Have you ever spent an entire day wasting time away? Have you ever sat in front of the computer screen and stared mindlessly at Youtube videos for hours, knowing deep down that you hated what you were doing, but you were helpless to stop it? When a negative action becomes a habit, we can often become lost in time, or even pulled under by addiction. The ultimate feeling of futility is when you don’t like what you are doing, and you are aware of whats going, but you still have no control over your actions to make it stop. In these moments we are stuck in a downward spiral where each undesirable behavior creates momentum and desire for more of the same. There is a way to break this cycle, make your life better, and replace negative habits with actions that create an upward spiral of: self growth, happiness, and reward, and it all begins with a look into the habit cycle.
Each habit cycle begins with a cue, then the habit occurs, and finally there is the reward at the end of the cycle. The only way to decide if something is a beneficial or harmful habit is to take a look at the end result. If you view the reward of the habit and it is something that causes great feelings and a lasting sense of happiness and accomplishment, you have a good habit; however, if your reward feels good momentarily, but shifts into regret, anger, or disgust later on, then you have a negative habit.
Let us say that you have a habit of eating fast food each day at lunch; you always plan on getting a salad for lunch and you head out to one of your favorite restaurants- looking to eat some leafy greens. As you stand in line and look at the menu, the cue phase has already begun: you look at the menu and see all the great tasting junk you love, and soon you start craving the junk food. The craving you get is the cue, and as you crave the junk food your habit kicks in and overrides what you actually want. You may even tell yourself that you want the salad so you can feel better about yourself, but instead you give in and buy the cheeseburger.
As the habit takes hold over your decision, you order the cheeseburger, eat your meal, and receive your reward. The burger tastes great, the grease really calms your soul, and suddenly you are in utopia as you eat this unhealthy feast…and then… your reward is empty. Now you sit there in your cubicle at work, gorged and fat with grease and glutton as you feel sick with your decision, and you regret your choice. You promise yourself tomorrow will be different, but you already know it won’t, you have become the victim of a negative habit: your habit causes you to act in a way that is not consistent with what you want and it produces negative feelings that will make you more likely to get a cheeseburger again.
Now, lets take a look at a positive habit cycle. We will use the same example, except this this time, with someone who has created a positive series of cues to ensure their success. Dan is overweight, but he has lost 20 lbs in the last 3 months, and it all started with changing his cues and habits into something that would reward him long term. First, he stopped going to fast food places for lunch because the temptation was too strong. For a while he brought in his own pre made lunches; since he wasn’t going out for lunch, he had no temptation to eat the bad foods he once craved. After a few weeks of success, he started going to a local salad bar- there were still foods offered there that he knew he shouldn’t eat- but as he stood in line and looked at the junk food on the board, he thought of the progress he made with losing weight, and he thought about how much better he feels with a salad than a burger.
Because Dan formed a foundation of positive habits, when he now feels the cue to eat junk food, he is instead reminded of his new habit. As he goes to order, he sticks with his guns and he orders the salad bar. As he eats his salad he doesn’t get the immediate reward that he gets from a juicy burger, but as he gets up he feels accomplishment, he is proud of himself, and he goes back to work with renewed vigor and happiness. Next time for lunch, Dan goes into the burger joint because he is pressed for time, he doesn’t even consider a burger, and instead goes straight for the salad; soon Dan starts exercising, reading books, and falls in love with the girl of his dreams.
Your habits will either promote your idea of long term happiness, or they will tear down the life you truly wish to live. If you have a track record of a really bad habit, you need to first completely get away from the cues that cause the habit cycle to start. If you eat junk food, stay away from junk food; if you are a porn addict, stay away from the computer and internet, if you spend all day watching Youtube instead of studying for school, take your materials into nature or the library to study. The first step is to stop the negative cycle CUES. You cannot just exercise the willpower to stop, so don’t kid yourself: if you play with fire you WILL get burned.
After you have gotten away from the negative cues, its time to start building another habit instead.
You are 30 minutes early for work and the snack machine is calling your name, so what do you do? You get up, go outside, and go for a 20 minute walk. When you get back you feel better, don’t feel guilty, and you formed a productive habit. The positive feelings you have created from exercising will now carry on with you into over positive habits and accomplishments. Instead of a habit of eating chips from the machine each morning, you can now create a habit of showing up 20 minutes early and taking a walk to clear your mind for the day.
Each positive habit lifts you up, builds your happiness, and encourages more positive changes in your life. Each negative habit tears you down, makes you feel trapped by your impulses, and encourages more self destructive behavior. Don’t walk the line between good and bad, if you have a track record of doing the “wrong” thing (wrong being whatever is not in alignment with your long term dreams and goals), you need to get out of the cycle.
Don’t tempt yourself with the same actions and situations that cue your habit, remove yourself from the temptation completely and form new habits instead. Only after you have formed a track record of positive habits should you consider going back to your old ways- and even then with extreme caution. There is a passage from the bible I always remember from when I was younger, “If your right hand offendeth thee, cut it off”. It doesn’t literally mean cut off your hand, but it means if you keep doing something over and over again that you don’t like, get away from it, don’t continue to linger around or you will keep doing the same things forever.
You will enjoy the instant rewards in life much more when you practice good habits and self restraint. Eating a cheeseburger as a reward for 3 months of clean eating is an amazing feeling. The 1 cheeseburger you eat in a 3 month period will be the best tasting food you have ever eaten in your life and you can enjoy the experience without the guilt because you truly used the burger as a reward. Some things are meant to be as a gift to yourself, a special treat for a job well done. So if you really want a cheeseburger, tell yourself thats your reward for a month of eating right.
There is a balance to be found in life between indulgence and enjoyment, between sacrifice and suffering. Sometimes we must suffer to get what we really want, and sometimes we must let go of negative emotions and allow ourselves to really enjoy a moment; sometimes we must sacrifice our immediate happiness for our long term happiness. Everyone will find a different balance, a different unique set of circumstances that govern their lives, but one of the first steps to having and living the life you really want is figuring out what you really want, what you are doing wrong, and how to start replacing the actions you hate with actions that leave you feeling accomplished and happy. Fall in love with the process, make better choices, and form better habits: and most of all, enjoy the upward spiral.