Breaking Bad Habits is Hard to Do

I recently sat down with James Clear to discuss his must read book Atomic Habits. We released the full interview yesterday through the podcast so please give it a listen.  I feel like it turned out more like a short audiobook than a podcast which is why we also transcribed the full interview for those that prefer to read.

Below is a short snippet from the conversation.  We were talking about breaking bad habits. One of the techniques James shares in the book is to make the thing you’re trying to stop “unattractive” which sounds great. But, what it you’re addicted to drugs and desperately want to break free? How do I make the drug, which I likely crave, unattractive? Here’s how it went.

Ron: This to me, though, is the hardest part because say you are an addict to some substance. It’s attractive. How do I make that unattractive? You know what I mean?

James: 100 percent. It’s a great question, yes. First of all, from a high level, what you mentioned. The four laws of behavior change that we’re going through are the four laws to build a good habit. The first two make it obvious, make it attractive. Then, if you want to break a bad habit, you invert each one. For the first law, rather than making it obvious, you make the cues invisible. Or for the second law, rather than making it attractive, you make it unattractive.

Your question about breaking a bad habit, you’re spot on in saying that that’s really difficult, because once you see the cigarettes the craving arises automatically. Once you see the cocaine, and you’re an addict, now you have this unstoppable wave of desire.

Ron: Or a donut.

James: Or a donut. Anything that you’re trying to resist. Two things. First, I say that generally the best places to intervene for breaking a bad habit are the first and the third stages.

The first stage is you reduce exposure to the cue altogether. You cut it out. This is, for example, one of the reasons why you go into detox. You’re not surrounded by drugs. Or if you want to watch less Netflix, take the television out of the house, or put it inside a cabinet or wall unit so that you don’t see it as much. Basically, all kinds of things to reduce exposure.

If you’re spending too much money doing online shopping, on Amazon, or whatever, then unsubscribe from all those emails, and so on. Whatever you can do to reduce exposure to the cue.

The third stage, which we haven’t gotten to yet, but that’s about the response. You’re going to try to make it difficult. If you can increase the friction of the action enough, then it can be so hard that you won’t do it. If a pack of cigarettes is sitting on the kitchen table 10 feet from you, now it’s so easy that it’s going to be hard to resist that craving, but if you’re on vacation in Alaska and the closest pack of cigarettes is 30 miles down the road at the gas station, now it’s much more difficult, and so it’s more likely that you’ll be able to resist it.

I didn’t include it in the book because the science on it is still out, still being tested, but I did write a secret chapter that is a bonus to the book that’s called “The Biology of Bad Behavior.” It’s about the pharmaceutical and medical treatments that are being used to rewire the portions of the brain that are responsible for resisting temptation.

Basically, what some of these treatments have found, this is the only way to change the craving to make it unattractive for a bad habit, is to change what’s happening on a biological level so that when you see the cocaine you don’t experience the craving.

Or if you activate the centers of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for resisting temptation and that more higher level executive decision making, if you activate that region, then people tend to be better at saying no to a cigarette, no to a donut, or whatever. I won’t get into the weeds too much on that. There are some things in the works that might allow us to have more control over that in the future, but it’s still very much in flux and under experimentation.

Read the full transcript here or click here to listen to the interview.