Abolish your bad habits once and for all

My daily workout regimen is supposed to be a High Intensity Interval Training circuit repeated 3 times and lasting a total of 40 minutes (plus cool-down). But near the end of the second circuit, I usually think I’m going to die. And there are some days when I just stop at the end of the second circuit instead of going all the way through the third.

I hate that I do that.

And that’s not the only bad habit I have. Like most people, I have a few other bad habits (I love coffee! And those Lik-M-Stik things. And I spend a little too much time on Facebook). I’ve been doing a lot of reading about willpower and discipline (and, in fact, consider one book on Willpower to be one of the 10 business books that changed my life).

So it was driving me crazy about why I quit my workout at 2 circuits instead of three and I sat down and started thinking about why I fall into bad habits even when I don’t want to. What I developed was a handy little framework to help me:

THE 4-STEP FRAMEWORK THAT LEAD TO BAD HABITS

I realized that there are 4 steps between me and any bad habit that I don’t want to do.

  1. Trigger: The thing that sets off habit
  2. Desire: This is the mental/physical/emotional condition that increases the need for that bad habit
  3. Opportunity: This is when everything lines up so you can do that bad habit
  4. Justification: This is when you listen to the little devil on your shoulder as it whispers all the reasons why you should do that bad habit you normally avoid

In my experience (and I haven’t done enough observation to notice anything different), I will usually do my bad habit if those 4 things line up in that order.

So while I’m working out, my muscles start burning and I’m nearing the end of the second circuit — that’s the Trigger for me. And then the Desire grows as the second circuit nears its conclusion and my muscles burn even more and start to get shaky. Then the Opportunity presents itself when my circuit ends. And then there’s the Justification, when I think “Well, I just completed two really hard circuits. That’s good enough!” Almost without realizing it, I’ve put my workout gear away and am headed to the shower… soaking in my own regret.

Or here’s another one that I know I’m not the only one who faces this: You’re sitting there watching TV — your passive position in front of the entertainment is your Trigger for a snack. Then, as you watch TV, your Desire grows. You see a commercial for something delicious. Your stomach growls. Your fingers get fidgety. Your mouth salivates. Then you realize that there is a bag of (whatever you love) in the cupboard — the Opportunity. And then there’s the Justification: “well I had a rough day plus I walked up two flights of stairs!” Next thing you know, you’re jamming a cake and a half down your gullet.

TRY IT FOR YOURSELF

Can you think of a bad habit that you suffer from? Follow it through those four steps of Trigger, Desire, Opportunity, and Justification and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

It could be a bad habit. It could be the breaking of a good habit or discipline. Those two things are pretty closely tied together. Think of the one that bugs you the most and see if you can identify the Trigger, Desire, Opportunity, and Justification. (i’ve found that there are multiples of each — try to list all of them or as many as you can possibly think of).

HOW TO BREAK THAT BAD HABIT

Once you’ve identified a bad habit as well as the Triggers, Desires, Opportunities, and Justifications, you next need to figure out how to counter each one with something specific — like a thought or a replacement activity or something that breaks the 4-step pattern.

Here’s what I do to break the bad habit of quitting my workout 2/3rds of the way through:

  1. Countering the Triggers: There’s not much I can do about the burning legs but one thing I do is count down my circuits and the ten exercises in each circuit. So instead of thinking that I’m doing ten exercises in one circuit and then ten exercises in another, I tell myself “1 down, 29 to go; 2 down, 28 to go, 3 down, 27 to go”. It’s a small thing but it reframes my workout to remind myself that a complete set is 3 circuits of 10 exercises.
  2. Countering the Desires: Again, I can’t do much about the burning muscles but as I near the end of my second circuit, I’ve started to remind myself about how much I’m enjoying my workout even though it’s hard, and about how good I’ll feel when I have fully completed all three circuits.
  3. Countering the Opportunity: On the last exercise of the second circuit, this is usually when, exhausted, I put my weights down in their starting position near the wall. But if I give myself that opportunity to quit, it’s too easy to quit so I put my weights down right in front of me where I’ll have to pick them up again. This helps to eliminate the opportunity.
  4. Countering the Justifications: There are so many justifications that go through my mind so I can’t write all of the countering ideas here. But one of the biggest is how long the workout is and I sometimes justify my shorter workout with “I’m busy today!”. So booking off the full amount of time has helped there. Another justification is “I’ve done enough” but again that is countered with my “1 down, 29 to go” counting.

Now look at your bad habits and see if you can might counter the Triggers, Desires, Opportunities, and Justifications.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This is very much like weeding in the garden: If you try to break a bad habit by trying not to do it once, it will just happen again… very much like snapping off the leaves of a weed. What you really need to do is get in there and address the roots and that’s the only way to break those bad habits.

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