We all are addicts in some way or the other. Just that some people have healthy addictions and others have ‘not so healthy’ ones. (It’s totally up to you to decide what is healthy and what is not.)
I used to eat a lot of junk food. And for a long time, I used to beat myself for being too weak – for not having enough willpower to control myself. But, then I read the book Power of Habit and realised that it was not so much about willpower, but rather about understanding and hacking the psychology behind it.
So, what is the psychology behind habits?
A habit basically has three parts.
Routine is the act of doing the habit – be it eating, smoking or browsing the phone. The cue is some thought, emotion or something you hear, see or smell that triggers the routine.
For example for many smokers and junk food addicts – stress or boredom is a major cue. It is a stressful situation – be it in work or relationship – that tells their brain – “Hey! order that cheese pizza” or “Go outside for a smoke.” Or sometimes it might be simply seeing some good food on Instagram or just seeing somebody smoke that triggers the routine.
Moving on to the reward part –
Reward is the pleasure you derive from the routine. A sense of fulfillment you get from eating a lot. Or the relaxing feeling from the nicotine release. Or distraction you get from browsing phone. This reward sometimes makes us crave for the routine – making us addicts to these habits.
Thus, there are three ways of attacking a habit –
- Being mindful of the cue
- Eliminating or reducing the cue
- Replacing the present routine with another equally rewarding and healthier alternative.
Using a combination of the above methods will help you break free.
But before that –
You need to have a strong reason why you are doing this.
What negative effect is this habit causing in your life?
And why do you want to eliminate it?
Imagine how your life would be without it.
And it would be great if you could write all these down.
It’s also necessary to have a sense of belief in “I can do this.” or “I can quit.” And with the understanding of the psychology of habits – I very much believe that you can.
Being mindful of the cues and routines
When I was trying to get rid of my habit of eating junk food, the first thing I did was observe myself for a week. I asked myself these question –
When am I having those mad cravings?
What did I feel before it?
What was I doing or what did I see just before eating junk?
And what was the reward I got or what did I feel after eating?
So step 1 is being mindful of your own thoughts and actions.
I found that I had cravings on three occasions –
- When I was feeling sad
- When I saw pictures of food, even when I was even slightly hungry
- When I didn’t eat on time and got really hungry
And the reward I got from eating was a sense of satisfaction. (and lots of guilt a few minutes later.)
Eliminating or reducing the cue
Now that you know your cues, you can work on eliminating or at least reducing it.
I uninstalled apps like Swiggy, Zomato and all that and unsubscribed to all their emails and SMS. I unfollowed all the food pages on Instagram and never dared to open the explore tab. Infact, I stayed away from Instagram for a while. I made sure that my house didn’t have any junk food and people around me didn’t eat the food I was trying to stay away from. I also tried to eat on time – before I was too hungry.
So, if you are trying to get over smartphone addiction – make sure that you turn off all app notifications and keep your phone as far away as possible.
Same goes for smoking – Ask your smoke buddies not to call you for a smoke or not to smoke in front of you.
Finding an equally rewarding and healthier alternative
Once you know your cues and rewards, you can replace the bad routine with something more healthier but equally rewarding.
For me what helped was having a good conversation over coffee or just going for a walk and clicking some pictures. They gave me the same amount of satisfaction as binging on junk food.
Make a list of routines, you think would be equally rewarding. It will take some trial and error to find the right one. Sometimes it’s a combination of two that works.
So be mindful of yourself and your cues (meditation really helps in being more mindful). Next time the cue hits you, purposefully do the replacing routine. Through this, what we are doing is creating a new neural path connecting the same cue and reward. With practice, this becomes the default path and thus the default habit.
Have a cheat day
My sister used to have this one day in a week, where she could give into all her temptations and do what her uncontrolled monkey mind would say. This helped her stay clean for the rest of the week.
So cheat day is a good technique. You can have a cheat day once a week or once in two weeks. But two or three months down the line, you wouldn’t need it.
Lastly, don’t be too hard on yourself. Its okay if you give in sometimes. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it. The idea is to keep going. Observe when you are falling for the old habit, and make alterations accordingly.
This is the part two of the habit series.
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