How to Break Bad Habits and Addictions Without Using Willpower

How to Break Bad Habits

Success, happiness and good health often elude us not because we lack good habits but because we have bad habits. Sometimes they are habits like procrastination or mindless spending. But at other times they can be addictions like smoking and gambling.

Knowing how our bad habits negatively influence our lives is rarely enough to break them. For example, all smokers are aware of the health consequences of smoking. Diseased lungs are displayed prominently in every cigarette pack. There would be no smokers in the world today if that worked.

This fails to work because we don’t do our bad habits for the reasons we should not do them. No smoker has ever smoked a cigarette to get cancer. Students don’t procrastinate to fail. So in order to break our bad habits, we must first remove the reason why we do them. In other words, we need to eliminate the desire to do the habit.

Once the desire is gone, it takes no willpower to break bad habits, just as it doesn’t take willpower to not do things we have no desire to do. It doesn’t take much effort to stop yourself from eating live frogs because you have no desire to do it. Breaking your bad habits can be just as effortless. You just need the right belief and the right system.

Our Habits Controls Us

From the outside, it would seem that our bad habits is a matter of choice. Smokers, for example, do make the choice of trying their first cigarette. But no smoker has ever made a decision that they will keep smoking for the rest of their lives. We often fall into the trap thinking we can stop whenever we want, only to realize that we no longer have any control. When we watch the first episode of a TV show, we end up binge watching multiple seasons at a stretch because we cannot stop ourselves. Every addict wishes inside that he had never started because life was fine before their addiction but now they are hooked and cannot enjoy life without satisfying their craving.

Researchers from National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism trained rats to press a lever to get a piece food. The researchers later electrified the floor so that when the rat walked to get the food, it received a shock. In a different experimental setting, the rat recognized the danger in the electric floor and would avoid it. But when the rat saw the lever, the habits took over and the rat would press the lever and go for the food and get electrocuted every time. The rat could not stop itself in spite of being aware of the danger because the habits were so strong. 1 

Similarly, dieters find it hard to resist junk, smokers struggle to quit and students procrastinate on their assignments in spite of being aware of the consequences it has on their lives. Strong habits create an obsessive craving which makes our brain behave on autopilot even if there are strong disincentives like loss of job, health, reputation, family or home.

When We Use Willpower to Quit, We Fail

We usually try to break bad habits using willpower, which makes us feel we are making a sacrifice. A Harvard study showed the 12 month success rates of people who used the willpower method to quit smoking with no education or support was 6%. 2 

When using willpower to quit, we find life extremely unpleasant and difficult and have to be cautious all the time to prevent relapse. This is because the desire to do the habit always remains inside us.

10% of former smokers who abstained from smoking for ten years showed ongoing cravings even years later. 3 Mere abstinence does not mean we have broken our habit. It just means we don’t allow ourselves to do our habit. A person who does not drink alcohol but who is constantly thinking about alcohol is not a non-alcoholic but is an alcoholic who does not let himself drink.

We see the benefits of breaking our habits but also believe it provides us with something which we are now depriving ourselves of. This makes us miserable, vulnerable and increases desire that begins to obsess us. We try to overcome this by not thinking about our craving but that only makes us more obsessed.

Believing our problems can be easily solved by doing our bad habits we begin to question our decision to break our bad habits. Finally, we accept defeat and cave in. This minor relapse makes us feel bad and we indulge in the very same habit that made us feel bad, to feel better.

We fail to break our bad habits not because we lack willpower but because we don’t eliminate desire. Without desire, willpower is not required to stop, just as it doesn’t take willpower to not do the things we have no desire to do.

Why Does Our Brain Form Habits If They Are Bad?

Habits is a way for the brain to save effort by making rewarding behaviour automatic. Without habits, you will have to relearn how to brush your teeth every morning. Habits are useful but the problem is our brain cannot tell the difference between good and bad habits. Behavior that gives us short-term rewards often becomes habits, even if they cause long-term harm. Overeating, procrastinating and smoking becomes habit easily because the rewards are instant and the pain comes later. Developing the habit of exercising is harder because the reward comes later.

Schultz from the University of Cambridge, trained a monkey named Julio to pull a lever when a shape appeared on computer screen. Pulling the lever gave Julio a drop of blackberry juice which made the pleasure centres of his brain light up. When his brain started craving for the juice, Julio was glued to the monitor like a gambler in a slot machine. If the juice arrived late or diluted, this craving would turn into anger & depression. 4 

Charles Duhigg’s book, “The Power of Habit” focuses on the 3 components of a habit. The first component is the trigger, which tells the brain to start doing a particular behaviour (shapes in Julio’s monitor). The second component is the behaviour that is done (Julio pulling the lever). The third part is the reward for doing the behaviour (Julio’s blackberry juice). The habit is formed when the brain starts to crave for the reward as soon as the brain sees the trigger. There is nothing programmed in our brains that makes us want to overeat or smoke. But over time we slowly develop a neurological craving for these things.

Break The Habit By Seeing The Reward As An Illusion

The first step to breaking your bad habit is identifying the reward.

What do you really get doing your habit?

If the rewards you think your habits provided were actually real, then you can break your bad habits, simply by switching your existing habit with a healthier behaviour that provided the same reward. For example, if you eat junk at work for distraction, then you can break your habit simply by replacing eating junk with a healthier distraction that does not add to your waistline. This is the premise of the book “The Power of Habit” and this works well for weaker habits. But try telling a smoker to resist his urge for smoking when he is bored by entertaining himself on YouTube. He won’t be a successful non-smoker for very long. This is because most rewards of our habits are illusions.

“Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace.” - Dalai Lama Click to Tweet

We often rationalize why we do our bad habits but all the reasons we use to justify our behaviour are an illusion, excuses, fallacies or based on myth. For example, smokers believe they need cigarettes to relax, relieve stress, to concentrate or to relieve boredom. But cigarettes do not give them any of this. If it did, they should be a lot more relaxed, focused and less bored than non-smokers.

Most of us brainwash ourselves in a certain way that keeps us doing our bad habits. Only by identifying what we think is the reward can we address and remove the myths we have about the reward. When we begin to see through the illusory rewards, we eliminate desire by realizing that there is nothing to give up.

What We Give Up When We Break Bad Habits?

What are we giving up when we break our bad habits? Well, most of the time you are giving up absolutely nothing.

We don’t do our bad habits for pleasure. We do it to feel normal. This feels like pleasure. A drug addict feels miserable, anxious, stressed and angry when he is deprived of his drug. When he shoots up his drug, he gets relief from all the negative symptoms. The subsequent dose partially relieves the symptoms but also ensures that the addict goes through withdrawal again. This keeps the addict stuck in the vicious habit loop. Normal people do not experience the symptoms of the drug addict. When we look at this it is obvious to us that the symptoms the drug addict experiences are caused by the drug, not removed by it. But we fail to have the same understanding when it comes to our bad habits.

Our bad habits cause symptoms of craving that normal people don’t experience. We do our bad habits to partially relieve the symptoms but it only keeps us stuck in the vicious habit loop ensuring we experience the symptoms of craving again.

Unlike drug addiction which might require a visit to rehab, the craving caused by most bad habits including alcohol and smoking can be killed immediately when the belief system is changed. If you are not entirely convinced that there is nothing to give up, you need to examine the rewards of your bad habits and see them for what they really are. Otherwise, you will feel craving and will have to use willpower to prevent relapse.

The 4 Illusory Rewards

If you think your habit provides any of the following 5 rewards, you probably have an illusory reward:

  1. Relieves stress
  2. Relieves boredom
  3. Improves concentration
  4. Relieves anxiety and gives confidence

We will address the common myths people have about each of these rewards which will help dispel the illusion.

Reward 1 – Relief From Stress & Relaxation

For many, habits provide relaxation and relief from stress. We all have several things stressing us out. Not just big tragedies but relatively minor things like work deadlines. We do our bad habits to relieve this stress and the stress does seem to go away. But what has really happened?

Apart from the environmental stress, we experience additional stress because of the aggravation caused by craving. Bad habits relieve this portion of stress it created through craving. But our real-world stress like work deadlines continues to exist. When we do our habits we feel better able to cope with this stress because we temporarily don’t have the additional stress caused by the craving to deal with.

A study has shown that we fall back into our habits when we are stressed because we feel less anxiety and more in control when we do our habits. 5  People who have been sober for years relapse when a major life catastrophe happens like a death of a loved one or divorce. This is because of a failure to understand that alcohol does not relieve stress but only adds to the problem.

The habits that we fall back on during times of stress need not be bad. In a study, students who habitually ate a healthy breakfast continued to eat healthy during the stressful period of their exams. Whereas students who gained extra weight during their exams had a habit of eating unhealthy. 6   Consciously engineering your habits is important so that your habits make you better and not worse during times of stress. The post on how to form a habit will help you create good habits.

Reward 2 – Relief From Boredom

Some people do their habit because they are bored. Boredom is a frame of mind and not a physical condition that can be cured. Initially, we are bored. Now we are bored and engaged in self-destructive behaviour. Our bad habits do not cure boredom. It just creates a temporary distraction that allows us to forget that we are bored.

If our bad habits did relieve boredom, then why do we have to engage in it multiple times or do it for longer periods at a stretch?

Most bad habits rob us of our energy and make us more lethargic, putting us in a state of mind where we cannot do anything else. Instead of doing something when bored like how a normal person would, we lounge around, do our bad habit and feel more bored.

If you know someone who plays excessive video games or who spends hours in front of the TV, you will see they are not any less bored. They will be extremely tired and will feel like shit for wasting so much time.

Reward 3 – Helps Concentration & Removes Mental Block

If you think your bad habits removes mental blocks and improves concentration, then you are not alone. Some of the greatest artists of the world including Van Gogh and Beethoven were addicts. But curing addiction does not lower creativity because your genes do not change. 7  It is just your craving that goes away. So what really happens?

A study done on 96 undergraduates showed a reduction in the student’s ability to do tasks that required visuospatial memory, when they experienced craving for chocolate. 8  In other words, craving negatively affected the student’s ability to remember.

Our bad habits cause craving which creates a distraction that makes it difficult to concentrate. When we need to concentrate we do our habits to eliminate the distraction caused by our craving. We give credit to our bad habits for helping us concentrate when it was responsible for the distraction to begin with. People without bad habits will not have problems with concentration because they don’t experience the craving.

Over time people who believe that their bad habits help them concentrate begin to believe that it removes mental blocks. After you do your bad habits, your block will still exist, but only now you will get the job done just like how anybody would have done it. But your bad habits get the credit for helping you get the work done.

Your bad habits provide no mental performance advantage and believing it does is based on fallacy and myth.

Reward 4 – Confidence & Anxiety Relief

We acknowledge the relief provided by our bad habit as it removes the small amount of emptiness and insecurity. But we don’t acknowledge that this emptiness and insecurity are the symptoms of our bad habits in the first place.

People who have had their bad habits for many decades have been in a perpetual state of anxiety and emptiness so their bad habits seem to be the only way to get confidence and a relief from this feeling. Our bad habits do not relieve the anxiety in our lives, it causes it. People without bad habits never feel this insecurity or anxiety, to begin with.

Freedom from the self-loathing and dependency is one of the biggest positive changes people see in their lives when they break their habits. They are more relaxed and confident after breaking their bad habits and are better able to deal with their anxieties if it is not gone altogether.

Relief From Craving is The Only Reward

Craving and withdrawal can make you insecure, irritable, anxious or agitated. Though there is no physical pain, it causes mental agony giving us a feeling that something is not right. For example, smokers believe that withdrawal is a physical trauma caused by not satisfying their craving. But eight hours after putting out the last cigarette, a smoker is 97% nicotine-free. 9  This happens every night during sleep. Only during the day does he feel the need to smoke every hour to fix his craving. After three days of not smoking, a smoker is 100% nicotine-free. Yet smokers relapse because of craving after months of abstinence. 9  The truth is withdrawal and craving is almost always psychological even for smokers & alcoholics.

We associate our bad habits with pleasure because we see them satisfy our craving, but don’t see them causing it. Our craving is not cured by our bad habits but is caused by it.

We might have started doing our bad habits for many reasons, but the only reason why we keeping doing them is to feed the craving. Every time we do our habit, the craving is satisfied temporarily. This provides a temporary relief, putting us in a normal state of mind. But by doing our habit, we have set ourselves up to experience craving again in the future. The more we feed our craving, the more it takes to satisfy it. Smokers go from one cigarette to chain smoking fairly quickly.

“Ultimately it’s the desire, not the desired, that we love.” - Friedrich Nietzsche Click to Tweet

What we really enjoy is not our bad habits but the feeling we get when our craving is satisfied. It is like putting on tight shoes just for the pleasure of taking them off. This is why by breaking bad habits, you are giving up nothing.

Hidden Drivers of Bad Habits

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) have a concept called dry drunk, where alcoholics stop drinking but still remain angry, selfish and narcissistic. Our bad habits are often symptoms of some inner conflict. Things like anger, shame, loneliness, fear and hopelessness that makes people start doing their bad habits, needs to be addressed first. Until the flawed beliefs are fixed, we will always remain vulnerable to relapse. The habit of procrastination, for example, can be fixed only temporarily, if the underlying fear of failure is left unaddressed.

Bad habits are a way for our sub-conscious mind to avoid the real inner conflict that exists inside us. The inner conflict is either a bitter truth (“I am ashamed of my past”) or a distorted assumption (“I screw up everything” or “I am better than everybody”). This inner conflict is never a mystery but we make it a mystery because acknowledging the truth is uncomfortable. It is easier to think we have no choice or control over our lives than it is to take responsibility for fixing it.

The best way to fix inner conflicts is through therapy which works by bringing our inner conflict to light causing them to vaporize like a vampire. The next best way is service. Helping others has helped AA members reduce their desire to drink. A study of 195 addicted adolescents showed that treatment showed substantial improvement when it was accompanied by service. 10  This works because love neutralizes shame and service to others reduce obsession and craving by eliminating the inner conflict. Helpfulness may not help break bad habits by itself, but it addresses the internal conflicts that create craving.

The System To Break Bad Habits

Now that we have addressed the core beliefs and issues that make us do our bad habits, let us look at the step by step system to break bad habits. With this system, you will be able to break any habit easily and effortlessly without using willpower.

Helping Others Break Bad Habits

Do not patronize the person you are trying to help, by telling them why their habits are bad. They already know this and don’t do their bad habits for the reasons they shouldn’t do it. They do their bad habits to feel normal.

Do not tell them breaking bad habits is easy as it will only irritate them. Give them the support and praise to keep them moving forward.

Do not force them to break their bad habits. Even if they try, they will use willpower to quit and end up failing. Tell them that people who succeeded in breaking their habits did not use willpower but instead addressed their flawed beliefs. Tell them how their bad habits only remove their need to do the habit which is perceived as pleasure by the brain. But in reality, their bad habit do not give them anything.

When they start believing that they can break their bad habits, their mind will begin to open up and that is when they are ready to read this post. Mention that there is no pressure to break their bad habits. If they want to continue to do their bad habits after reading this post, they can.

Where To Go From Here

The key to making it easy to break bad habits is to make your decision final and certain. Don’t worry whether or not you have broken your bad habit. Know that you have. Do not ever doubt your decision. Celebrate it. Withdrawal is entirely psychological and if you are sulking, it only means you have not addressed your belief systems yet. Revisit Steps 2 to 4 in the system.

Breaking bad habits require work and developing a self-understanding. Bookmark this page in your browser or save the link somewhere you can easily refer to in the future. Do not lose it. It is not a bad thing to read this post again in the future because it will help you be in the zone and keep you in the right frame of mind.

Don’t make the mistake of procrastinating and not applying what you have learnt. You can wait for as long as you want to break your bad habits but the right time will never come and your habits are not going to be any easier to break tomorrow.

Some people think their bad habits has not caused any problem yet, so it is not a big deal if they don’t break their habits now. The best time to fix the roof is when it is not raining. Don’t wait for things to go wrong before you fix your bad habits. Break your bad habits now.



Our Habits Control Us
1.  Lamarre, J. and Holland, P.C., 1987. Transfer of inhibition after serial feature negative discrimination training. Learning and Motivation,18(4), pp.319-342; Holland, P.C., 1984. Differential effects of reinforcement of an inhibitory feature after serial and simultaneous feature negative discrimination training. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 10(4), p.461; Dickinson, A., 1977. Appetitive–aversive interactions: Superconditioning of fear by an appetitive CS. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 29(1), pp.71-83.
When We Use Willpower To Quit, We Fail
2. Rigotti, N.A., 2012. Strategies to help a smoker who is struggling to quit. JAMA, 308(15), pp.1573-1580.
3.  Hughes, J.R., 2010. Craving among long-abstinent smokers: An Internet survey. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 12(4).
Why Does Our Brain Form Habits If They Are Bad?
4.  Schultz, W., Apicella, P. and Ljungberg, T., 1993. Responses of monkey dopamine neurons to reward and conditioned stimuli during successive steps of learning a delayed response task. The Journal of Neuroscience, 13(3), pp.900-913; Tremblay, L. and Schultz, W., 1999. Relative reward preference in primate orbitofrontal cortex.Nature, 398(6729), pp.704-708.
Relief From Stress & Relaxation
5.  Wood, W., Quinn, J.M. and Kashy, D.A., 2002. Habits in everyday life: thought, emotion, and action. Journal of personality and social psychology, 83(6), p.1281-97.
6.  Neal, D.T., Wood, W. and Drolet, A., 2013. How do people adhere to goals when willpower is low? The profits (and pitfalls) of strong habits. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(6), p.959.
Helps Concentration & Removes Mental Block
7.  Biello, David. “Is There A Link Between Creativity And Addiction?“. Scientific American. N.p., 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2016.
8.  Tiggemann, M., Kemps, E. and Parnell, J., 2010. The selective impact of chocolate craving on visuospatial working memory. Appetite, 55(1), pp.44-48.
Relief From Craving is The Only Reward
9.  Benowitz, N.L., Jacob, P.I.I.I., Jones, R.T. and Rosenberg, J., 1982. Interindividual variability in the metabolism and cardiovascular effects of nicotine in man. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 221(2), pp.368-372.
Hidden Drivers of Bad Habits
10.  Kelly, J.F., Pagano, M.E., Stout, R.L. and Johnson, S.M., 2011. Influence of Religiosity on 12-Step Participation and Treatment Response Among Substance-Dependent AdolescentsJournal of studies on alcohol and drugs, 72(6), pp.1000-1011.
Step 1 – Bringing Your Bad Habits To Light
11.  Soman, D., 2001. Effects of payment mechanism on spending behavior: The role of rehearsal and immediacy of payments. Journal of Consumer Research, 27(4), pp.460-474.
Step 2 – Create A Habit Log
12.  Grasing, K., Mathur, D. and Desouza, C., 2010. Written emotional expression during recovery from cocaine dependence: group and individual differences in craving intensity. Substance use & misuse, 45(7-8), pp.1201-1215.
Step 6 – Make Habits Inconvenient
13.  Hofmann, W., Baumeister, R.F., Förster, G. and Vohs, K.D., 2012. Everyday temptations: an experience sampling study of desire, conflict, and self-control. Journal of personality and social psychology, 102(6), p.1318.
Step 7 – Eliminate Triggers
14.  Meyler, D., Stimpson, J.P. and Peek, M.K., 2007. Health concordance within couples: a systematic review. Social science & medicine, 64(11), pp.2297-2310.
Step 8 – Recondition People Around You
15.  Meyer, R.E. ed., 2012. The heroin stimulus: Implications for a theory of addiction. Springer Science & Business Media.
Step 10 – Distracting Your Mind
16. Jeffry, S. and Sharon, B., 2002. The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force, 84.
Step 16 – Find Groups of Like Minded People
17.  Humphreys, K., Moos, R.H. and Cohen, C., 1997. Social and community resources and long-term recovery from treated and untreated alcoholism.Journal of studies on alcohol, 58(3), pp.231-238.
Step 17 – Serve Others to Neutralize Negativity
18.  Cutler, R.B. and Fishbain, D.A., 2005. Are alcoholism treatments effective? The Project MATCH data. BMC Public Health, 5(1), p.1.
19.  Wiechelt, S.A., 2007. The specter of shame in substance misuse. Substance use & misuse,42(2-3), pp.399-409.
20.  Zemore, S.E. and Pagano, M.E., 2008. Kickbacks from helping others: Health and recovery. Recent developments in alcoholism (pp. 141-166). Springer New York.
21.  Post, S.G., 2005. Altruism, happiness, and health: It’s good to be good. International journal of behavioral medicine, 12(2), pp.66-77.
Step 18 – Do Not Give Yourself False Rewards
22.  Levine, M.D., Marcus, M.D., Kalarchian, M.A., Weissfeld, L. and Qin, L., 2006. Weight concerns affect motivation to remain abstinent from smoking postpartum. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 32(2), pp.147-153.

2 thoughts on “How to Break Bad Habits and Addictions Without Using Willpower”

  1. In example one, the rat pushes the lever for food. When electrocution is introduced, the rat continues to attempt to get the food. This seems to me to be more of a survival mechanism? Is addiction therefore considered to be about survival? How can substance abuse be compared with the basic instincts of water and food, I.e. survival?

    • Great question. My understanding is that these rat tests are controlled for factors like hunger and purely analyzed the role habits played in the behavior of these rats. Our addiction to food is not always linked to hunger. For example, most people who have an addiction to sugar crave sweets even when they have a full meal. So these tests done on rat analysed the impact of habits and addictions in a similar way after controlling for things like hunger and thirst.

      Are habits and addictions linked to our survival mechanism?
      Yes they are. Our brains creates habits by releasing dopamine for behaviors that it thinks will help us survive. But our brains evolved during a time when unnatural rewards like drugs, substances, instagram or porn did not exist. For example, our brains are designed to release dopamine and reward us for reproduction, but it not really well-equipped to differentiate between porn and real sex. This leads to addiction of the wrong thing that is destructive for us eventhough the brain thinks it is helping our surival. Drugs and other chemical substances hijacks the reward system in a similar way and release chemical in brains that makes us feel good.

      In the rat example, after multiple repetitions, the rat did not care about the nourishment provided by the food as much as it craved for the dopamine release that the habit provided.

      Hope this clarifies.

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