Breaking Bad Habits by Strengthen Good Ones

A wide-eyed Chihuahua with a tie and cigarette in his mouth looks up to the sky

The road to vitality and self-attainment is paved with a lot of surrender. Very often, it takes the form of bad habits.

And though this post is part of series on identifying and following your higher purpose, these strategies can be useful for anyone interested in ridding themselves of bad habits or adopting beneficial ones.

You can either use a desire for ascension as motivation for breaking bad habits, or first change your behavioral patterns and then your true calling will be revealed to you when you have less afflictions occupying you mental space. Regardless, it’s imperative to eliminate what is deterring from your presence in the here and now.

Anchoring with Linchpin Habits

You can use linchpin habits to strengthen the likelihood you will take on good habits or cut out negative ones, and create entire new, beneficial routines. These actions serve as a foundation habit on which many others are built.

Linchpin habits are habits that when practiced (or dismissed), make others easier to engage in or avoid (bad habits)—the type of habit that has a ripple effect on other conducts.

For the sake of this topic, let’s use vitality as an example. In order to be fully lucid, engaged, adaptive and jovial during the day, I want to ensure I wake up well rested. I enjoy getting eight-plus hours of quality sleep, mainly because of how I think and feel the following day.

It also provides the benefit of the ability to be opportunistic in whatever situation may arise. As you may have also experienced, I feel like I can take on the world and whatever circumstances life may throw at me when I’m well-rested, and thus fully adaptable.

The intention of vitality in waking life means that I have better impulse control over nighttime behaviors that prevent optimal shut-eye. I’ve touched on this before, but these include eating (especially animal protein), blue light exposure, and other forms of stimulation – like watching sports or tv – during the several hours before laying down for bed—basically, any activity that will induce cortisol (the stress hormone) production.

If I were still a drinker, alcohol consumption would absolutely be included here, because in additional to have a stimulating effect on yours truly, it dramatically reduces sleep quality for various different wavelength patterns of sleep.

What I strive for instead are things that will help me wind down, and create a smooth transition into quality sleep—serotonin and melatonin-evoking activities. These include self-massage, reading (on good, old-fashioned paper) and laughter.

Another example of a linchpin habit is exercising first thing in the morning, or at least during the early hours. By starting yourself off on the right foot, chances are you will be more likely to follow a pattern of subsequent healthy or productive habits throughout the day—this same principle applies to making your bed in the morning.

You can also use a different habit-sequencing practice to help free yourself of fixations, impulses, or bad habits you’re intent on removing—a technique know as replacement behaviors.

Replacement Behaviors

A replacement behavior is when you undertake a positive habit or behavior immediately following recognizing you indulged in a bad habit, in order to counteract the negative action or thought’s influence on the brain and the reinforcement of that tendency.

Behaviors rely on a set pattern of neuron firings. I’ll try to spare you the scientific jargon behind the mechanism, but essentially what you are doing by applying replacement behaviors is breaking the firing sequence of different brain neurons associated with a particular detrimental behavior.

This is know as long-term depression, but not the type you are probably imagining—this version doesn’t have much to do with mood (well, at least not on the surface).

For example, if neuron A and neuron B are active, but at a different intervals outside of the particular timeframe associated with the stimulus (behavior), long-term depression will weaken the bond between neuron A and neuron B, and thus the tendency to slip into the bad habit.

So, by engaging in a replacement behavior, you leverage the fact the neurons culpable for producing the bad habit were just active, and start to initiate other neurons that can somewhat dismantle the firing pattern linked to the unfavorable tendency. 

Instead of pinpointing your mental state or the occurrences that led to or triggered the adverse habit – which is proven effective but extremely tough to accomplish – you must apply your awareness in the period immediately following it, which the majority of people are conscious of—that moment of disbelief and disappointment.

This instant immediately after the unfavorable habit’s execution is your chance to slip in a different type of behavior—anything that’s out of sync with the unwelcome habit.

In a closed loop system – one action, one set of neural firings – leads to another, then another, triggering this domino effect of complimentary, associated behaviors. But, by changing the number of features in that loop, it disrupts its closed circuitry, and provides an open loop with a better opportunity to intervene.

By applying a replacement behavior, you begin to link the regrettable habit to the implementation of this other positive behavior. Neuroscience research suggests this practice seems to create enough of a cognitive mismatch in the brain that it becomes easier to recognize when you’re heading toward to bad habit. 

This method affords the opportunity to reconfigure neural connections linked to unfavorable habits in a fairly effortless way.

And so, when you use this technique, it removes the need to be conscious of your thoughts, impulses, and behavior immediately prior to the bad habit—something that’s very difficult to do. 

However, it can be accomplished by watching your awareness, an ability that can be developed through a dedicated, habitual mindfulness practice—mindful breathing, or walking.

Putting it into Practice

There are certainly other techniques you can use, but these two strategies I’ve found to be the most effective and effortless.

It really helps to just consider your soul purpose (if you’ve already discovered it), and reflect on if your habits are an embodiment of that, or if they are deterring you from aligning with or reaching it.

Stay dilligent out there!

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