When bad habits feel so good

“Your current habits aren’t necessarily the best way to solve the problems you face; they are just the methods you learned to use.”  James Clear, Atomic Habits 

I know plenty of people who like to unwind with a glass of wine at the end of the day, some who self-medicate with food, others who veg out in front of the TV, and a few who smoke. At the same time, I also know individuals who de-stress with a long run, others who enjoy some deep breathing or meditative exercises, and still others who decompress with a soak in the tub or a bit of yoga.

 Life is throwing us problems to solve all the live-long day. Habits are a reactive way of quickly answering those recurring dilemmas in order to save mental space for more novel issues. When they work to answer a craving, our brain makes a connection. And when we react in that same way time and time again, the brain solidifies that connection. But it doesn’t mean that reactive answer was the best way to solve the problem; it was just the method we learned to use. Get it?

They say “you are your habits”. “You are what you repeatedly do”. Everyone wants to design their life, but wouldn’t we most effectively do that by designing our habits? When did you last do that?!

If there was a long pause after that last question, let me challenge you today. I challenge you to write down all of your current habits from brushing your teeth to saying your prayers; from pouring a hot brew at the dawn of the day to sipping a cold brew at dusk; from chocolate nibbling after lunch to ice cream shoveling after dinner; from running before work to crashing post commute. Which habits did you design? Which ones just “happened” to you? Which ones do you wish would have “happened” to you in a more productive or serviceable manner?

Your brain is formidable, but it is also flexible. You can make new connections with a bit of intention and attention. In his book, Atomic Habits, I love how author, James Clear, outlines the four laws of behavior change with corresponding rules to break or build our habits.

How to Break a Bad Habit

1st Law (Cue) : Make it invisible

2nd Law (Craving): Make it unattractive

3rd Law (Response): Make it difficult

4th Law (Reward): Make it unsatisfying

How to Build a Good Habit

1st Law (Cue): Make it obvious

2nd Law (Craving): Make it attractive

3rd Law (Response): Make it easy

4th Law (Reward): Make it satisfying

I want to dive down deeper on just a couple of points here. As a health coach, I find individuals can more easily build good habits with a few tweaks to their environment. But the struggle is especially real when we are “breaking bad”.

The problem is we were originally drawn to these bad habits because they were/are in some way “attractive” and “satisfying”. So how do we make them less so?

In these cases, it’s important to really drill down on why we even consider our particular habit “bad”. Let’s just take the example of a few extra glasses of wine throughout the week. Why do you want to quit/cut back? Is it because you don’t want the example of regular consumption to be witnessed so regularly by your kids? Is it that you know that you’re not sleeping as well as you’d like and are waking up feeling sluggish and foggy? Is it that you know that not just the extra calories, but the hormonal impact it plays on your body is contributing to excess weight around your middle?

There are probably plenty of reasons why it’s a good idea to cut down your consumption, but we tend to put those reasons at the back of our minds when the temptation is at the front of our face. However, the more we can remind ourselves of the “why” behind our desire to “un-habit”, the stronger our motivation will be.

Similarly, we’ve also found these bad habits to be satisfying. Let’s in this case, take a common habit of evening dessert. It tastes good. It releases a much-needed hit of dopamine after a long, stressful day. But that’s just it. We’re often searching to meet a more complicated emotional need that’s just easier to get from an inanimate object stuffed in our pie hole. Often times what we’re really wanting is a chance to really relax and recharge after the end of a hard day, but it’s easier to sit among the chaos with a cookie than to get away for 10 minutes of quiet, journaling, meditation, etc. Sometimes what we need is to just “feel good”, but it’s easier to find a quick fix in the pantry than it is to find and build a relationship that comforts us.

Even those of who buck up and “just quit” are unknowingly undergoing these steps that Clear outlines. Perhaps you had a health scare and decided to “just quit” smoking. In this case, smoking is no longer attractive when the doc paints a scary enough picture of what a future may appear if one’s current does not change. Similarly, I’ve had clients speak of emotional encounters that served as the litmus to finally take charge of their eating and exercise habits in order to lose weight. Overeating is still attractive to them, but not at the expense of the energy drain, missed opportunities, or emotional hurt they’ve experienced.

Here’s the bottom line. A reason a habit is “bad” to begin with is because it doesn’t really serve us beyond the superficial level. It’s just often the easiest solution which is why it can be so difficult to overcome. So rather than blame our willpower or our lack of discipline, a more productive approach would be to create a strategy for a better solution – honing in on the priority alignment of why we want to start or stop a habit, making it less or more obvious, maneuvering it to be less or more difficult, etc….essentially engaging our conscious brain to rule over our unconscious brain.  You know, mindfulness. :)

What are the habits you're really struggling with to start or stop? Where's the roadblock? And do these steps that are outlined resonate with supporting your cause? I promise that you aren't alone in whatever it is. And I'd love to write some posts that might help work through some examples. So please do share. For real. :)



Erin Henry