In a recent newsletter, I wrote about why 92% of people fail their New Year’s resolutions.
The main reason for that is that they can’t change their habits.
The reality is that you can have goals all you want – if you keep the same habits, you will not create a different outcome.
One of my most influential mentors, Jim Fortin, brings it to the point:
“You don’t get what you want in life, you get your habits” – Jim Fortin
Especially “bad” habits are a huge problem.
One can destroy all the effort you’re putting into your goal.
The most destructive habit that used to ruin my efforts in the gym was binge drinking.
I was 15 when I got hammered for the first time.
Over the following years drinking developed into a habit, until I spent every weekend in a bar, club, or friend’s house wasted.
During this time (I started lifting weights at age 16), I was already very ambitious about strength training.
I longed to build a strong and muscular body and despite binge drinking being one of the worst things I could do for that outcome, I kept doing it.
During university, when parties often occurred on Thursdays, I even used to go to the gym Fridays hungover.
I kept sabotaging myself, despite my drive to reach that goal, training my ass off for 10 hours per week and making sure I’d eat my protein…
… a lot of it ruined by one night, week after week.
Most would say that I lacked willpower – but that’s not true.
If I lacked willpower, I wouldn’t have been able to grind in the gym for hours – even hungover.
In fact, as you will learn in this newsletter, relying on willpower is a broken strategy.
What I actually lacked is the understanding of how habits work and the right strategy for lasting change.
If you’re curious to learn how to do it, keep reading!
Why you don’t quit that bad habit, even if you hate it
I’m willing to bet that you can relate to my story - think about a big goal you’re driven to achieve, but struggling with:
Building a lean physique, getting stronger, growing a business:
What’s stopping you from reaching that goal?
Usually, there’s one major habit that sabotages your efforts:
Splurging on sweets on Saturday wrecks your diet after eating veggies and lean meat all week
Taking your phone to bed with you makes you weak by ruining your sleep
Binging TikTok reels steals the focus you need for your business
One bad habit can be enough to kill your goals like one leak can sink a boat.
But why would you sabotage yourself like that?
Why is it so hard to get rid of it, despite knowing how destructive it is AND having the motivation and drive to reach your goal?
To answer these questions, there are three crucial facts about habits you need to know to be able to stop these destructive patterns:
1 - Habits are brain-based and subconscious
Research conducted at the Max Planck Institute in Germany measured brain activity during habits.
They detected neurological signals responsible for your habits *BEFORE *you consciously engage in them.
The conclusion is that habits start - in your brain - before you're aware of them!
This doesn’t mean that you’re a slave to your brain (you will learn how you can succeed in this newsletter).
But it demonstrates that your brain will automate behaviors for you.
And you HAVE to be aware of that because you can’t change what you’re not aware of.
The fact is that most of your daily decisions and actions run subconsciously, without you even thinking about it.
If you don’t believe it, think about a daily habit of yours, such as commuting to work:
How much of the commute are you mindful of?
Can recall when you accelerated or stepped on the break?
Did you have to think about what to do when you saw a red light?
Or when you use the blinkers?
Do you remember how many times you have looked in the mirror?
Or was the entire commute automatic?
Now compare this to when you were first learning to drive:
You had to *think *about everything mentioned above because it was new to you.
As you got more experienced, this behavior got automatic – driving turned into a habit.
2 – You build habits through repetition
John Dryden: “We first make our habits, then our habits make us.”
Your conscious mind can process 50 bits per second.
The subconscious mind can process 11 MILLION bits per second.
Think about what would happen on a highway during rush hour if every driver had to think about all the detail:
When to step on the gas, when to use the blinker, what to do at a red light, or what each traffic sign meant.
It wouldn’t end well.
It would be way too overwhelming if you had to do everything in your everyday life consciously.
Thus, your brain automates recurring behaviors into habits.
Habits are like programs that run in the background of your computer.
The way you “install” habits is by repeating a behavior over and over again.
In fact, habits even change the brain physiologically through what scientists call “Neuropathways”.
This explains why it can be so challenging to let go of unwanted habits, but also why it’s so easy to “fall back” into old habits:
Those Neuropathways are still there, even months after you stopped engaging in a certain habit, ready to fire.
3 – Your Brain Considers Habits Essential For Survival
Humans make 35000 decisions - EVERY DAY.
Too much for the thinking mind.
Your brain has to automate decisions - through habits - because you could not manage all the information you receive from the environment.
You couldn't survive otherwise.
Your brain is wired for survival, so it will do what it can to maintain habits.
However, that strategy is a double-edged sword:
Not all habits serve your goals, but for your brain, all habits are necessary.
Your brain doesn’t differentiate between good and bad – it only knows habit.
For your brain, EVERY habit has a benefit!
Without that benefit, there would be no habit.
Your brain will try to keep your habits, even if they’re destructive like binge drinking.
It might not seem like there’s a benefit in habits like these but remember – habits are subconscious.
This means that you’re probably unaware of the benefit!
Let’s take my personal story as an example:
While binge drinking was destroying my progress in the gym, it had one huge benefit:
I used to be extremely shy and alcohol helped me to ease off social anxiety.
It was much easier for me to make social connections when drunk.
Because I used to be withdrawn and lonely in my teens, I craved social connections.
This benefit was worth it for me, even though I was not fully aware of it back then and that's why I kept drinking.
And no matter how hard I'd try to force myself to quit, I'd not stop, because of this greater benefit!
That's why willpower is NOT enough - you need a different strategy.
Now that we got that covered, let’s look into how to get rid of destructive habits!
How to stop destructive habits, without relying on sheer willpower
1 - First, you need to find the benefits of your unwanted habit.
As you know by now, EVERY habit has a benefit.
You can’t change what you’re not aware of, so the first step is to get aware of this benefit.
Take the habit you want to get rid of and get to the core of what you get from engaging in it.
Here are some questions that can help you do so:
What would it cost me to give up this habit?
What does this habit allow me to do?
What pain or discomfort must I not face by engaging in this habit?
Take a journal and start writing this out.
This can be uncomfortable – be compassionate with yourself and if necessary, reach out for qualified help.
2 – Do a cost-benefit-analysis
After finding benefits, look at the cost.
“Every action you take is a vote for the person you’ll become” – James Clear
Write down all the benefits in one column and all the costs in a column next to it.
Then, evaluate which one’s bigger.
Don’t do that in your head, write it out – this is important to realize that the cost is likely much higher than the benefit.
Seeing this black-on-white can be enough to drop your unwanted habit.
I quit binge drinking – a habit that I held for 7 years - the day I started my strength coach education and never went back.
This education required me to do a bodybuilding diet and I knew there was no chance I could do that if I kept drinking.
The cost of failing this education was high:
I invested 4000€ (a huge amount of money for me back then) - enough for me to quit binge drinking.
If the cost of staying the same is higher than the cost of change, you will change.
3 - Find a way to get the benefit, without doing the unwanted habit and REPLACE
This strategy is simple:
Look for a different habit to get the benefit but at a lower cost.
For me, starting the strength-coach education provided it:
I met many like-minded people and found a community I fit.
I realized that there are many people like me who used to deal with the same struggles and I got the connection I wanted.
Replacing a habit is easier than quitting because you still get the benefit.
4 – Adjust your environment
During the Vietnam war, heroin abuse was rampant among US soldiers.
After the war, officials feared that their addiction would continue.
But once the soldiers got home, most of them quit.
They used the drug to cope with the horrors of war but once they were safe, they didn’t need it anymore.
Your environment affects all the other areas of your life.
This doesn’t have to be as drastic.
Let’s say for example that you want to stop binging on sweets when you get home all stressed out from work.
If you’re used to coping with stress that way, you won’t be able to resist the urge to bite into that donut when you get home.
But if you don’t have any donuts lying around, the chance is much higher that you won’t engage in that habit.
Another huge factor is the people you spend time with.
When I stopped drinking, many “friends” I used to hang out with thought I was crazy and “sick” for not wanting to drink with them.
They tried to push me into it and I knew that at some point I would give in – so I cut the ties.
Yes, this might not be easy – that’s why it’s vital to do the cost-benefit-analysis.
5 – Repeat
As you already know, habits are built by repetition.
It takes time to establish a new habit, and it takes time to let go of an unwanted habit.
When I stopped binge drinking, I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol for 6 months.
Your brain is wired to your old habits and it’s easy to fall back into them.
“Testing yourself” is like shooting yourself in the knee, as is “rewarding yourself” through the habit you want to stop.
Look at those who cut sugar for 7 days and then reward themselves with a piece of cake on the weekend:
That piece is enough to throw them back.
Commit to at least 60 days to change your old habit!
Let’s recap this strategy:
1) Get clear about the benefit of your destructive habit:
The best way to do so is through self-observation and journaling.
Don’t rush this process – it might take you some time to get to the root cause, but it’s necessary for lasting change.
2) Do a cost-benefit analysis:
Compare the cost and the benefit of the habit – which one is larger?
Pain is the biggest catalyst of change – the clearer you get about the cost, the easier it will be for you to let it go.
3) Replace with a more constructive habit:
Find a different habit that gives you the same benefit, but at a lower cost.
This is easier than trying to quit.
4) Adjust your environment:
Reduce the temptations.
Set boundaries around people who want you to engage in your old habit.
Building new habits take time, so does letting go of old ones.
Commit to at least 60 days – don’t test yourself!
Reward yourself through something DIFFERENT that has nothing to do with the habit you’re getting rid of.
That’s it for today – if you found this article helpful, share it with your friends!
Do you want to learn how to create the body you’ve always wanted, without depriving diets, and make your 2023 resolutions a reality?
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