The 365 Commitment

Breaking Bad

Everyone develops bad habits. I am not talking about the big ones, those are pretty obvious. Addiction to very damaging illicit drugs for example. We all know that is bad for you and even people that are addicted know that what they are doing is destructive. They know they need help and they know that the path they are on will lead to their destruction. These are not the habits that I am talking about. I am referring to detrimental habits. The automatic things that we do, even when our will would have us do otherwise. There is a lot of science behind this phenomena, definitely worth exploring.  For example, I was reading a study from a Yale professor, Amy Arnsten this morning. In this study, she contemplates one of the reasons that our will fails us during times of stress. This seems obvious to me now that I read through this research, but was glad to have it put into clear language. When our active mind becomes overwhelmed, we have a tendency to let the larger part of our brain take over, this is a loss of cognitive ability and as a consequence the familiar pathways in our inactive brains take over.

In other studies that I have browsed, I have noticed that there is a trend here. Scientists are noticing that the trick to removing a bad habit, or one of those automatic paths in our brain, is not to just quit, but rather replace. There is a definite reason for this. The reason the bad or detrimental habit formed in the first place was due to a reward system in your body’s chemistry. Dopamine release is the natural way for your mind to reward you for behaviors, and I believe it has been demonstrated that this is what makes certain things addicting in a behavioral sense. Anyone that has attempted to quit smoking, for example, will know this very well. Getting over the physical dependency of nicotine addiction is one thing, and that is very hard. However, once this has cleared and the body is back to stability on its own, then the real difficulty begins. The morning routine, the drive to work, the brief break outside on the back patio, the quiet moments when you are by yourself. All of these moments are potential triggers or cue’s for you to return to smoking. That is because all of these are part of that learned behavior that was engrained into you by the reward system that your mind builds for itself.

The trick is to simply replace the bad with good. Some studies that I looked through, have focused on the concept of replacing these bad pathways with mindful meditation techniques. The reasoning is that stress causes the active mind to retreat and when it does the tendency is to return to pre-defined dopamine backed learned behavior. So, if one can learn techniques that allow the mind to retreat, but still stay in control, then the likelihood of losing control to old paths is low. So if you can simply replace the old path with a new path of retreating to a simple and easy to do meditation technique, you can start to see real progress. Now, I have very few bad habits left in my life. I have slayed them over the years, and very happy to never return to them. However there are a couple that still haunt me, caffeine and sugar consumption. Those two are actually close cousins. It is my opinion that the two go hand in hand, like donuts and coffee. There is a very real reason why Starbucks sells sugary yummy snacks in a display case right next to where you order your fancy drink with a double or even triple shot. Luckily for me, I do not like coffee at all. So I am saved from the $10 expense every morning, but I definitely find other ways to abuse both substances.

I bring this example up, because I know that we all struggle with bad habits, learned behavior, and things that we would really rather not do but do anyway when we are stressed. If I were to start another career then I would become a behavioral psychologist and make this the subject of my research. I think it is one of the greatest barriers to human achievement, there is just something going on that causes us to behave in a destructive manner even when our active mind knows that it is. However, in the mean time, I definitely need to take the research by active researchers seriously. They have definitely proven, in my mind at least, that active replacement of bad habits with new activities is the way to go. Clearly just stopping does not work. Even if you have tremendous will power, you will eventually fail and you will return to the old pathway. You must replace old with new.

I have habits that are engrained for sugar and caffeine consumption that are just hard coded. They are similar to writing this blog, in fact they are identical. That is a strange notion. Here I am writing this blog in the early hours of the morning. Most people, my old self included, would never dream of or even want to wake up first thing in the morning and just start typing. Yet, here I am. I am typing furiously, and I feel good about it. It feels right. Dopamine release confirms it. I have built, over the process of over 1100 days an automatic pathway that my brain just follows by default. The first three paragraphs of this blog were written before I really actively realized what I was doing. That sounds crazy, but it is true. My active mind is now engaged and I realize that I am talking about this mental path that I have built for myself. I know it is there, because everyday without even thinking about it, I start writing the thoughts down that I had accumulated the day before.

Here is a thought. When I wake up in the morning, one of my detrimental habits is to find some caffeine source. I actually do not need this to survive, in fact it is really not good for me. I get a reaction to caffeine that is not good. It produces swelling in my body and can be down right harmful to me. I have proven this to myself repeatedly, yet the morning routine is so engrained that when you feel stress it is hard to NOT do the learned activity. I have quit consuming caffeine for longs periods of time, full years even. Yet, the old path is really easy to fall back into if you are not careful. So instead of learning to stop, I need to learn to replace. I reward that I give my active brain, and else path that I can take when that trigger occurs. You see, the key to defeating bad habits or creating good ones is to know and understand what your triggers are.

Sitting down at my desk, ready to start the morning and leaning back in my chair to think about the day just does not feel complete without the crunchy, almost delicate feel of an aluminum can of Red Bull, chilled of course. The sound of the small bit of carbonation releasing as the can opens for the first time, that first sip, all of this is engrained into me and causes a natural dopamine release. This is the trigger, sitting down at my desk. I think everyone has triggers, probably hundreds of them throughout the day. Each of them has a specific set of behaviors associated with them. Here is what needs to happen, to break this detrimental habit, I need to replace it. I am crazy, if you have read any of what I have written you will also come to that conclusion. I say that because what I came up with was to memorize long digit number sequences. I thought about memorizing french words, but I chose long numbers instead. Here is how it works, when the trigger comes, sitting down at my desk for the first time, I immediately engage in the new behavior. I rehearse the sequence I memorized yesterday, and then I start focusing on the next twenty digits. Over time, my mind starts to use this as the default path when the trigger happens and not the bad behavior.

I could go on and on. We all have these detrimental habits. I have made a list, I was shocked when I got to 20+. As you go through your day, start to identify when you are doing things on autopilot and ask yourself if that activity is good. If not, write it down, pretty soon you will have a long list of triggers. Start replacing them and good health will follow. Instead of every time you get up to go pee walking into the kitchen and looking for a snack, do pushups instead. Wouldn’t that be something! Pushups instead of snacks, memorization instead of caffeine.

Guy Reams

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