Progressive Extremism Against Bad Habits

Article writer and psychologist NIR Eyal on the project website Thrive Global on how to work with triggers. The publication “Ideologica” published a translation of the material.

After I finished a speech on how to develop good habits, a woman in the audience exclaimed. “You learn how to create habits, but my problem is not this. Im fat!” The disappointment in her voice echoed through the hall. “My problem — to cope with bad habits. Thats why Im fat.

How do I get rid of them?”. I deeply sympathized with the woman. “Once I was clinically obese,” I told her. She stared at my skinny figure and asked to explain.

As I coped with their addictions?. The first step is the realization that the introduction of new habits is very different from the struggle against the existing. As I describe in this video, there are different methods depending on the behaviour you intend to change.

So, to create the habits required to develop a new set of automatic actions, while a change of habit requires other processes. The brain learns cause-and-effect relationships between triggers, which prompt to action, and associated results. For example, if you want to learn the habit of taking vitamins every day, then basically what you have to do is place the tablet somewhere in a visible place, say, next to a toothbrush. So you wont forget to take a pill every morning before brushing your teeth.

First it will act as a daily reminder, and eventually the behavior will become almost or wholly unconscious. But changing existing habits is a totally different story, a distinction that many people often interpret the wrong way. For example, the author of the book “Power of habit” Charles Duhigg describes a bad habit of eating biscuits which he had gained eight pounds.

According to Duhigg, he daily went to the 14th floor of his office building to buy some cookies. When I began to analyze this habit of Duhigg discovered that the real reward for him was not only cookies, but also socialization, which he enjoyed eating cookies with colleagues. Having established that this habit is associated with friends, Duhigg was able to get rid of it, replacing it with other. Voila!

Duhigg repeats the popular notion that getting rid of a bad habit by replacing it with another. Im not quite sure. Maybe it worked in the case of Duhigg and eating cookies with your colleagues, but what if youre the kind of person (like me) who will sell his soul to the devil for a cookie. I was fat because among many other delicious things I love cookies.

Because it seems to be delicious-and for no other reason! “How do I get rid of this?” — asked a woman in the audience. I for many years struggled with her own weight and could not look her in the eye and say that you just need to have a chat with colleagues the next time she wants sweet. Not going to work.

As for taking control of bad habits, for example, in relation to the not too healthy food, I shared with her the only way that has worked for me. I call it “progressive extremism”, and it works especially well in situations when it is impossible to replace one habit for another. Before diving into the method I use to transform your habits, lets take a look at me 20 years ago.

I was a vegetarian. Friends often asked me. “And dont you miss meat. Because it is so delicious!”. Of course, I missed the meat!

But as soon as I started to call myself a vegetarian, what once was a delicious, suddenly became something else. Now it was impossible to have what I once loved, because I started to define myself differently. I became a vegetarian, and vegetarians dont eat meat.

And to renounce animal food was not so difficult. It was not a struggle. It was something I just did, as well as, in my view, a Hasidic Jew does not eat pork or deeply devout Muslim does not drink alcohol — they just dont. Self-awareness helps us to make the hard choices without resorting to force of will.

Our choice not to do something based on how we see ourselves. Recent studies show why a view of the behavior of this angle can have profound consequences. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, dedicated to the study of words that people use when faced with temptation. During the experiment with junk food one group was instructed to use the words “I cant” and the other “I wont”.

Then began the real experiment. When the study ended, participants in the gratitude for the time offered in a choice of either a chocolate or granola bar. And then without the knowledge of the participants, the researchers noted a healthy or unhealthy is a choice they make. The analysis showed that 64% of the participants from the group “I will not” chose a granola bar instead of chocolate.

In this group, “I cant” a choice in favor of healthy snack made 39% of respondents. I have not eaten meat in about five years, and during that time to say “no” to some products was not as difficult because it matched my identity. The phrase “I dont eat meat” was to do with my personality of vegetarian.

If so easy not to eat meat, just deciding that this is what I do, why not use this same technique to cope with other unhealthy habits. It turns out that it is quite possible. First, make a reservation. This method only works for triggers, which can be removed — for example, it does not help to get rid of the habit of biting your nails, unless you want to get rid of some fingers.

Start with defining the behavior that you want to stop. For example, you want to stop eating sugar. To immediately give up everything sweet — too difficult a goal for most people.

Instead, think only about one particular product you would like to withdraw from your diet. However — important point — it should be what you will not get bored, and it should be forever. The vast majority of studies shows that diets dont work because this is a temporary measure. If you imagine that one day, when lose weight, eat a pack of peanuts in chocolate, this technique wont work.

Temporary diets do nothing but cause the brain to think about food. To become part of your identity, a commitment should be made forever, as well as vegetarians believe that will eat this way the rest of my life because they are what is. Most people make a serious mistake — they bite off more than you can chew.

The point is to remove from your diet what you wont get bored. For example, you like corn toffee. Sure there. For me as a child it was the worst thing you could get on Halloween. To abandon these butterscotch for the rest of my life for me was easy, so they were first on my list.

I dont eat corn toffee, and I never will. Ready! Then write down what you will no longer have, and the date when you made this decision. This will mean the transition from the interim “cant” to a permanent “I”.

Remember that you need to choose a product which you really would be easy to give up on the rest of your life. The next step is to wait. This method requires time. When youre ready, consider what else you can do.

Find another trigger, which can be eliminated, and without which you will not suffer. For example, I decided never to drink at home soda. I could drink it elsewhere, not at home. Simple.

If the obligation is difficult, then you went too far. Each step must be carried out with almost no effort, not as a heavy task, but you should be proud that he refused some things forever. For example, when I wanted to get rid of the horrible habit of mindlessly surfing the Internet and constantly distracted by it, I did not abandon the network completely. I refused to do one simple thing without which one does not suffer and is not going back to it ever in my life.

I do not read article in a web browser during working hours — ever. Instead, every time I see something interesting, I save it for the future using apps Pocket. The process of getting rid of bad habits takes many years, but progressive extremism — it is an effective method which helps to fix the behavior, not reaching for me. Sometimes I look at all these unhealthy things that you no longer have control over me so as once, and if you feel strong enough, find a new bad habit for destruction.

Gradually increasing the list of what you are doing, you are investing in a new identity, which could cope with many bad habits. You can start small, but over time, each step brings you to a completely new person. Briefly:

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