How to Turn Bad Habits Into Good Habits

Plan for big changes

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With the adoption of a few bad habits, I went from being the fittest person I knew to the most out of shape, barely able to run for five minutes.

What were these habits? Drinking, overeating, all-nighters playing multiplayer games, binging Netflix… And while I seemed very capable of adopting these bad habits, I was powerless to create new ones.

— in the end, only one thing made the difference: shifting the balance of my time.

Here’s how it works.

Identify the habits you want to change

There are two ways to do this:

  1. Adopt a new habit — no need to get rid of anything.
  2. Turn one habit into another.

Either way, you need to be specific in identifying what you want to add or take away. Don’t say: or . Say: or

You need to be able to see your target if you are going to hit it.

Replace every bad habit with a good one

If you choose to get rid of a bad habit, you need something to fill the void. Without that good habit to balance the bad one, you’re sabotaging yourself before you even begin.

Say you want to stop smoking, but you don’t add a good habit to replace the cigarettes. You make it harder to get a cigarette, but then what do you do? You sit there and think about how much you want a cigarette, and then you get up and have a cigarette.

You can add good habits without replacing a bad one, but you can’t change a bad habit without replacing it with something to fill that void.

Flip the script

In the book, , Shawn Achor calls this ‘the 20-second rule’. If I had read it when it was first published, I would have saved myself a decade of struggle. I also wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fall on my face and learn this stuff for myself — so often, the lessons we master are the ones that came by trial and error.

Adding a good habit

If you are trying to add a good habit, like working out every morning or writing when you get home from work, you need to make accessing that thing as easy as possible.

When I wanted to start writing professionally, I made reading and writing priorities. But so what? I wanted them, but I didn’t pursue them. It wasn’t until I started carrying a book with me when I began reading more when I went to work. Similarly, when I added the app to my phone and pushed my social media apps to the next screen, I started writing more instead of swiping over to social.

The 20-second rule gives a number to this, but that’s optional. Mr. Achor states that you need to cut 20 seconds off the time it takes to execute the new habit.

So if you want to work out every morning, set your workout clothes at the foot of your bed to save you the 20+ seconds of searching for them in your drawers.

Replacing bad habits with good habits

As I said earlier: if you want to stop a bad habit, you need to replace it with a good habit. Now that you’ve identified a good habit to replace it with, here’s how you do it:

  • Make the bad habit harder to activate
  • Make the good habit easier to activate

If you like the idea of the 20-second rule, check this out: by making it 20 seconds harder to activate the bad habit, and 20 seconds easier to do the good habit, that’s almost a full minute of inconvenience to do something bad; you’ve doubled the difficulty of doing the bad habit!

Don’t rely on willpower; rely on a structure

There’s only so much brain juice that you can push toward forcing yourself to do something — willpower is finite. But if you set up your environment for success, then you don’t need willpower, not as much, anyway.

When I started working out again, I placed workout clothes at my bed's foot and unrolled my yoga mat before going to sleep. When I woke up, I threw the clothes on and walked to the yoga mat.

Once you’ve got the wheel rolling, momentum will carry you the rest of the way. You get that momentum going by planning ahead and setting up your environment in advance.

We are creatures of habit, but we’re also creatures that avoid resistance at all costs. We take the path of least resistance, as a rule. So make the good habits in your life the ones with the least resistance, and adopting them will be easier than avoiding them.

Written by

Kindle Short Reads author, martial arts fanatic, host of The Intrepid Journal.

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