Why You Can't Fight Bad Habits Directly

Why You Can’t Fight Bad Habits Directly

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Stephen Guise has written multiple posts on this blog about his “mini habits” concept. Today he talks about one reason many people struggle with their habit development — they focus on direct resistance– and why it can be a losing effort to fight bad habits directly.  To learn more about Stephen’s work, check out this book: Mini Habits: Smaller Habits. Bigger Results.

Have you ever seen a Chinese finger trap?

If you ever get a Chinese finger trap, tell someone to put their index fingers inside of it. When they try to pull their fingers back out, the trap will tighten, and more and more as they pull harder. To get out of it, they have to push their fingers together to relax the trap and then pull their fingers out slowly and gently.

Bad habits work just like a Chinese finger trap: you won't likely beat them with direct resistance. The more you resist, the worse they get.

How Familiarity Tricks Us

Pulitzer Prize winner Daniel Kahneman says, “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

Kahneman was talking about our intuition, and how things familiar to us intuitively seem true. This phenomenon happens when we develop a routine way of handling things, like denying ourselves the fantasy of chocolate cake. Once the strategy becomes familiar, it is easily mistaken as being effective, even if it rarely works. This is why we're quick to blame ourselves, but slow to blame our strategies (which are typically the real problem).

Our strategies are familiar, but they may not be ideal.

When Trying Harder Doesn't Work, You Must Try Smarter

Thought suppression is the go-to strategy for many people trying to rid themselves of a bad habit:

  • Anxiety sufferers fight anxious feelings.
  • Depressed people try to shut out negative thoughts.
  • Dieters outlaw certain foods.

People seem wired to resist unwanted thoughts or desires. This is intuitive, because thoughts precede actions, and it makes sense to terminate this process as early as possible. But it backfires, and actually makes us more vulnerable while disguising itself as the solution. Despite our repeated failures with this strategy, we'll assume that we're simply “not trying hard enough” because of the familiarity principle explained above.

The truth? We act more consistently than it seems we do. It's the variables around us that alter our behavioral reactions that make it seem as if we're the ones being dynamic.

Think about it: your subconscious only knows to repeat things. And the rest of you—the conscious, more “intelligent” part—aims to live consistent with your values. When you can control your behavior, you'll live according to your values. When you can't, such as when you're exhausted, that's when you engage in automated, habitual behaviors. It's a predictable machine.

This consistency is hidden, though, because our habits and values often differ greatly, and our circumstances that influence our behavior change every day.

In other words, it won't likely matter how “serious you are” about changing this time. It matters to some extent, of course, but it's so minor compared to your strategy for change that it's nearly meaningless, which is shocking given its supreme dominance and attention in self-help literature.

Studies Show Thought Suppression Makes Things Worse

“Studies show that the more you try to suppress negative thoughts, the more likely you are to become depressed.”

~ Kelly McGonigal, PhD. (The Willpower Instinct)

Doesn't that sound a whole lot like the Chinese finger trap? The more you resist, the worse it gets.

Do NOT think about a white bear right now.

Novelist Leo Tolstoy had a bear problem. His brother told him to sit in a corner until he stopped thinking about a white bear. Much later that day, Tolstoy remained in the corner, his mind fixated on the white bear he needed to stop thinking about. This experiment has been replicated in more studies, and the result is always the same: when people forbid themselves or attempt to rid their mind of something, it boomerangs back to them with alarming consistency and persistence.

This goes back to familiarity. It appears that resisting a thought appears to make it “pop up” more frequently in the mind, and even if you continue to push it back down, the persistence of the thought coming back will begin to influence your subconscious into thinking it's true.

The solution to this scary problem is as unintuitive as the solution for the Chinese finger trap: you have to allow the thought to be expressed. You have to give up in a sense:

“Studies of brain activation confirm that as soon as you give participants permission to express a thought they were trying to suppress, that thought becomes less primed and less likely to intrude into conscious awareness. Paradoxically, permission to think a thought reduces the likelihood of thinking it.”

~ Kelly McGonigal, PhD. (The Willpower Instinct)

What To Do About It

Great, now we have to fixate our minds on our bad habits? Well, not exactly. Permission to focus on a thought is different from agreeing with it.

The idea is to allow the thought to happen. Don't try to ignore it or suppress it. When it arrives, you can disagree with it. 

Thought: “I feel like smoking.”

Response: “I recognize that I feel like smoking, but I choose not to at the moment.”

So if you have anxiety, the key is to “lean into it.” I had a period of really rough anxiety due to a surprise spider bite (of all things), and I'm completely recovered now. In the worst part of it, I tried so hard to stop it and it only got worse. I was in a real life Chinese finger trap.

I finally overcame it (1.5 years later) by letting the anxious thoughts and sensations happen and observing them. I ignored them. Not in the sense of not acknowledging their existence, but more like, “I know you're here, and that's fine.” I accepted them, but didn't pay them much attention. I let them be and stopped trying to force them away. And based on what you've read, you should be able to see how that worked (and it worked so well).

Whatever your bad habits are, I recommend incorporating this approach to it.

Let the thoughts happen and understand that just because you have a thought, doesn't mean you have to act on it or be defined by it.

Smokers, don't deny that you want to smoke. That urge will arrive, and when it does, fighting it will strengthen it. Instead, acknowledge that you want to smoke and decide to do something else. Remember that it doesn't help to invalidate a true feeling.

Understanding this concept may not be enough to rid yourself of a particular bad habit, but it is an important first step. And for certain bad habits like anxious or negative thoughts, it may indeed be all you need to be victorious.

Written by Stephen Guise. If you want to hear more from me, you can sign up at Deep Existence to get smart life tips every Tuesday morning. Upon sign up, you’ll receive some gifts: my 40-pack “focus wallpaper” set, my stress management book, and over 30 subscriber-exclusive articles. And if it’s good habits you’re after, check out Mini Habits on Amazon. Good habits can even be a smart long-term play against bad habits. Acting like beneficial weeds, they can “crowd out” some (though not all) bad habits.

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