My passion for personal development kicked-off around 15 years ago, in my teen years. One of the first ways this showed up was my attempts to break bad habits.
I would make bets with myself. I once challenged myself to stop eating crisps for an entire year, and managed to do so with heroic effort (I really like crisps).
What happened next you ask? I got right back to it, eating the same amount of crisps as before. It’s taken me a while to realise it, but I’ve been approaching bad habits from the wrong angle.
Ask someone about their New Year’s Resolutions, and they’ll probably reel off a few bad habits they intend to quit. This reflects the status quo – an excessive focus on restriction.
Stoptober, Dry January, Lent – for cultural reasons we fixate on what should be given up. The intention is commendable, the resulting execution often poor.
Elimination through sheer willpower/self-control poses two main problems. In this post I’ll explain what those are, then offer you an alternative approach.
Problem 1: Perpetuating the Brute-Force Myth
If like me you’ve ever said this to yourself, join a very large club:
“If I just try hard enough this time, I’ll get rid of [insert bad habit] for good”
This perpetuates what I call the Brute-Force Myth, or the widespread belief that brute force translates to lasting results.
This is now outdated. Resisting any impulse consumes a lot of energy, leaving us tired and stressed – just the right mental state for giving in again.
We have limited reserves of willpower. Sooner or later, the brute force method is bound to fail us.
Problem 2: Attachment to Outcomes
Setting an intention to quit a bad habit is great. Getting attached to the outcome, not so great. It creates a ‘win-lose’ scenario where we either succeed or fail. And if it’s the latter, we’re in for a guilty time.
This only seems to generate a perfectionistic mindset:
“I must stop smoking this year.”
“I’ve got to stop ordering so many takeaways.”
“I should quit Netflix and have more early nights.”
If we sense an overly restrictive goal focused purely on a binary outcome – quit or don’t quit, succeed or fail – we risk missing opportunities for growth during the process of change.
A better strategy would not only set us up to work smarter (bypassing the brute-force approach), but would also prioritise growth and self-improvement above restriction/guilt.
This year I’ve been experimenting with a strategy that ticks those boxes.
The Magic of Keystone Habits
In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about ‘Keystone Habits’.
Keystone Habits disrupt and reorganise systems in a desired way. When put in motion, they send ripple effects through multiple areas of life simultaneously.
While they’re a powerful tool for anyone aspiring to personal growth, these habits are about more than that. They’re fundamentally about self-preservation.
Just as the keystone in an archway prevents the whole structure sliding apart, Keystone Habits hold life together. In practise, this looks like a person who has it together, with a supernatural ability to resist backsliding into bad habits.
Not only do Keystone Habits lower the effort needed for good habits to form, but they also cause bad habits to dissolve away.
Disparate areas of life click into place without needing to keep everything together with brute force.
This year, I realised journalling represents a Keystone Habit for me. Here are just a few of the downstream effects for me:
I used to think in a ‘bottom-up’ way, making a long list of habits I wanted to break without thinking about them in a deeper way.
Thinking ‘top-down’ is better. I now take a bird’s eye view, reflecting on which good habits have the most potential. It’s about spotting which Keystone Habits might benefit from maximum attention.
Journaling is just one example. It’s a Keystone Habit for me because it signals a new paradigm, a new personal culture in which I process emotions rather than leaving them to run rampant and eventually hijack my behaviour.
Positive change becomes contagious.
Find Your Keystone Habits
The Power of Habit outlines a robust method for getting rid of bad habits. I won’t go through it here, but check it if you want more detail.
Instead, I’ll tell you about my biggest takeaway – to reflect on what need my bad habit is trying to fulfil (usually on a subconscious level).
By connecting this need to the new Keystone Habit, I can avoid wasting energy simply tackling the bad habit. I can trust that my new behaviour will dissolve it away with relative ease.
Take the journaling example above:
- Bad habit: procrastination
- Brute-Force Myth: says the best way to stop procrastinating is to simply try as hard as I can – to power through lazy spells
- Underlying Need: instead, I reflect on the need I’m trying to fulfil. I realise I procrastinate every time I’m anxious, which arises whenever I feel uncertain about the direction in my life and career.
- Keystone Habit: I hypothesise that a daily journaling habit would help to uncover my core values and overarching vision for life. I can then craft goals aligned with my true self to battle the uncertainty.
- Experiment: the testing phase – the hypothesis is a winner if I actually do find myself procrastinating less with a journaling habit
Because we all have different sets of problems and priorities, the highest-value Keystone Habits to set in motion first will vary for each person.
This means we need to develop some awareness of the root causes of our behaviours.
That said, there are some types of habit you can’t really go wrong with: Healthy Living, Mindset, Connection and High-Level Habits. By addressing them, you’ll find yourself on the path to more energy, inner peace and productivity.
Be patient with yourself when making plans. Some bad habits are amenable to speedy replacement, others won’t go down without a fight.
Celebrate small wins and remember the process of change is also one of self-discovery.