How to quit bad habits effectively

Habits, as a repetitive element of our behavior, are commonly discussed in all sorts of productivity forums, blogs and books. Every productivity expert shares advice or two about “how to quit bad habits”, “how to start a good one” and more similar ones.

The basic idea behind habit adjusting is simple: we (humans) are ‘programmed’ into some sort of repetitive tasks or routines. We do those regularly, every day or week or month. 

Obviously, the most frequent habits are the ones that affect us the most. For example, scrolling social media before going to sleep for 30-40 minutes every day can affect you much harder than going out with friends and drinking 2 glasses of beer. 

While it’s hard or impossible to say, which one is more or less harmful specifically to you – what we can say for sure is that giving up the first one might be much harder. The main reason for that is its frequency and consistency – the key effects of any habit.

Everyone wants to quit bad habits

There are lots of bad habits out there. In fact, what makes a habit ‘bad’ is our internal perception of it, something we judge subjectively, based on the consequences we face. 

Drinking 2 glasses of beer once in a month might not be such a bad habit, unless you are not prohibited from consuming even a tiny amount of alcohol by your doctor. Some habits are considered to be ‘bad’ in a common sense (like, smoking or adult sites addiction). 

What unites bad habits the most is our desire to quit them from time to time (with a various level of success). For example, I want to completely stop reading Reddit /worldnews sub. I understand that it doesn’t bring me any value, and I just do it for entertainment.

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Chances are high that when reading this post, you are also considering quitting some habit. Maybe you’ve noticed that you spent too much time with your smartphone. Or that you watch TV too much. As a result, you’d like to get rid of this habit. Or, at least to reduce the time you waste on it significantly.

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Everyone wants to start good habits

Good habits are completely the opposite of the bad ones – everyone wants to have them. When you ask someone about their productivity plans, usually people say things like “start learning a new language”, “start a side hustle”, “learn to play piano”, etc.

Usually those things belong to the category of ‘good habits’. They require regular repetition over a relatively long period of time.

Playing musical instruments is a good example of the good habits everyone wants to start

When we say that bad habits are bad, since it’s hard to get rid of them – good habits are bad for the opposite reason. They are hard to stick with and keep doing them for a decent amount of time.

In both cases effort is required

Let me take for example my German learning. I studied German at school, and I could speak “okaish” in it. Time flew fast, I haven’t had any practice in German for about 10 years. Now I thought: “Hm, that’d be nice to speak it”. That’s how I started a ‘good habit’ of listening to podcasts in German.

Things didn’t go very well though, and a few weeks later I abandoned it. I didn’t have enough motivation for it – and I had to put some effort every time I listened to these podcasts. 

Remember – good habits require you to put in effort constantly, while bad habits require you to avoid doing something, so vice versa. Thinking about this dilemma brought me an excellent idea one day. I decided to investigate it a bit with my habits.

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Which balls do you pick?

When you think about any type of habit (whether it’s good or bad), they have one thing in common – both of them require time and attention. 

Think about it: you have one evening, or 2 hours of your free time. How do you spend it: do you study German, or do you watch the latest Netflix movie? If you are native German speaker – lucky you, you can go & have fun! But in my case, what I would select today (since I abandoned my German learning habit) – is Netflix.

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Developing this idea, you can treat habits as the balls you can put into your basket. Imagine having an empty basket that can have 5 balls, for example. The only condition is that you can’t leave it empty – anyway you should fill it with something. 

In this example, basket is time, and balls are your habits. You can put red balls (let’s say, watching movies), or you can put blue ones (let’s say, playing violin). The important thing is that it will never be empty, at no condition. And here is the key takeaway from this:

To quit bad habits, you need some good ones

When you say: “Okay, this evening I’m going to learn German no matter what”, it’s much harder to force yourself into study when you also have a habit of scrolling social media feeds at the same time. You will naturally be easily distracted constantly. So, when you want to start a new habit – you should remember about quitting the old one. It could “fill” the basket instead. 

Same thing works the opposite way. If you want to stop an existing habit (or pull the ball out of the basket – which can’t stay empty) – you should think about the new habit that will “replace” it. 

For example, when you decide to stop scrolling the feed – it’s easier to do so when you start something else – like learning German.

Something should fill the void after bad habits

Remember that good habits (just like bad habits) require resources: time and attention? When we quit a habit – a gap in our resources appears, creating a void. This void should be filled. I saw it in my personal experience with social media.

A few years ago I was actively scrolling through Facebook Feed. I could spend somewhere around 1-1.5 hours a day simply reading different group posts, friends’ updates, news, etc. At some point I realized that’s a bad habit for me – so I tried to quit it by setting a redirect for FB. It is a technical block, meaning I couldn’t visit the platform.

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What happened next? I started reading other news websites, or platforms like Twitter. The void of information consumption was filled by another, a similarly bad habit of scrolling.

Something should fill the void! Looking back at this case, I realize that instead of simply “removing” one habit from my life – it works way better if you pick another one instead. 

A quick example may be taking notes to the journal each time you visit FB feed. Let’s say, I set a redirector extension which opens my notion page each time I try to visit Facebook or Twitter. Whenever I go to check FB feed – a new page opens, and I’m forced to share my thoughts at that moment and have it taken to a journal. 

Conclusion: so, how to quit bad habits effectively?

I don’t claim it’s a ‘silver bullet’ or ‘perfect receipt’ for being constantly productive and 100% boosted to do stuff. But it might help you with something small, with some small steps towards a better version of you (just like it helped me).

All you need to remember is that you have a limited amount of free time. This time will be spent anyway – it will be gone. The main question is what exactly you fill it with: what type of habits you pick. 

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If you want to establish a habit X as part of your routine – make sure to find a time for it (by potentially removing habit Y). And vice versa: if you want to stop doing X, you should think of starting to do Y, in order to fill the void in your time/attention resources.