The dogs of course eventually started salivating whenever they heard the bell, after a number of repetitions.

This can be translated into the habit procedure of humans in a number of different ways.

It can be as simple as the nicotine chemicals in the body producing a certain feeling, the human lighting up a cigarette, and the reward being the momentary sense of calm and satisfaction.

This can also be translated into more complex human habits, such as a thought entering the humans head like “I am always depressed”, the response being to do things correlated with the idea of depression, such as moping, sleeping excessively, or using disparaging speech; and the “reward” being a confirmation of one’s own character (a “reward”, or result, doesn’t have to be positive, it just has to correlate with the expected response).

In Charles Duhiggs 21st century update to Pavlov’s work, he not only confirmed the habit cycle in a number of examples over the 100+ years since Pavlov’s experiments, but also confirmed the most established way to change the habit cycle; changing the middle step.

Duhigg argues that you cannot change the internal cues and rewards that are embedded into each of us from the habit cycle, you can only can only change the response, the action. In other words, you cannot remove a bad habit, you can only replace it with a good one.

You use the extremely powerful force of the habit cycle against itself, but this time for good and by your own conscious choosing.

Do this exercise now.

What is the worst thing that you do on a regular basis that you wish you didn’t? Take your worst habit that you can think of.

Or alternatively,

What is one character trait that you continually express that you wish was different?

Now think of your habit or trait in the three part cycle we mentioned above. What is the cue? What is your response? What is the benefit?

Many times when you think of the benefit, there will be none. This is ok. Like we said, the “reward” or result of the things we do is not always conscious, and not always to our liking.

Next, think of an alternative action that would have a number of benefits that you would clearly prefer.

For me, I have a bad habit of sleeping in and not feeling energized in the morning as soon as I wake up. I know it’s possible to do so and feel this way, but I feel controlled by my feelings in the morning and haven’t established a habit to break my morning drowsiness.

So, for me my cue is probably as simple as a single thought in the morning as soon as I wake up, similar to “Ughh, I don’t want to do this”. The result and benefit are absolutely nothing.

My response is a tired old routine of depressed and tired thoughts, slow motions and an aching body.

My goal would be to completely change my habit response as soon as there is a cue. It really doesn’t matter what the new response is, as long as it is different from your old response, and you can name a benefit.

So for example, my new response could be putting on my shoes as soon as I am conscious in the morning, and then going to run outside before my old habitual thought patterns kick in. I clearly stipulate that there is no other course of action to take, or that I would rather take, and then follow through.

My mind won’t like it at first, and neither will my body. But do I have a choice? Yes. Do I have the power to break my old habit for good? Absolutely.

So my old pattern looked like this:

Cue: Depressed and tired thoughts as I wake up

Response: Moping as I get out of bed, or curling back up to go to sleep

Reward: Nothing

My new habit looked like this:

Cue: Depressed and tired thoughts as I wake up

Response: Put on shoes and walk outside

Reward: Numerous good feelings and time benefits

There is a period of numbness and discomfort you will have to endure while taking action on a new habit. Your mind and body will look for old thoughts and feelings for some time before new ones are created.

Eventually though the action response itself begins to change the initial cue.

Just like Pavlov’s dog, as soon as I wake up, I will eventually start to feel the benefits and reward of taking a run outside every morning even before I put on my shoes. I begin to crave that feeling, so now putting on my shoes becomes a habit I do not want to live without. I have forged, in the words of Tony Robbins, “a new neural pathway”.

But it is always the very first step, the very first action, that is the wedge towards breaking a habit for good. The more faithfully you can run into a new habit with gusto and determination, the quicker you forge a new character that will ultimately be part of your longer term destiny.

It is up to you to decide what level you want to play this game at, and in reality, there is no ceiling.

It all however starts with a single choice; forge a new habit, or keep an old one.

The old Chinese proverb once again rings somewhere in the distance:

Sow a thought and reap an act;

Sow an act and reap a habit;

Sow a habit and reap a character;

Sow a character and reap a destiny