4 Helpful Ways to Reflect and Conquer Your Negative Habits

Quitting bad habits have nothing to do with self-control or willpower, according to neuroscience.

Jaleel & Nicole
Oct 21, 2020 · 6 min read

My well-intentioned and lovable boyfriend has once again discarded his dirty shirt on the chair. No amount of coaxing and reminding has ever gotten through to him. You would think that after seven months of living together in a foreign country, we would be used to each other by now.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my idiot boyfriend, but would it kill him to just hang his clothes or maybe even leave them on the laundry basket?

I’m not innocent either. I have just as many bad habits as he does. I’m known to be a big procrastinator for waiting until the last second to finish my work.

We’re both just as guilty.

The Truth About Bad Habits

Bad habits may seem like they’re hard to break. And sometimes, it’s unnerving to know that you do them almost mechanically.

Imagine coming home after a long day of work. What is your routine? Do you kick off your shoes, leave your clothes on the floor, and settle on the couch while mindlessly scrolling through your Instagram feed?

Sounds like an ordinary Tuesday, right? You even tell yourself that you earned it after a hard day at work. But you know that part of you that persuades you to get off the couch and put your clothes in the laundry, or prepare for dinner, or respond to your work e-mails? Well, they might just hold the answers to quitting your bad habits.

Let me propose a new theory: What if you actually don’t have bad habits? Now, before you break out the champagne, it gets weirder. What if I tell you that you actually have “different selves with different goals in your head,” and the so-called bad habits are just the results of one part of you acting against the other?

MIT scientist Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, explains it better:

“It can make sense to think there exists, inside your brain, a society of different minds. Like members of a family, the different minds can work together to help each other, each still having its own mental experiences that the others never know about.”

According to this theory, all these parts of you only do what they think is best for you. The problem is that they may not always be right.

Parts are entities of their own, with their own feelings, beliefs, motivations, and memories. It is especially important to understand that parts have motivations for everything they do.

But what parts of you should you be concerned with when it comes to dealing with problematic behaviors?

You have the exile, the manager, and the firefighters. What an unlikely bunch, but hear me out.

The exile is your inner child. They are the ones that hold on to the bad stuff and let the fears often unconsciously guide your actions in frustrating ways.

The manager is your overprotective parent. It is the nagging voice in your head that says you’re not doing enough. It’s busy running around, trying to come up with ways to steer you in the right direction.

Lastly, the firefighters are the rebellious 15-year olds that want their independence. So they resort to fierce and extreme measures that managers typically abhor like alcohol, smoking, and excessive eating.

The bottom line is that they’re not always effective because of the conflicting goals everyone has.

However, the trick is to understand what other-you is trying to accomplish and find a better way to address this underlying need. This means keeping the firefighters calm, getting the managers to trust you, and figuring out what the exile really needs to feel secure.

Here are four ways to help you sort them out and hopefully, get them all on the same page.

Concrete and Doable Behaviors

Trying to eat more healthy or treating your parents better may sound great but they leave more space for interpretation, and little to grasp onto. When it comes to forming a bond with your manager, you must drill down and think in terms of specific, doable, and actionable behaviors.

Your manager doesn’t mean harm, but they can get too nagging when they are unclear about the goals you are trying to accomplish. So break it down for them. The next time they remind you that you’re eating unhealthy, assure them that you’ve made a meal plan for the week.

When they get mad at you for not returning your mother’s phone call, let them know that you have scheduled a FaceTime session later that day. Make it as clear and refined as they can be. Even starting small pays off.

It is only when your plans are concrete and actionable that they start building that sense of trust with you.

Identifying and Dealing With Triggers

Identifying your triggers have everything to do with figuring out what your exile is so afraid of. This involves having an honest talk with yourself.

Before you get dismissive, research shows that talking to yourself in the second person makes a difference:

Altogether, the current research showed that second-person self-talk strengthens both actual behavior performance and prospective behavioral intentions more than first-person self-talk.

After all, the ultimate goal is to turn your exile from being reactive to proactive.

Say that your procrastinating heightens when you deem the workload too much for your abilities. An honest conversation with yourself would reveal that you are probably afraid of failing and subsequently letting your supervisor know that you’re not good enough.

Your fears are not necessarily true, but they are still your fears. So to address them, remind yourself of the past work that you have accomplished. You have likely been assigned a project before, and you have done well with it. If this is your first time, think about the fact that they entrusted you.

You can become proactive by listening to soothing music to get you in the right mindset, or doing a few minutes of deep breathing to relax.

Practice Substitution

Of course, things are always easier said than done. Remember, your firefighters can easily break through the windows at any sign of trouble. One wrong move, and you’ll go back to delaying your work by watching YouTube cat videos.

As much as possible, you should prevent any fires from breaking out inside of you. This is where your substitute plan comes in.

For instance, to avoid your temptations of eating too many sweets in a day, plan to eat one pack of cookies only, and remove the rest from the pantry. This has been helpful for my boyfriend who loves to binge on Oreos all day. We have come up with a system in place that doesn’t require him to quit cold turkey and instead slowly eases him into it.

This could work for anything as well. Don’t want to overdrink on a night out? Limit yourself to a drink or two, and have a friend accompany you at all times. Substitute plans are a great way of ensuring that you don’t fall into the same set routines and have your firefighters take over.

Embrace Progress by Rewarding Yourself

There will come a low point in the process that you will feel discouraged because you are struggling. After a while, your exile has new fears, your manager is still overprotective, and you have your firefighters on standby.

This is normal, and as much as possible, this is the time to keep your eyes glued to the prize. Therefore, it helps when you build yourself a payoff; a form of encouragement; a reprieve from the hard work that you have been doing.

Pat yourself in the back for not overeating on dinner by watching an episode of your favorite Netflix show. Take the money you would be spending on cigarettes and save it up to buy a dress or a new video game.

These things will help keep everyone at bay and temporarily satiated before you grind it out again.

To Sum Up

The idea that there are no bad habits, only different selves with different goals, may seem too revolutionary for you. After all, extensive studies done on habits point to the need to exert more self-control and willpower on your part.

Through these lenses, you are encouraged to unearth the truths you want so badly to bury. Even if that meant coming face-to-face with every part of you.

This book eloquently puts it:

Loving yourself really means loving each of your parts. Befriending yourself means developing a relationship with each of your parts and having them trust you.

Mind Theory

Ideas on personal growth, mental health, and mindfulness

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