Don’t Break Bad Habits, Substitute Them

Jon Hawkins

A philosophical analysis of weakness of the will and achieving our well-intentioned goals.

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“You know, Toad,” said Frog with his mouth full, “I think we should stop eating. We will soon be sick.”
“Frog,” said Toad, “let us eat one very last cookie, and then we will stop.” Frog and Toad ate one very last cookie.
“We must stop eating!” cried Toad as he ate another.
“Yes,” said Frog, reaching for a cookie, “we need will power.”
“What is will power?” asked Toad.
“Will power is trying hard not to do something that you really want to do”
— (Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Together.)

Whether you’re addicted to cigarettes, can’t stop eating, or are attached to your phone 24/7, most human beings are well-intentioned. Especially when it comes to their own self-interests. They want to do right by themselves. Like Frog and Toad, they know exactly what they need to do to break their bad habits and have a plan to get there.

“Just stop eating cookies.”

Unfortunately, according to some Philosophers, humans are susceptible to weakness of the will (akrasia). It might be within our power to stop performing our bad habits, we may judge doing so as the right thing to do and want to. Yet, even with no distractions, we could fail to break them.

In the words of Frog, this happens when we lack the required willpower.

It’s why you can’t stop smoking, why I can’t stop browsing Facebook late at night, and why Frog and Toad are force-feeding themselves cookies until they’re sick.

The Circle of Habits

Avoiding unfavorable behaviors is pretty easy first-time around. I’ve never smoked, and know the negative consequences associated with doing so. So I find no difficulty in turning down a cigarette.

The problem, according to scientific communications advisor Sharon Basarba is that bad habits are often conditioned and reinforced behaviors. All it takes is a spark or mistake to start a trend. Once you’ve done it once and know the positives of doing so, you’re stuck in a behavioral cycle that’s difficult to break.

Let’s talk through a simple example to see how habits are formed and sustained. Consider brushing your teeth. It may be triggered by a cue (“it’s bed-time,”) the conditioned behavior of brushing your teeth follows — and the positive reinforcement ensues (your mouth feels clean and healthy.)

In a similar vein, negative behaviors are often triggered by cues and offer a reward. Smoking might offer anxiety relief, or in Toad and Frog’s case — the pleasure from eating is enough of a reinforcement.

It’s this positive reward that makes these habits so irresistibly difficult to break.

A Lack of Instrumental Rationality

In their 1996 paper Frog and Toad Lose Control,” Philosophers Jeanette Kennette & Michael Smith report one explanation as to why the two protagonists can’t stop eating:

  1. They know the positive effects of eating cookies.
  2. They lack instrumental rationality.

On their account, Frog and Toad both have two intrinsic desires. They have a strong desire to be healthy, and a weaker desire to experience pleasure. Having eaten cookies before, they also know that eating cookies will result in feelings of pleasure. These two intrinsic desires lead to two contradictory extrinsic desires (desires that lead to action):

  • They know eating cookies offers instant gratification, so they want to eat cookies.
  • They know eating cookies will make them sick, so they want to stop eating cookies.

Naturally, we would expect them to stop eating cookies, given their desire to be healthy is greater than their desire to feel pleasure. The reason they don’t, on this account, is because they lack instrumental rationality. Their impulse for instant gratification is so overbearing that it stunts their perception — and their desire to be healthy no longer entails a motivation to stop eating.

People like Frog and Toad want to have their cake and eat it. They’re not prepared to give up the gratification that comes from their bad habits, but they want to be healthy and avoid the negative consequences that come from doing so.

In trying to give up our bad habits, is there a way we can satisfy both of our extrinsic desires? Can we still achieve instant gratification while remaining fit and healthy?

Don’t Break Bad Habits, Substitute Them

As defined, bad habits are reinforced undesirable behaviors that offer such high levels of instant gratification that we are prepared to give up our other desires and values to satisfy them.

Often, we get addicted and reliant on these rewards, and the bad habits become entrenched in our day to day lives. That makes giving them up and going cold turkey much harder. It’s for this reason that being told “just stop doing it” rarely works.

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg argues the only way to break a circuit of bad habits is to identify the cue, routine, and reward they deliver. Consider smoking a cigarette. The cue might be a stressful day at work, the routine being your lunch break, reaping the reward of anxiety and stress relief.

Once you’ve identified these three components, you should work on achieving the same rewards in the cued environment, while breaking your bad habit.

For best-selling author James Clear, doing so requires us to swap out our bad habits for different behaviors that produce a similar benefit. For example, if you browse Facebook for hours because you’re bored, you should seek out other behaviors that help relieve boredom. Perhaps by going for a run or meeting up with friends. By making that substitution, you can reap the same benefits (a cure to boredom,) without the negative consequences of your bad habit (you procrastinated and wasted time).

Plan Ahead & Avoid the Triggers

I admit it. Some bad habits are easier to swap out than others. It’s pretty easy to stop browsing Facebook, but it’s not as easy to stop smoking.

Knowing this, we should also try and eliminate the causes of that temptation, by avoiding the triggers that force our undesired behaviors to come about.

In the words of James Clear:

“Right now, your environment makes your bad habit easier and good habits harder. Change your environment and you can change the outcome.”

If you smoke when you’re stressed, avoid stressful situations. If you eat cookies when you’re at Frog’s house, then invite him over to yours instead. Sure, breaking bad habits can be difficult. But you can make things easier for yourself by avoiding the triggers that bring about that temptation.

By contrast, swapping out your bad habits can be saved for when these triggers are unavoidable. If you have an unavoidable business meeting, then you can swap out running for smoking. Though in an ideal world, you would avoid the meeting and desire to smoke altogether.

By following these steps, you’re only facing these bad habits in uncontrollable circumstances, and when you do, you have a foolproof plan for combatting them

The Wrap-Up

We’ve all fallen victim to weakness of the will at some point or other. We give in to temptation, and end up performing actions that a part of us doesn't want to.

According to Jeanette Kennette & Michael Smith, one possible cause is that you lack instrumental rationality. You are blinded by the instant gratification that comes from your bad habits — so much so, that your desire to stop performing those actions doesn’t lead you to action,

It’s for this reason that being told to “just stop” rarely works. Instead of trying to break bad habits:

  • Where you can, swap out your bad habits for other behaviors that achieve the same benefits, with none of the downsides.
  • Where a habit is too intense and compulsive to simply swap out, avoid the triggers and cues that result in a desire to perform those actions in the first place.

In doing so, perhaps you will avoid the circumstances that Frog and Toad find themselves in. For if they don’t stop soon, they’re bound to be sick.

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Asking questions, seeking answers. I write articles that help you better understand the Universe. Durham University.

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