This Is How To Quit Bad Habits Without Willpower: 4 Secrets From Neuroscience
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Why do we do the things we do? Aristotle said everything we do was in service of happiness. We weigh the options and pick the thing that is likely to make us happiest…
Boy, was Aristotle wrong.
Your brain just does not work like that. How many times a day do we really make deliberate, rational choices? People fall into college majors, into jobs, into relationships. It’s quite rare that we deliberately weigh costs and benefits and make explicit choices about anything. We’re usually on autopilot. Best example? Bad habits.
But what triggers these bad habits to keep happening? Usually, it’s anxiety. Some are already responding, “But I’m not anxious!” (That was probably said anxiously.) If you don’t like the word anxiety, fine, call it something else. But we all know The Itch. That unease that prevents you from just sitting still and placidly enjoying life like a Zen Master. Nope, sit still for too long and it’s a three-second countdown to feeling bored, or FOMO, or “I should be productive.” Call it what you want. It’s always something different which means it’s always the same.
The reason we don’t recognize The Itch more often is because about 0.3 seconds after feeling it we’re already self-medicating with bad habits. Check your phone. Eat some chips. Procrastinate. Good lord, do something to assassinate that feeling so we can get back to autopilot. And once things have been abnormal long enough you don’t know what normal is anymore. A hum of agitation followed by bad habits doesn’t feel like compulsion — it just feels like who you are.
Bad habits are a barnacle on the side of life, casting us into a recursive Hades of our own making. We waste time we could be using for fun or meaningful stuff and often make our lives worse in the process. We’d like to quit bad habits but we all know how difficult that can be. Hiding a body is easier. But why don’t any of our solutions work?
Because most of them are shallow fixes that ignore the neuroscience of how our brains actually function. Call it the ouroboros of our bad habits or the samsara of self-discipline, but the cycle of not learning lessons when it comes to bad habits needs to be broken. So how do we do it?
Mindfulness. When it comes to bad habits, mindfulness is a penicillin-level magic bullet.
From Unwinding Anxiety:
…we found that mindfulness training was five times better than the current leading treatment in helping people quit smoking. And smoking is the hardest chemical addiction to quit—yes, harder than cocaine, alcohol, or heroin.
And it works for all habits. So whether you’re engaged in a semi-abusive relationship with your smartphone, Doritos, or your Xbox, mindfulness can help.
Who is gonna be our guide? Not me. I am a one-man bad habit nightmare colossus. (I never make the same mistake twice. Three or four hundred times, yes, but never twice.) Instead, we’re gonna go to the expert of experts…
Let’s get to it…
The Neuroscience of Bad Habits
Here’s how it goes. Life is fine. But then The Itch pops up. So your brain asks itself, “What makes me feel better?”
Problem is, it’s not the rational thinky part of your brain – the prefrontal cortex (PFC) — that answers the loudest. The PFC would say, “Fresh vegetables, getting enough sleep and properly managing your 401K.” But the part of the brain most eagerly raising its hand in class, shouting to the teacher “PICK ME!” is the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).
The OFC is like a big database of what you’ve done and how good it felt. When you did stuff in the past, the OFC chunked the feelings that resulted and assigned it a pleasure “credit score.” So the OFC shouts over the PFC saying, “WE FEEL BETTER WHEN WE AVOID WORK, CHECK SOCIAL MEDIA AND EAT FRENCH FRIES!” This all happens in the blink of an eye and you’re rarely cognizant of it.
And now that neurotransmitter dopamine is on the case. People have a lot of wrong ideas about dopamine. It’s not about pleasure; it’s about prediction and anticipation. Serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are more associated with “here and now” good feelings. Dopamine’s about craving something in the future.
Now your PFC is not silent through all of this. It squeaks, “Excuse me, kind sir, but weren’t we assiduously endeavoring to do less of those behaviors you just mentioned…?” But the PFC can’t shout as loud as the OFC.
Plus, you’re a little stressed by The Itch. Under stress, your PFC doesn’t perform very well. This is why using willpower is so problematic in fighting bad habits. You’re relying on the thing anxiety takes away to fight anxiety. Not a good plan.
But now dopamine is pushing the OFC’s case. Dopamine is associated with “wanting” but not necessarily “liking.” This is why the PFC of an alcoholic can know another drink is a terrible idea yet still grab a glass. Wanting and liking are two separate circuits in your brain – and the wanting circuit is much more powerful.
So dopamine is screaming, “ME. WANT. NOW.” And, buddy, you’re going to need a snorkel for how deep you are. At this point you’re probably already scrolling Instagram and eating French fries. You’re back on autopilot. If you like zombie apocalypse films, you’re in luck. Bad news is: you’re the zombie.
Most habit breaking methods suggest substituting a good habit for the bad habit. That can work but it’s far from a perfect solution because the OFC’s database has not been updated. It still has a big green checkmark next to procrastination. So when you’re stressed, you’re going to revert to your old ways, as we all have, innumerable times. What’s the solution?
Consider this: how often would people go to work if their job stopped paying them? Exactly. In the end, it’s all about the reward. Lifehacks often focus on what triggers your behavior but the trigger is the weakest part of the loop. Alter the reward and you stop doing the thing.
But telling yourself, “I don’t enjoy what I enjoy” never seems to work. Why? Because that’s your PFC thinking it can just override the OFC’s database. Not gonna happen – at least not consistently. So how can your weakling PFC get the OFC 500lb gorilla to update its records?
You need to rub the OFC’s nose in its own poop. Gross, but that’s not me talking, that’s renowned MD and PhD addiction expert, Jud Brewer:
…if you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little orbitofrontal cortex nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is. That’s how your brain learns. Behavior doesn’t change if the reward value of that behavior stays the same.
We’re not going to go full “Clockwork Orange” here, but you get the point. PFC thinking doesn’t cut it. To change the OFC’s pleasure database, we must update how the reward of any behavior actually feels.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
So the answer is mindfulness? Yes – but not yet. Right now we gotta figure out what’s really going on in your OFC. With apologies to Christopher Nolan, first we must plan our mind heist…
Map The Behavior
Life causes problems and your brain has evolved to solve problems. There’s a Trigger (hungry), then your brain responds with a Behavior (eat food) and a Reward (feel better.) Good work, Mother Nature.
But bad habits leverage the same system. Trigger (anxiety), Behavior (Instagram and French fries), Reward (Numbing bliss.) Problem is, you’re on autopilot most of the time and never even notice this process until your life starts to fall apart.
Figuring out what your Trigger is can be helpful. What leads to the Behavior? But what’s even more helpful is looking at the Reward. Ask yourself, “What do I get from this?”
I know, I know, asking “Why do I like French fries?” seems really obvious. They taste good. But you need to go deeper. If you’ve ever wondered why the things you say you wanna do and the things you actually do don’t line up, this is where the answer lies: “What do I get from this?”
It’s not a rhetorical or judgmental question. Saying that eating a gallon of ice cream makes you feel “safe” makes intuitive sense. But now that we know what the OFC database says we can leverage that to update its records.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
Okay, all this planning stuff is great but it won’t be long before you’re reaching for your phone or the chips again. So how do we stop that from happening? Easy: don’t.
Give in. (Yes, you have been waiting all your life for this permission.) But there’s one caveat. (C’mon, you knew there was gonna be a catch.)
When you give in, you have to do one very important thing…
Here’s the plan: by shining the light of attention on the rewards of the habit, we’re going to help the OFC update those pleasure credit scores. (I do realize anything requiring focus these days qualifies as an Olympic event. Try your best.)
Give in to the bad habit, but pay attention. Notice how you feel. “Thanks. Procrastinating and eating ice cream feel awesome.” Okay. But include all the feelings. If you never had bad feelings about this behavior, you wouldn’t call it a bad habit. That stinging worry that you feel you should be productive? No, that’s not exempt. How about that guilt? Not exempt either. Extend the feeling timeline beyond the immediate.
“Are you saying that the emotional reward of drinking an entire case of beer must include the subsequent hangover and soul-crushing shame?”
Yes, that is what I am saying.
Ask yourself again: “What do I get from this?” Big picture. Net result. Is it really that great when all the feelings are included? Probably not so much.
You’ve done this countless times in the past – just unconsciously. Ever “wake up” in the middle of being zoned out in front of the TV and say, “This show isn’t really that good” and then stop watching it forevermore? Or thought, “This relationship isn’t doing it for me” and break up with someone? You shined the spotlight of attention on something, realized it wasn’t all your OFC said it was, updated its records, and then you abandoned that habit.
You’ve become disenchanted with innumerable things, but you had to get off autopilot in order to wake up, file a brief with the OFC appeals court and realize, “This isn’t doing it for me anymore.”
So take a second while you’re in mid-binge. Let the “this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” feelings sink in.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
It’s going to take time for this to fully kick in, but in the meantime your OFC will still be pushing for what worked in the past. When the next crave wave hits, what do you do?
“Hmmm” Is Your New Mantra
Be on the lookout for the next time that Trigger hits. And it will. Boom. The Itch. Brain starts asking what makes you feel better. OFC checks its records and comes up with the answer that makes your PFC facepalm. Dopamine fires…
CRAVE WAVE INCOMING. BATTLE STATIONS! BATTLE STATIONS!
Before you get pulled into the bad habit tractor beam, take a deep breath. And now what you need to do is…
Literally. Don’t do anything. The usual advice is “Don’t just sit there! Do something!” Well, Willy Wonka style: strike that, reverse it. “Don’t just do something! Sit there!” Pretend you lost a staring contest with Medusa. Freeze.
Okay, now you’re going to take action but that action is not scarfing down donuts while hitting the “Like” button on puppy pictures. The action is to observe your feelings.
Mindfulness is not getting rid of thoughts; it’s changing your relationship to thoughts. Your thoughts and feelings are not “you.” Did you decide to have them? No. They just popped up.
“But I’m anxious!”
You’re not anxious — there are anxious feelings present. They are not you. They are smartphone notifications in your brain. Ever “wake up” in the middle of anger and realize “What the heck is wrong with me?” Then you realize you didn’t get enough sleep last night – and then the anger went away? “You” were not angry, there were angry feelings.
Don’t “resist” the habit. Just observe the feeling. It’s not you. See it. Don’t be it.
Now we’re gonna use your new mantra. This is not some new age, magical nonsense. It’s just something to focus you. Your mantra is “Hmmmm.” Yes, the curiosity sound. Because curiosity is exactly what you want here.
The feeling is not you so you can get curious about it and study it like a monkey at the zoo: “Wow, look at that little guy go!” It can be a fun process.
But right now it can feel pretty hard. Dopamine is making your desire seem sentient: ME. WANT. FRENCH. FRIES. The urge is wriggling like the black cat with the painted white stripe trying to escape from Pepe Le Pew.
Don’t give in. But don’t resist either. Observe. Say “Hmmm” and get curious. A playful attitude helps. Don’t whine “Why won’t it stop?” but ask “Wow, that little guy is really agitated. I wonder where he gets all the energy…?”
Curiosity is a perfect fit here because as opposed to giving in or resisting, it allows you to step out of the habit loop. Sound fluffy? Like it won’t work? Wrong. Curiosity is a scientifically legit substitute, leveraging the same reward pathways that bad habits do.
From Unwinding Anxiety:
Together, these studies suggest that the expression thirst for knowledge really is more than metaphorical. The acquisition of information follows the same basic behavioral pathways as reward-based learning and even has a literal reward value in the brain.
Willpower is painful and doesn’t work very well. Curiosity is rewarding in itself. It’s the express train back to that feeling that makes childhood so wonderful. Be a playful kid with your brain. You can have a better relationship with it and you don’t even have to drag it to marriage therapy.
It’s fun to watch your brain try to Svengali you into your bad habits. Being able to step back and say, “Oh yeah, this is the part where it tells me there might be an important message waiting for me on social media. Uh huh. Nice try.”
The urge will fade. But, initially, it will most certainly not feel like that. Remember, these are the same reward pathways that kept our species alive, the same ones that smartly tell you to avoid rabid bears. It has evolved to be very convincing in the moment.
But the urge will fade. It always does. Remember when you felt you absolutely had to buy that shiny new thing now but then you got distracted and when you came back to it… meh. Ironically, here is where you can be thankful for short attention spans. The urge will fade – even if it’s due to new urges.
(To learn the 4 harsh truths that will make you a better person, click here.)
Okay, software patch installed. Time to round all this up – and learn the final secret to killing those bad habits for good…
This is how to quit bad habits without willpower:
- Know how your brain works: Often, your PFC is the angel on your shoulder and your OFC is that little devil. But if you use attention to rub the OFC’s nose in its own poop, it can update its database.
- Map the behavior: Ask “What do I get from this?” This is the reward your OFC thinks its gonna get. Now we know what we need to disprove.
- Pay attention: Give in, but observe your feelings. Yes, cookies taste good. Does the regret and stomachache add to the flavor? Note the full reward value.
- “Hmmm” is your new mantra: You are not your thoughts and feelings. Observe them. Get curious. The urge will fade. (Don’t you roll your eyes at me. It will.)
So what’s the bad news about the good news? This takes effort and time. You’ve had some of these bad habits forever, you expect them to vanish after one try? Get real.
Remember this: short efforts, many times. You built your bad habits through repetition — same thing here. But curiosity can make it fun. You’ve grown disenchanted with many things, many times. Now let yourself become disenchanted with your bad habits.
In the end, the only way to break a bad habit is to not want the thing anymore. To change who you are. To not be the kind of person who does that. As the old maxim goes:
Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become actions. Watch your actions. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Watch your character. It becomes your destiny.
What word got repeated there? “Watch.” It’s all about attention. Getting off autopilot and waking up. Time for a Rip Van Winkle moment because if you’re your own worst enemy, you’re also your own worst victim.
As the great philosopher Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
And it is so much better in this life to look and learn instead of review and regret.
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