Quitting a Habit Isn’t Just Hard. It’s Impossible.

Whether you realize it or not, your entire life is built on habits. The things you do and the thoughts you have are merely programs running inside your head. People make tens of thousands of decisions per day, but only a handful of those things are meditated. Every other decision is coded in your brain.

Once you start a habit, it’s there to stay.

Smokers keep smoking because they develop a routine. If you follow them closely, you’ll start to notice patterns when they reach for a cigarette.

I should know, I used to be one of them.

When I got stressed or pissed off, cigarettes were my pacifier. My brain started associating stress and bad moods with cigarettes.

But the way your brain associates things is a two-way street.

Your feelings are triggered by events–internal and external. External events can be going to a bar or hanging out with certain friends. These are more easily controlled. Internal events, like being in a certain mood, are more difficult. Internal events are both the trigger and the result.

I wanted a cigarette every time I got angry, but I also got angry every time I wanted a cigarette. The thought of wanting a cigarette would trigger the stress and vice versa. I also smoked right when I woke up, and right before bed. No wonder I had bouts of insomnia during my smoking days. My brain didn’t know whether to wake up or wind down.

It’s a death spiral that’s tough to break out of. It’s possible to do, but you have to change the way you think about it.

A different way

Habits are so hard to quit because it’s not like turning off a light. In fact, quitting a habit isn’t actually possible. That habit doesn’t just disappear. You have to create a new habit altogether to replace it.

Instead of quitting your habit of being a smoker, you have to start a habit of being a non-smoker. Your habit doesn’t disappear. You create a new habit in the opposite direction to replace it.

If you have a shopping habit, you need to create a habit of being frugal to replace it. To start an exercise habit, you need to reverse your current habit of not exercising. The action in question doesn’t go away. Just because you quit doing heroine doesn’t mean that heroine ceases to exist.

I quit my smoking habit by changing my environment, and my personal identity. I always considered myself a smoker, so I hung out where smokers did. The first step was changing my view of myself to being a non-smoker. Once I changed my identity of myself, I didn’t hang around smokers as much. I also craved cigarettes less and less. Eventually, I kicked the habit altogether.

When you quit a habit, you create a new habit of doing the opposite.

Two sides of the same coin

Fortunately–or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it–habits are a double edged sword. The good habits are just as resilient as the bad habits. When you start doing something on a regular basis, your brain starts to crave it subconciously. Just like the smoker that says they can quit any time (but they don’t), you may not even realize how much you want it.

Long-time exercisers will tell you this same thing. It’s hard work, and they dread doing it sometimes, but they still go because they feel better afterward. Avoiding your habit, good or bad, gives your brain anxiety.

Photo by Chander R on Unsplash

I wasn’t even going to write this week. I’m going on vacation starting Thursday, and I decided that I was going to take this week off. But then something funny happened. I started to feel anxiety kick in. The thought of not writing became worse than the thought of taking time out of my relaxing week to write.

Crazy.

Writing became my cigarette. It’s something that I have trained myself to do on a regular basis, and it’s something that gives me a bad feeling when I try to avoid it.

Just like the cigarettes, the habit of writing is a two-way street. Writing puts me in a good mood. I feel a sense of accomplishment every time I write. And every time I’m in a really good mood, I want to write it down. Strange how the human brain works.

Starting anew

If you want to start exercising, cooking, investing or whatever else, the first step is to develop a habit. Start by doing 1 push-up every single day. Try a new recipe every week. Invest $1 into an index fund every day.

It may be a sacrifice to start, but eventually, it becomes second nature. You won’t even notice that $1 a day going into your account anymore, but you will notice when you don’t do it. You’ll get investing withdrawals like the worst addict you’ve ever seen.

But this works when your drug is helpful. You can train your mind to desire productive things.

Once it becomes easy, then raise your goals. Do 5 push-ups a day. Try 2 recipes a week. Invest $5 every day. Slowly build yourself up to the place you want to be. If you try to do 100 push-ups the first day of exercising, you probably won’t make it to day 2. You may get a little gain out of it, but it won’t be very much. You will, however, be very sore, and you likely won’t do it again for a while.

Instead of jumping into the deep end, try dipping your toes in first. Once you get used to the temperature of the water, go in a little deeper. Pretty soon, you’ll crave getting into the pool.

Thanks for reading!

Featured photo source: Andres Siimon on Unsplash

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