How to replace bad habits with good habits

Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit. And sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The theme of This Month’s Blog Crossover, organized by Simon from the blog Toile Filante, is “good habits”.

What is a habit? Simply, an action which we carry out regularly, most often without even thinking about it, and especially without even needing  to motivate ourselves to do it: a habit is something we do by default, and which doesn’t happen only if circumstances prevent us from doing it, or if we make a conscious effort not to do it. Our habits are thus distinguished from all other tasks that we carry out in the sense that these do not happen unless we make a conscious effort to carry them out.

We immediately see the power of these habits: we do them instinctively, day after day, and their effects end up adding up and can potentially produce massive results in our lives. This power can help us as well as harm us: it applies equally to both our bad habits and our good habits and can therefore perform miracles as well as cause disasters.

Smoking every day will lead to less money to use for interesting or useful things, a decrease in your physical performance, premature aging, and ultimately cancer and premature death, all for a stupid habit that you have usually acquired during adolescence, to show your difference and your desire to be an adult, whereas, on the contrary, you have blissfully given in to conformism and manipulation, thus allowing yourself to be blindly led by companies representing the most loathsome aspects of capitalism in order to behave in a way that all our friends have (in this sense, I actually think that communists who smoke are such a blatant contradiction to their principles that they should shoot themselves! 😉).

Getting a little exercise

Conversely, getting a little exercise every day at sunrise allows you to start your day off in tip-top shape, to sculpt a capable and desirable body, to maintain your shape and health, to slow down your aging and to increase your life expectancy (for example, see this study showing that the average death rate of those who engaged in moderate physical activity was 60% lower than that of the sedentary group).

Two habits, two things that we do instinctively, two things that we enjoy, two dramatically different results: this is the power of habit. It is neutral, blind, and can bring us misfortunes or blessings. However, this power can be channeled and used to our biggest advantage, by doing a seemingly simple thing: changing our bad habits into good habits.

What differentiates bad habits from good habits? In my opinion, it’s quite simple:

  • Bad habits are everything that harms us and keeps us away from our goals.
  • Good habits are everything that benefits us and brings us closer to our goals.

Thus, any behavior that has a harmful effect on your health will fall into bad habits, unless dying young or having a serious and chronic illness is one of your goals…

For example, what are you doing if you have a habit of smoking? You’re enjoying a small moment of pleasure several times during the day, often following a habit that has taken root at a time in your life when you were immature and emotionally unstable, without having given the slightest thought to the consequences of this pleasure in the long term, or whether you could replace this pleasure with another one that would bring you closer to your goals or at least wouldn’t keep you from them… And sometimes, as with cigarettes, the more time passes and the more you develop an addiction to this habit, physical or psychological, the more it’s difficult for you to stop, or even to merely consider stopping.

Note that this addiction can also take place with positive habits, and that in this case you’re using the mighty power of habit to your advantage!

How then to change and replace bad habits into good habits? I’m not going to give you a miracle method to quit smoking. However, I suggest a simple 6-step method that will allow you to review all your current habits, to identify those that harm you and take action to replace them with better habits.

6 key steps to replace bad habits:

1 – List your main habits

The first step is therefore to list your main habits. Take a sheet of paper and a pen and sit quietly in a place where you will not be disturbed. Then list twenty of your habits. Mentally go through one of your typical days in your head, and one of your typical weeks if you can, and write down all the things you do regularly and instinctively, without realizing it.

List of bad habits

It can be small, simple things like snacking on a piece of chocolate at 4 a.m. or going to take a shower directly when you get up, to engaging things that you put in place with real effort, like running a half an hour every day or forcing yourself to read an hour a day, as well as things in between like watching TV when you get home from work or playing video games regularly. The former will come easily, and the more of them you write down, the more difficult it will be to think of them. Don’t give up until you have written twenty of them.

2 – Good or bad habits?

Once these 20 habits are listed, let them sit there a bit, then go back to your list and determine if these habits are good for you or not. Typically, all habits that have a negative influence on your health will be placed in the “Bad Habits” category. And all habits that don’t advance you towards your goals will potentially be classified in this category too (if you don’t know your goals, it’s time to get started: take a sheet of paper and list your 10 main goals, from short term to long term 😉).

Be careful, however, not to fall into an excessive concern with productivity: it’s normal to make time for the small (and the great!) moments of pleasure unrelated to your goals in order to relax. That said, it definitely seems to me advisable to classify all the small and great pleasures which aren’t neutral but actually undermine your goals and your health in the “Bad Habits” category. Cigarettes definitely fall into this category. For activities such as television or video games, I believe it’s preferable to determine a daily or weekly time limit past which the neutral habit would move into the “bad” category: for example, half an hour of TV per day maybe OK for you, but not one hour. 

3 – How is it harmful?

Once these bad habits are detected, write them down on a new sheet of paper, and write next to each one how it harms you, in terms of your health and in terms of your goals. For example, it could be:

  • Often, I drink too many beers (or alcohol) when I go out with my friends: it’s bad for my long-term health, bad for my wallet, and it’s not consistent with the image of an accomplished and secure man that I wish to be.
  • I’ve been eating 6 pieces of milk chocolate per day: after reading Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, I know that carbohydrates and saturated fats (which milk chocolate is stuffed with) are not good for my health.
  • Ditto if I drink two cups of sweetened coffee a day.
  • I watch an hour and a half of TV a day: I realize that this time is lost and doesn’t bring me much, and I would like to use it for more interesting things.
  • I tend to look at my emails too often: After reading GTD, I understand that it creates interruptions and severely affects my productivity.
  • Etc.

4 – How to replace bad habits?

Next, for each of these bad habits, determine what you would like to have instead: typically, better habits that will advance you towards your goals. For example, it could be:

  • I drink too many beers (or alcohol) when I go out with my friends: I will limit myself to two drinks of alcohol maximum per evening and consume more soft drinks.
  • I eat 6 pieces of milk chocolate per day: I will switch to dark chocolate (much better for health) and reduce my consumption to two pieces.
  • But also, I drink two cups of sweetened coffee a day: I will drink two cups of green tea, without sugar, instead.
  • Or, I watch an hour and a half of TV per day: I will limit television to half an hour per day, and spend an hour working on my goal.
  • I tend to look at my emails too regularly: I will only check my emails twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Etc.

5 – The action plan to go from bad to good habits

Then determine an action plan in order to eliminate bad habits and succeed in replacing bad habits with good ones. For each bad habit, set a goal of reducing and replacing, and a time frame to achieve it. I recommend that you start small, and make a gradual progression, and especially to focus on only one or two habits at a time.

First choose the habits that seem easiest to change. This will quickly bring you benefits and give you confidence to attack the bad habits that are more difficult to root out. For example, it was very easy for me to replace bad habits like sweetened coffee with unsweetened green tea: it was still a hot drink containing caffeine, and I very quickly developed an appreciation for green tea; soon I had as much pleasure in drinking my green tea as my coffee. This one habit has many positive effects on my health (for example, a recent study indicated that the simple fact of putting two sugars in one’s coffee increases the risk of colon cancer by 38%).

For the bad habits more difficult to replace, do it gradually. Start with one small step to replace bad habits. For example, instead of watching TV for an hour and a half when you get home from work, watch it for an hour and fifteen minutes, then once you’re good with that, gradually increase the difficulty.

6 – Review your goals and habits regularly

Review your goals and habits regularly, for example once a month. See if you’ve managed to achieve your goals. Review your new habits and detect the bad ones that are in the process of being developed. If you see one popping up, crush it immediately! It’s much easier to root out a bad habit when it is just starting to be developed than after a year of practice: if you are vigilant on this point, you will be able, with a minimal expenditure of energy, to keep a set of healthy habits that will bring you multiple benefits, while avoiding regular destructive behaviors. In closing, I’ll share with you a story that I really enjoy:

A man is at the bottom of an abyss. He crawls on the ground in agony: he has been there for a week. He has been trying in vain to find a way out, and a week since he has neither eaten nor drunk. And he tries one last time to move his arm forward; he fails and collapses on the ground. As he is dying, he asks, with all the remaining strength he has:

“God, why didn’t you give me the strength to climb back up this abyss?”

And God answers him:

“I gave you the strength not to fall into it”.