Replace Old Habits

To become more disciplined, focus on your bad habits and work not to eliminate them but replace them with better ones. Observe your current habits, understand the purpose they serve, their triggers and their results, and take action to rework them in your favor. With good habits in place, you need less self-discipline, not more.

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You’ve heard it all before—good habits are the foundation of a healthy, successful life. But here’s the good news: you don’t need to start from scratch. Think about it this way, you already have habits. Your brain naturally wants to do certain things on autopilot, repeatedly. You just have to make sure that the thing you’re doing automatically is the best possible option for you.
Most of the time, bad habits are simply a way of dealing with stress and boredom. Everything from biting your nails to overspending on a shopping spree to drinking every weekend to wasting time on the internet. These are all (unhelpful) ways to regulate our emotions, manage stress, and “fill the void,” whatever it may be.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can teach yourself new and healthy ways to deal with stress and boredom, which you can then substitute in place of your bad habits. The good thing about this approach is that you already have the mental scaffolding in place, so to speak. You are merely swapping out the content of a habit you already have for something better. Can you “break” a bad habit by sheer force of will? Yes. But it takes enormous amounts of energy and focus. You can achieve the same result by replacing habits or upgrading them.
A good example is if you’re trying to stop yourself shopping online when you take a break at work. This bad habit destroys your focus and attention, because you’re likely to be online for twenty to thirty minutes each time. But maybe you find that every time you’re tempted to shop, you’re simply faced with a big gaping hole in your schedule and the unfulfilled desire to browse your favorite sites. It’s an uphill battle each time. What now?
Firstly, recognize that bad habits, as harmful as they are, are serving a purpose and have some benefit in your life—otherwise, they wouldn’t be there. The first step is to notice when you feel triggered or compelled to do the bad habit. Then, understand what that habit is doing for you. Releasing boredom? Acting as a welcome distraction from life stress?
You can guess what the next step is: find a new, healthier way to satisfy that need for yourself without resorting to your bad habit. In our shopping example, perhaps you recognize that you are browsing to relieve tension and “treat” yourself. After some brainstorming, you realize you can do this by taking a walk outside and indulging in a healthy snack, a book you’re enjoying, or a few moments spent on a hobby. Maybe, in time, you recognize that stress levels at your job are unsustainable and that you need to make bigger changes in that area, i.e., addressing the stress or leaving the job completely.
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
Answer the following questions to guide your bad habit replacement:
What bad habits do you have right now?
What are the where, what, who, why, and when of this habit?
What is this habit costing you and what could you regain by replacing it?
Was there a time before the bad habit? What were you like then? What did you do instead?
What is the benefit/function of this habit in your life?
What substitute behavior can give you the same feeling or outcome as this bad habit, but healthily?
What are the benefits of switching to this behavior in place of the bad behavior?
What are your bad habit triggers (think who, where, why, how . . .)?
Can you visualize yourself perceiving these triggers but focusing your attention on the new habit instead?
What could you do immediately afterward to reward yourself for diverting to this better habit?

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.

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