The nature of bad habits makes them irresistible to our basal ganglia, where all habits live. Our primitive brain is a sucker for a quick payoff. It judges action by its immediate outcome. Good habits require a deliberate decision. They appeal to our modern prefrontal cortex that can look into the future and predict the long-term repercussions of our habits.

There are two fundamental differences between good and bad habits. First, good habits seldom offer instant gratification, while bad habits almost always do. Second, good habits fill us with a sense of accomplishment. Bad habits don’t. Bad habits temporarily reduce our stress levels or give us pleasure, then they leave us filled with regret. Discipline is required to create good habits because they don’t produce an immediate payoff. 

“Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.” Abraham Lincoln.

Why do we allow bad habits to happen? When we are stress or not paying attention, our subconscious mind will choose bad habits over good ones. Every bad habit provides an immediate benefit. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t repeat them. When we are feeling tired and stressed, we are particularly susceptible to them. When our body’s cortisol levels are raised, our mind shifts from a pause-and-plan state to a more impulsive fight-or-flight condition. Our primitive brain takes control and seeks quick satisfaction. Our primitive brain isn’t concerned with abstract ideas or our long-term goals; it is in tune with our body’s sensations. We have one brain but two minds. One is driven by emotions, the other by logic. Which is in charge at any given moment is dependent on our stress levels. Stress triggers a fight-or-flight response that puts our impulsive mind in the driver’s seat. Relaxation, on the other hand, shifts us to a state of pause-and-plan. When you are about to give in to temptation, taking, a few deep breaths has been shown to improve our self-control. 

Emotional eating is a great example of how bad habits make things worse. When we are stressed out or upset, our cortisol levels get elevated. Eating provides quick relief because the insulin it releases into the bloodstream counteracts cortisol. Unfortunately, after overindulging, we feel guilty, which raises our cortisol levels anew. Stress initiates the conditioned coping response to eat more. In a negative reinforcing loop, we will keep eating. It is entirely irrational but all too human. We are sentient beings. Strong emotions put our short-sighted primitive brain in charge, so anything that produces immediate relief makes sense.

Bad habits are easy to develop but hard to extinguish. They are compared to chains too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. Their consequences aren’t immediate, so we don’t see them as a problem until their cumulative effects have produced adverse repercussions.

“Often, the sweeter the first fruit of a habit, the more bitter are its later fruits.” Frédéric Bastiat 

The key to interrupting the bad habit is using your logic centric prefrontal cortex to identify your triggers, then pre-decide what new routine will replace the bad habit. Substitution is better than abstinence. Our mind needs something to do when we encounter the contextual cue. We can remove triggers from our surroundings, but some triggers like hunger, exhaustion, and boredom cannot be designed out of our environment. Ideally, it will be something that produces a similar change in state, without the harmful consequences.

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