Bad Habits Don’t Exist

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I was a soda addict for decades. When I ordered a burger, I ordered a coke, and there was no exception. Occasionally I would find a coke in my hand when I really didn’t want a coke. So why did I order it? Because I always ordered it. Because it was a no-brainer. Literally. I had built a very efficient habit of ordering coke, and my brain didn’t even bother considering that decision any more. It was automatic. That habit eventually began to take a toll.

After years of overdosing on soda daily, sometimes more than a 2 liter’s worth per day, I wasn’t feeling all that well. The sugar and carbonation my body had endured for years was hurting me, and I could feel it. I knew it had to stop, but choosing coke was so easy and choosing water took…thought. And willpower. It was like convincing my mind that the sky was pink–it just felt wrong. My bad habit seemed like a good habit in my head, even though I felt guilt and frustration at my inability to curb my craving. But, it wasn’t really a bad habit. At least, not to my brain.

The brain makes no distinction between bad and good habits

Actually, because habits form when the brain registers a positive result–such as when a sugary drink tickles your taste or boosts your energy level–habits only form because they seemed good at the time. You could say every habit is a good habit to your brain. After it logs an action as producing a desired result, rehearses it, and forms a routine for it, how desirable that habit is will no longer be considered. It will work, without a thought for how good or bad it is, until it is retrained. You can cry all you want after the habit has run its course, but that doesn’t mean you won’t do it again when the habit is cued properly, either by circumstances or by your own cravings.

I know you feel like a failure when a habit you wish you didn’t have runs amuck. You feel out of control. You feel bad! But remember, you’re brain is not intentionally doing bad. It’s just doing. The fact your habit kicked in against your will doesn’t mean you’re a screw up or are a bad person, it just means you have some automation up top that needs reprogramming.

Too often the belief that you have a “bad” habit translates into a belief that you are a “bad” person, which can be de-motivational and counter-productive.

After all, why try? The truth is, the machine can be rewired, habits can be altered, and you don’t have to live with detrimental habits, but it isn’t going to be easy. You’re going to have to cut yourself some slack. Stop thinking in terms of “bad” and “good” habits. Think in terms of “profitable” and “unnecessary”. Focus on building habits which are profitable and altering habits which have become unprofitable or which detract from your goals.

By changing your attribution style, you can eliminate some of the self-deprecating emotions that accompany habit struggles, and give yourself a better chance at taking the necessary actions to improve your routines.

Sometimes a simple attitude shift is the difference between punching a hole in your TV and simply taking it to the repair shop.

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