Removing a Bad Habit vs. Adding a Good One

Is the Time Investment Comparable?

The only case it takes about the same time to remove a bad habit or to create a new one is when you “remove” a bad habit by instilling a new one.

A few facts about the science of habits that confirm my claim:

1. Developing a new habit takes 66 days on average and 254 days at max.

Well, that’s according to the only scientific study about this subject. This conclusion applies to laboratory conditions. I guesstimate that in reality it takes about 50% longer.

2. Habits stay within the human brain forever.

Once you develop a habit, it’s hardcoded in your brain. You cannot remove it in any other way than by physically removing a part of your brain (the professional term is “lobotomy”).

What we see as cases of “removing” a habit are two things:

-removing triggers for the habit from one’s life,
-painstakingly rebuilding of a bad habit, so it morphs into a good (or at least better) habit.

Example 1: Removing a Trigger.

A guy whose trigger for indulging in computer games was a sense of boredom that came from existential vacuum.

He found meaning in his life and happily started pursuing it. He is no longer bored. The trigger was eliminated from his life, so he never plays anymore.

But the habit stayed in his brain. If an old trigger comes back, it will release the old behavior.

Example 2: Rebuilding a Habit.

An alcoholic quit drinking. He found that work-related stress got him into trouble, so he found new ways to deal with stress: meditation and running. Every time he finds himself stressed out, he jogs or meditates and alleviates the feeling, thus the urge to drink. Now, his habit loop looks like 
stress -> meditation or running -> relief
instead of 
stress ->vodka ->relief.

However, it takes an insane amount of conscious effort to “reverse” a habit. This is why people who quit drinking or drugs or any other addiction go back to it when something disrupts their life big time. In the moment of stress, a brain falls back to a default method. And the “default” is the one that is stronger. If a guy was alcoholic for a decade, and meditated 5 years, the old program is stronger.

So it may look like getting rid of an old habit is a matter of days, weeks or months. If you properly figure out your triggers and eliminate them from your life, it can take you as short as few days. I quit my gaming addiction and excessive reading of fiction novels in less than a month. I focused on my “new life” so hard that boredom, helplessness and lack of meaning no longer had access to me.

Nonetheless, the habit still lurks in your brain waiting for an old cue or the moment of stress that will turn off your conscious mind and turn on the automatic behavior.

The Methods

Thus, two approaches can be applied to “removing” a bad habit:

1. Either you remove only the trigger, so the habit itself stays in your brain forever.

In that case, adding any new habit is much shorter, because every finite number is smaller than infinitive.

2. Or you rebuild the old habit.

In that case, it takes you the time needed for developing a new habit AND enough repetitions to “overwrite” the old routine in your habit loop.

If you drank for 10 years, it will take 10 years of sobriety to make your new behavior stronger than the old one in the moment of stress. If you smoked cigarettes for 30 years, it will take you 30 years of chewing a mint gum to replace the old routine.

Of course, you can accelerate overwriting with a conscious effort, paying a lot of attention to your new behavior and filling it with an emotional charge. But those methods won’t shorten the time needed by a ratio of thousands. Rather, by a ratio counted in dozens. Two years of utmost care in chewing the gum to overcome 24 years of smoking.

The Verdict

On the other hand, developing a totally new shiny habit takes only 66 days. It’s much faster.

That’s why I prefer to focus on developing new habits and let the old ones hibernate in my brain without their triggers. It’s much easier to develop dozens of new habits than to overwrite a bad habit for good.

Also, your habits determine who you are, so developing many good habits puts you farther away from who you once were and decreases the likelihood of falling back to your vices.


Originally published at www.quora.com.