Fixing Bad Habits

Habit gurus and ancient philosophers help us learn to live the good life
By Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
September 3, 2021 Updated: September 11, 2021

You know that smoking is taking years off your life. You wish you would stop checking your phone first thing in the morning because looking at Instagram photographs of your friends’ beach vacations is making you miserable. You’re determined to start taking a daily walk, but no matter how firm your resolve is the night before, you just can’t bring yourself to get out the door in the morning.

We all have things about ourselves that we wish were different: habits that niggle at us, actions we take that we know aren’t good for our health and well-being. We want to change, sure. But how do we do it?

Why Do We Get Into Bad Habits in the First Place?

“Writing is a habit,” Mark Bauerlein, professor emeritus, used to tell his students when I worked as his teaching assistant at Emory University in Atlanta. “And a habit is something you do without thinking.”

A habit is a repeated behavior that you do so often it becomes automatic. As annoying as our bad habits are, habits serve a crucial function: They put our brains on autopilot so we no longer have to make conscious decisions about what to do. While this doesn’t sound good, it actually is. 

“Habits reduce cognitive load and free up mental capacity, so you can allocate your attention to other tasks,” James Clear wrote in his book “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones.”

The reason we humans want to automate, Clear wrote, is that we have a limited amount of conscious attention and we need the space to use it on the most important tasks.

“Your brain is always working to preserve your conscious attention for whatever task is most essential,” Clear wrote.

In other words, he says, the more our everyday behavior is habitual, the more energy our brains have to focus on and solve the larger problems that come our way.

Good Habits Pave the Way to Better Health

What that means is that habits aren’t bad in and of themselves. Clear argued that good habits can give you better health, more financial freedom, and a greater ability to learn new things. 

“If you’re always being forced to make decisions about simple tasks—when should I work out, where do I go to write, when do I pay the bills—then you have less time for freedom,” Clear wrote. “It’s only by making the fundamentals of life easier that you can create the mental space needed for free thinking and creativity.” 

So the issue isn’t that you don’t want to have habits—routines that help you live your life more smoothly—but that you don’t want to engage in habitual behavior that reduces your health and well-being.

Becoming Aware of What You Want to Change

The first step toward fixing bad habits is awareness, according to Kate Hanley, author of “How to Be a Better Person: 400+ Ways to Make a Difference in Yourself—and the World,” who also hosts a daily podcast by the same name. “The simple truth is, you can’t change a habit you don’t know you have. That means that you need to raise your awareness of the habit itself, as well as what it’s costing you.”

So how do you do that? Hanley recommended writing down three lists: the things that precede the bad habit (the triggers), the circumstances that make you want to indulge in that bad habit (the context), and the negative effects of the habitual behavior you want to change (the costs).

“When you’re making these lists, don’t think too hard,” she said. “But don’t limit yourself, either.”

If your bad habit is eating unhealthy snacks in the afternoon, the triggers could be a growling stomach, a dip in your energy level, and your ability to focus after lunch; the context might be that you skipped lunch or you didn’t sleep well the night before; and the costs could be that the unhealthy food upsets your stomach, you’re not hungry at dinnertime so you miss out on a chance to eat more nutritious foods, and every time you weigh yourself, you see the numbers going up. Maybe you also chastise yourself for your lack of willpower.

Once you can see those three factors clearly, your new awareness will help you develop a strategy that works, according to Hanley. That could be eating a healthy lunch or preparing a nutritious snack (such as carrot sticks and almond butter or a handful of nuts and dried fruit) in anticipation of your late afternoon cravings. Or maybe you take a walk to recharge yourself and refresh your mind instead of wolfing down a doughnut. You might also make a point of going to bed at a decent hour so you’re not so exhausted in the afternoons. 

“It’s less about willpower and more about giving yourself what you truly need so that you don’t need to fall back on your bad habit to help you get through the day,” Hanley said.

Automating Cues to Trick Your Brain Into Good Habits

What Hanley calls a “trigger” is what Clear refers to as a “cue”: a signal that sets off a craving, leading to a response, and then to a reward. Clear believes one of the most effective ways to break a bad habit is to eliminate the cues that start a cascade of bad habits, while simultaneously giving your brain cues to implement good behavior. 

For example, you feel like you’re drinking too much caffeine and it’s impeding your ability to sleep. Once you’re aware of the problem, you also realize that you always buy a double espresso when you walk by your favorite café on your way home from work. Now that you’ve gained that awareness, you can eliminate the cue by changing the route you take home. 

At the same time, you also realize part of the bad habit of drinking coffee late in the day is because you enjoy the aroma of the coffee, the satisfaction of wrapping your hands around a warm mug, and the moment of pause in your otherwise busy life. To give yourself the same reward, first you need to find a non-caffeinated beverage that’s as tasty and satisfying as coffee (try golden milk or rooibos tea). Now you need your cue. In the mornings before you go to work, leave your favorite mug on the counter. The mug will serve as a visual reminder for you to brew yourself a cup of non-coffee when you come home from work, helping you replace your bad habit with a good one.   

Be Accountable to Someone Else

Having an accountability buddy—someone who helps you gain awareness of the habits you’re trying to fix and keeps you on task with your new, healthier behaviors can work wonders. Even without a buddy, sometimes just the act of committing to something out loud to several people who love you can help you change. An accountability group is also an excellent idea. Or, if you’re already in a book group that meets weekly or monthly, suggest that the group read some books about better habits for your upcoming meetings.

I have another trick that works, though I’m not sure if behavioral experts would approve. My teens and I like to do weekly, or sometimes monthly, bets. We each commit to the habit we’re trying to cultivate (exercise, creative endeavors, spending X amount of time on summer homework assignments). We draw up a contract and sign it. Then we add a monetary penalty if we don’t meet our daily commitment. Sometimes we do “roll-over” bets, which means if we mess up one day and don’t do the 20 minutes of reading or math, we’re allowed to make it up by doing 40 minutes the next day. Sometimes we do “sudden death,” which means that we must complete our self-imposed assignments (good habits) by midnight that night or pay the other person the fine.

Perhaps this playful approach doesn’t result in lifelong good habits, but it certainly helps everyone in our family spend more time doing the things we love, but often don’t prioritize. 

Tiny Changes Lead to Remarkable Results

As Harvard professor of Chinese history Michael Puett and his co-author, Christine Gross-Loh, explain in their book “The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life,” the Chinese philosopher Confucius explores the minutia of life in the “Analects,” the collection of conversations and stories that his students compiled after he died in 479 B.C. 

The book details how high Confucius held his elbows, who he talked to when he walked into a room, and how he ate his meals. While attention to those small details hardly seems of great philosophical importance, Confucius believed that the question of how you’re living your life on a daily basis was the key to finding the answers to large philosophical dilemmas.

Confucius taught his disciples that small things matter.

“How you do anything is how you do everything,” is how my friend Dave Nourie, an internationally known trick cyclist, put it. 

Whether you agree with that idea or not, there’s no question that fixing bad habits and cultivating better ones—making small upgrades to your life every day—will help you lead a longer, healthier, happier life.

Jennifer Margulis, co-author of “The Addiction Spectrum” and a frequent contributor to The Epoch Times, is an award-winning science journalist based in Oregon. Sign up for her weekly emails, read her articles, and learn more about her at www.JenniferMargulis.net. 

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net