In the times we live in, energy, especially the positive kind, is a precious commodity
It's easy to think of habits falling into black and white categories – exercising good, biting your nails bad. But habits also sit on a continuum in our ability to exercise control over them: Some are mild, like taking off your shoes and dumping them in the middle of the living room every night; others are moderate, like eating dinner in front of the TV, or drinking too much when you go to a party; and then those that are strong and addictive – like smoking.
Habits become hard to break because they are deeply wired, by constant repetition, into our brains. And when you add pleasure to them – like you have with drugs or porn, for example – the pleasure centers of the midbrain get fired up as well.
In the words of Helen Keller, "Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow
But habits are also patterns of behavior and it is the breaking of patterns that is the key to breaking the habits themselves. Usually there is a clear trigger to start the pattern. Sometimes the triggers are emotional – the wanting a drink or cigarette or nail-biting driven by stress. Other times the trigger is more simply situational and environmental: You see the TV and couch as soon as you hit the front door, and now your brain connects the dots, and eating dinner in front of the TV on the couch is not far behind. More often it is a combination of both – the mix of social anxiety and the party environment leads to your heavier drinking.
But these patterns are also usually wrapped in larger ones: This is where routines come to run our lives. Here is where, as soon as you hit the front door after work, the dumping the shoes, the grabbing a beer, the sitting in front of the TV with dinner flow together without much thought, just as your morning work-break automatically leads to you and your friend Kate going outside and chatting while you each have your mid-morning cigarette.
Overall these routine behaviors are evolutionary wise and practically good. They keep us from having to reinvent the wheel of our daily lives by making an infinite number of decisions all day long, which in turn provides us with more brain-space to think about other things. The downside of these routinized patterns comes when those patterns land more in the bad column than the good one.
Getting more exercise or treating your boyfriend better may sound great but they give you little to grasp onto. You need to prime the habit-breaking process by thinking in terms of specific, doable behaviors – like not dumping your shoes in the living room but putting them in your closet; not eating in front of the TV but at the dining room table; going for a half-hour run five days a week; sending your boyfriend a complimentary text once a day, rather than sending him nothing or negative ones. Drill down on the concrete.
The refrigerator may be enough of a trigger to have you go for the beer once you hit the door, just as seeing the junk food on the counter will when you get bored. Or it may be that spark of social anxiety that cranks up the drinking when you think of an upcoming event with more than three people. By identifying your triggers, you have a way of pushing back and not having that autopilot kick in.