How Good Habits Covertly Shrink or Stop Bad Habits

How do you stop bad habits? Well, there’s the traditional way of willpower. But another option is to crowd them out.

Five years ago, I started doing one push-up per day

That humble goal enabled me to show up consistently, even if it was in a small way. Today, five years later, I’m seeing significant new benefits emerging. First, let me show you what’s changed in these five years. 

The big takeaway from that list: Exercise is much more accessible to me now because it’s habitual.

Back in 2012, I couldn’t exercise frequently even though I wanted to, simply because I didn’t like it enough. It takes time to teach the brain that something as challenging and physically exhausting as exercise is actually good and desirable.

Most of life’s best offerings are like exercise, in that they involve an upfront (and usually uncomfortable) physical and mental challenge in exchange for bigger-than-usual rewards later on. Think about the big projects you’ve completed. Think about the hard work you’ve done in your life. In the moment you’re working, it seems undesirable, but we all know they can bring rich rewards in time. Here’s why all of this matters.

Vice? Nice!

A vice is something pleasurable that you do in order to take a physical and mental break from life. The behaviors are often unhealthy as is, or if not, they can be unhealthy in excess. Common vices include:

  • TV
  • Video games
  • Drugs/alcohol/smoking
  • Overeating
  • Gambling
  • Sex/Porn/Masturbation
  • Junk food

Most people engage in one or more of these vices to counteract the stresses of life. We’re only human, after all. 

People often struggle to stop these bad habits, and it can cause problems, big and small.

  • Vices may get out of hand and become addictions (life-ruining territory)
  • Vices can drain our energy, finances, and time
  • Vices can subtly make one’s life less than it could be

The question everyone should be asking: Do we really need these vices? If not, why are they so hard to get rid of?

What’s Better: A Perfect Fantasy or Lousy Reality?

Vices solve a problem. In a way, they are remarkably effective on a level that most solutions are not. When you’re engaged in one of your vices, it’s like you enter a different, better world than the one you’re used to. It’s fantasy, but like the following scene in the Matrix suggests, sometimes we prefer a great fantasy to a poor reality.

The Matrix is a movie in which the reality humans perceive in their daily lives is actually a simulation in a system created by advanced sentient machines (it’s a fantasy). Movies are weird sometimes. A few humans, however, have become aware that the reality everyone knows isn’t so. While many of the in-the-know humans are filled with righteous anger at being deceived, Cypher has a different take on the situation.

Cypher says that “ignorance is bliss” as he eats a juicy (and fake) steak. And importantly, he asks that his knowledge that the delicious steak is fake be wiped from his mind. This is not dissimilar from what many people decide to do with their vices. They become so absorbed with the superior feelings they have in this “fake” world, that they want to forget reality and just live in fantasy. This is, of course, a terrible choice. 

A lousy reality is still better than a perfect fantasy because:

  1. Reality’s satisfaction potential is much higher. Cypher asked for his memory to be wiped because he knows that fantasy will never be as satisfying as reality. When you’re trying to live in fantasy, the cloud of reality will hang over you and make you really sad. We physically live in reality, whether we like it or not.
  2. Reality lasts much longer than fantasy. Every fantasy comes to an end, whether it’s in five minutes or five years. If you can make your reality awesome, it will last as long as you live!
  3. Fantasy has a cheap taste to it. The difference between watching an adventure in a movie and living one yourself is enormous. In fact, all fantasy does is make you want the real thing even more. This isn’t to say we should stop watching movies, it’s only to say that reality beats fantasy!
  4. Fantasy is an additive to reality. Fantasy is like sugar or salt—it can make certain things more appealing, but it’s not nutritious or sustaining enough on its own. If you only consume fantasy, your soul will feel sick. Reality is the main dish and dessert of life.

The Power of “Healthy Vices”

Healthy vice sounds like an oxymoron, and it technically is, but one definition of “vice” is simply “a bad habit.” When I say “healthy vice,” I don’t really mean “healthy bad habit” or “healthy immoral practice.” I’m getting at the function of a vice.

Vices are coping devices. Devices, haha. They help us deal with life’s pressures and stressors. But since vices are fantasies, it makes one wonder if there are alternative realities that could do a better job. There are, and here are a few of them!

  1. Exercise. Gym rats, as they’re lovingly called, are onto something. Many of them overdo it, probably, but they’re overdoing an extremely healthy and life-giving activity. If they end up looking like superheroes, bodybuilders, or models from their hours in the gym, that’s not so bad. Exercise relieves stress in a healthy way. I was absolutely enraged today over a couple things, and not only did it fuel an awesome workout, but the workout dramatically improved my mood! Exercise releases all kinds of feel-good chemicals, boosts your self-esteem, improves circulation, keeps you from smashing windows, and more.
  2. Reading. It’s possible that too much reading could be problematic, especially since it’s a sedentary activity, but reading is like putting your brain on a treadmill. Well, if you read tabloids, that’s like holding onto a treadmill wearing roller skates and may kill brain cells, but otherwise, reading is a great mental workout that lets you explore fantasy (fiction) in an empowering way.
  3. Hobbies. Examples: gardening, knitting, playing sports, playing music, writing, creating videos, sculpting, painting, housekeeping, building things, traveling, etc. Notice that all of these things involve self-improvement and skill-building. You can improve at hobbies. You can’t get better at drinking alcohol or watching TV. That’s why hobbies are inherently more satisfying in the long term, and they can still engage us enough to let our minds relax from other life stressors. Playing basketball is like a mental vacation to me, because I enjoy it so much and am fully engaged when I play.
  4. Socializing and relationships. People are the spice of life and healthy relationships are fulfilling. But be careful with this one, as some people are gateways to all sorts of vices! When you share a vice with someone else, everything is doubled. It’s twice as fun, but probably twice as dangerous if you encourage each other to overdo it.

That’s great! Now we can just switch over to these “healthy vices!” But that’s not so easy to do. It takes time for the brain to understand that playing the banjo is a worthwhile venture, especially since you start out sounding terrible. In that time, the brain will be begging you to go back to your vices.

Remember the table I showed you with my relationship to exercise? Can you see how important it is for me to be on the right side of the table above instead of the left? The key differences are that exercise is enjoyable to me and I do it frequently. This means that not only am I getting a stress-relieving effect from working out, but I’m getting it often. It’s been extremely rewarding!

I noticed that I’ve been going gambling less than half as often as I used to go. Importantly, I didn’t decide to go gambling less often. I simply haven’t wanted to go as often. This isn’t surprising, as gambling, while fun, is less rewarding than improving my body and health. That’s just one example of a good habit covertly stop a bad habit/vice in my life.

If It Isn’t Habit, It’s Not Strong Enough

I only noticed this vice-shrinking benefit when I ramped up my exercise frequency and intensity. But I was only able to do that because of the habitual foundation I’ve created for exercise in the last 4-5 years.

When something is habit, it means the brain understands its reward structure.

Not a lot of people realize the significance of this. We’ve all heard about the insane benefits of exercise, and that’s great, but knowing the benefit is not the same as your subconscious brain internalizing the benefit. Knowing broccoli is healthy is not the same as experiencing healthy benefits from broccoli consumption over a period of years. The difference is massive, and there are no shortcuts.

That’s why I never have and never will shut up about Mini Habits and my other books. For the few who have followed me since I started blogging in 2011, you’ve seen firsthand how these little behaviors have transformed my life in multiple areas and in multiple ways (and now many thousands of lives around the world). When I learned to be consistent with behaviors that matter, my life changed forever.

Consistency: I’ve sent a Tuesday newsletter for two (or three?) years straight, only missing one or two in that time. I’m in the best shape of my life, and getting stronger each day because I work out every day unless I need to rest. I’m learning more than ever before because I read more books. I’m the calmest, most confident, and baldest I’ve ever been in my life. Baldness is a virtue, right? I even shave my head consistently now. 🙂

This article observes an effect I’m just now seeing years after forming my exercise habit.

You can see that the benefits from developing good habits do not stop, they compound further. This is why I implore people to prioritize consistency above all else. It’s most important, and it’s not even close. Let everyone else chase fast results as you build your habitual base. Their motivation will fizzle out as you get stronger. They’ll fail consistently as you win consistently. They’ll boast about their ambitious goals only to quietly fall short and restart, and you’ll quietly obliterate your smaller goals now (and go on to crush their lofty goals later).

In conclusion, the feeling you get from vices is short-lived and pales in comparison to living a good life. But vices fulfill a need. In order to truly replace them, you need good habits that can fill the same need. And those habits require time, consistency, and sound strategy to build. In time, they can shrink or stop bad habits.

I don’t know if it’s healthy or even possible for people to remove all bad habits from their life, so I’m not suggesting that you try to stop them all. Rather, I want to point out a viable way to replace some of your vices naturally and automatically by pursuing good, real, life-giving habits in your life.

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