Our brains excel at coming up with shortcuts. They have to. We’re exposed to too much information and too many choices to process everything.
Habits are one shortcut we take. We train—intentionally or not—our basal ganglia that when a certain condition is met, we take a specific action. Our phone dings, we check our phone for messages. We stand up, we straighten our shirt. We stub our toe, we yelp—even if it didn’t really hurt that much.
We can interrupt these habit loops if we want to. It’s just a question of how hard we want to make it.
The hard way to do it is to try to stop the behavior completely. Nature abhors a vacuum, and our brain knows that we need to do something. Like combat styles that emphasize deflecting an incoming attack over absorbing it, the best way to end a behavior is to adjust the behavior. Turn it into a new behavior.
If you’re trying to drink less soda, don’t focus on drinking less soda. Focusing on a thing we can’t have just makes us want it more. There’s also that pesky habit trigger that tells us we’re thirsty. We need to drink something!
Stopping is hard. Ask yourself if there’s a simpler change you can make that will take you closer to the end goal you’re really trying to achieve. If you can go straight to drinking water all day, great! Sometimes that’s too big of a change to make successfully in one step. What about switching to seltzer? Still too big? What about Diet Dr. Pepper? (I’ve heard it really does taste like regular Dr. Pepper.)
This works on one-off ideas, too. They’re like tiny little one-shot programs that will run once. They can be hard to stop, too.
I’ll occasionally want to pick up a dozen donuts on the way home from work. Or turnovers. Or a pie. Or a fifth flavor of ice cream. You know—something that my wife will absolutely be glad I picked up.
I’ve found that these ideas are best handled by turning the idea into another idea altogether. Instead of a surprise dessert, why not something already on the shopping list? Or call and ask if there’s anything I can pick up on my way home? Or pick up berries or a smoothie in a bottle.
I can squash the idea outright if I want to. But these other ideas are good ideas in their own right, budget permitting. I should eat more fresh berries and vegetables. What’s a five-minute errand for me could save her half an hour. If I can turn a spontaneous meteorite of an idea into something useful, I’ll do it.
Whatever choice you make, remember that you’ve got an end in mind that you’re trying to reach. If the first choice doesn’t take you in the right direction, make another choice.
You don’t have to make a perfect choice. Just find a way to make a better choice. Better adds up.