How To Deal With Negative Thinking And Quitting Habit

We may reflect that it is a fact of life that we have negative thoughts. Accordingly, in real matter we can get locked into negative thinking, self-judgment, and harshness … and this can be a big obstacle to changing habits. If we do not think we can do it, we probably will not. If we think the habit sucks, we probably will not stick with it for long. If we complain about how tired or stressed we are, we will probably skip the habit because it is too hard to do it right now. We might think, “I suck at this, I’m weak and undisciplined, I can not do this, I never stick to anything.” In some ways, this is because we have an identity of never sticking to anything (see the previous chapter). But in other ways, it is because we were allowing this negative thinking to control our lives. We were letting the self-judgment stop us. So, how do we get out of this? It is not always easy, I will admit, so it is good to be forgiving of ourselves if we slip up in this area.

Here is what it may recommend:

First, Notice when you are being judgmental of yourself, or stuck in negative thinking. Just see it happening. Journaling can help with this.

Second, Just acknowledge it with gentleness and a sense of humor: “Ah, I’m doing it again,” you might say with a smile.

Third, Notice the difficult feeling in your body — not your thoughts about it, but the physical feeling. How does it feel? Stay with the physical feeling for a minute.

Fourth, Have compassion for this feeling — a loving feeling of not wanting to have this stress in your body. Send yourself a warm, loving feeling.

Fifth, Change the story: instead of saying that you suck or can not do it, instead of saying that the habit sucks … say that you’re doing something great just by attempting it. You are building trust in yourself. You were trying to do something good for others. You are grateful for the opportunity to practice with this. You appreciate the moment as you’re doing it. These stories are helpful.

The truth is, we all have these moments of judgment and negativity. It is OK. It does not mean anything bad about us. Instead, we can acknowledge our difficulty, and see if we can be compassionate about it and find a way to appreciate the love we have as we were trying to create a new habit. I thought I would address questions and common habit struggles submitted by readers.

First, Implementing habits despite depression or anxiety or ADHD. Unfortunately these three conditions make it difficult to form new habits. Acknowledge this, and start small and do not try to form too many. Habits such as meditation, exercise and journaling can be very helpful for these conditions, so focus on those habit first, and see them as a way to help yourself through difficulties.

Second, I struggle with juggling new habits with family schedules, having toddlers, lots of work. It is good to acknowledge that it is difficult to find the room for new habits when you have so much going on. But also acknowledge that there is probably a little wiggle room — time you spend watching TV or browsing the Internet or social media on your phone, for example. You can sacrifice a little of this for the habit you most want to form — if it is important, you can make the time. Keep the habit very small, and you will be able to make the small amount of room you need. Do not form too many at once; make it a very gradual process because you already have a lot going on. And create habits that are helpful for making more space, like waking a little earlier or picking a couple tasks to focus on each morning.

Third, Changes in physical environment mess up my triggers. You have realized that triggers are completely dependent on your physical environment, which is an important realization. So if you have a changing physical environment, like if you travel a lot, you will need to have a way to remember to put physical reminders in your new environment. I suggest planning ahead each week, so you can look at what will be changing and set calendar and phone reminders. When you get the phone reminder, put a physical note or object to remind you in your new environment (like your running shoes next to your bed in your hotel room). Also ask someone to remind you if you need it.

Fourth, How do I recover a good habit that I lost? Acknowledge that you have fallen out of the habit, and that you want to get back into it. Spend a minute thinking about your deeper motivation, your trigger, and your commitment and accountability. Then start again, simply and as small as possible. Just get started again, without criticizing yourself for stopping. Put some focus into it for a month, so that it becomes more automatic, but be mindful of when you get disrupted or feel like skipping it.

Fifth, When can I add additional habits to the mix? Slowly. When the first habit becomes more and more automatic, consider adding a second habit but starting small and not increasing the first habit much. Keep both small so you can fit them into your life. Repeat the process with the third habit, but add only very gradually. I would give each habit at least a month of full focus before adding another. Six weeks would be even better if you can find the patience.

Sixth, I get bored with my rate of progress. That is because we were impatient to get all of our habits done. But it’s an ineffective way of forming habits, so stick with the gradual method. You did not form your current habits overnight — it took years. So expect new habits to take time as well. If you are bored, use each day’s habit as a form of meditation, trying to pay close attention to every detail, focusing on the fun of doing it and learning in the moment. There is a lot to learn, if you pay attention. Alternatively, do the habit socially — go for a walk with a friend, meditate with others, join a group challenge.

Seventh, I have a hard time with habits I dislike, like exercise and studying. The problem is seeing them as something you dislike. Change your story about them — see them as a great learning process, a way to love yourself, a way to make you better able to help others. Do them in small bits at first, so they are not too uncomfortable. Find things to appreciate about the moment as you do them. Add a social component to make them more enjoyable.

Eighth, After building a new habit every day for a few months, I tend to revert to old habits again. It is good to be aware of this tendency. When you find yourself starting to revert, ask people for help. Get some accountability going, make the habit smaller if needed, add a social component or some challenge to make it more fun. And remind yourself of your deeper motivation, so you will want to keep doing it.

Ninth, How do I stick to habits on weekends (when my kids are around all day)? You can either skip them on weekends if it’s too difficult, or find a way to get your kids involved, or find some space (like in the early mornings or evenings) where you can do them without interruptions. Put some extra focus and reminders and accountability on weekends so you do not forget.

Tenth, How do I move from intentional practice to effortlessly integrating? Slowly. Things become more and more automatic with time, and eventually you do not have to think about it much. But intentional practice is a really good thing, so do not rush through it. Find gratitude and appreciation each time you do the habit, and do it with love.

Eleventh, How do I find the balance between making the habit important and not obsessive? Great question! It is very useful to make the habit important — if you have a deeper motivation, then it is definitely worth putting some focus into it. But it is also useful to be mindful of a tendency to over focus, to overcommit, to over obsess. If you find yourself doing that, pause, breathe, and take a step back. See that you are getting too lost in the weeds, too lost in your ideals about the habit. See if there is something else you can put your focus on for the rest of the day, and only put your focus on the habit at the appropriate time.

Twelfth, I struggle with believing deeply that I deserve the good that changing habits can bring. See the chapter on Changing Your Identity — you see yourself as someone who is not worthy of good changes. Instead, start to form an identity of a good person who loves herself or himself, who wants good changes and is willing to put in the loving work to make them stick. Yes, this will take some time, but you can make this change. Ask for help from others in your life if needed.

Thirteenth, What I would really like to know is what is the end-game, the payoff? Why even bother with habits? We can go through life mindlessly, and it would be a waste of the gift we have been given. We can go through life thinking it is not worth much, but that would be a waste, not appreciating the beauty in front of us. In the end, I think life is filled with goodness, filled with small joys, if we just pay attention. In this way, forming habits is a conscious, intentional way of living, and being mindful is the way of seeing the goodness in life.

In this matter, I am going to go into three areas:(1) Quitting bad habits, which is a more complicated habit skill than forming a new habit, (2) Other types of habits like irregular habits, which are also a bit more complicated and (3) Common habits that a lot of people want to form. The bulk of this section will be about specific habits that lots of people are interested in creating. I do not go into a lot of depth on any of them, but just share some notes for each. You will see that a lot of the ideas we have already talked about can be applied to these specific habits. Forming a new, positive habit is the basic habit method I recommend in this book, because it is the easiest version of habit change. Start with the basic method first, before moving on to harder techniques like quitting a bad habit. However, eventually you will want to quit a bad habit — smoking, junk food, chewing your nails, drinking too much, watching YouTube too much, etc. So let us talk about that. But you should be aware that this is a big topic, and I am only going to touch on these topics briefly here.

When You are Ready to Quit:

First hone your habit-forming skills by forming several new, positive habits before trying to quit a bad habit. But you know you are ready to quit when you have a very strong desire to quit, and are willing to put in the hard work and time needed to quit a habit. You should have a very strong reason to quit, a deeper motivation. It is not easy, so you have to be willing to put up with strong urges, with rationalizations, and with lots of doubts about whether you should be doing this or not.

Gradual vs. Cold Turkey

When I quit smoking, I quit cold turkey. I set a quit date two weeks in the future, and counted down the days until that date. I used the two weeks until my quit date to prepare by listing my triggers and coming up with replacement habits (see sections below). Then when my quit date came, I told myself, “Not one puff ever!” And I did not smoke again (though it was quite a struggle). If you are going to do it this way, I recommend a nicotine replacement patch, which I did not use myself. However, that is a pretty difficult way to quit, and many psychologists recommend a more gradual method. For example, you might smoke fewer cigarettes per day at first, and gradually wean yourself off cigarettes one step at a time. If you want to quit junk food, you might slowly replace your junk snacks with whole foods (like fruit and carrots and raw unsalted nuts). I recommend the gradual method, but it does take longer. That means you have to have a long view, and some patience. If you do not have the patience, and think you can muster the courage to go cold turkey, give it a try … but be ready to also try the gradual method if you don’t make cold turkey work.

Listing Your Triggers:

I recommend spending a few days making tally marks on a piece of paper every time you do your bad habit or get the urge to do your bad habit. Carry a pen and paper around and try to catch the urge as often as you can, making a tally mark and also writing down what triggered the urge (eating, stress, being around others who smoke, being at a bar, etc.). By making tally marks, you are developing an awareness of the urge. By making a list of triggers, you’re starting to see what triggers the urge, and taking the first step in making a plan to find replacement habits. Be prepared to add other triggers to your list later, as you discover new ones you did not find at first.

Coping & Finding Replacement Habits:

Your bad habit actually serves a purpose — it helps you cope with stresses. Those stresses might include feeling lonely, angry, frustrated, depressed, hurt, anxious, overwhelmed, and so on. This is a useful purpose, but obviously the bad habit is not a great method for coping with these stresses because it causes other problems, and those problems themselves cause more stress. So a key part of quitting a bad habit is finding other ways to cope with stresses. Those might include mindfulness and meditation, taking a bath, having tea, going for a walk, exercising, doing yoga, getting a massage (or massaging yourself), talking to someone, simplifying your schedule, or other strategies. And an important strategy is to find a replacement habit for each trigger on your list from the section above. If the trigger is “getting into an argument,” then you should find a positive replacement habit for coping with the stress of an argument — perhaps meditation or going for a walk, instead of smoking. Make a list with a replacement habit for each trigger, and see if you can start to form these new habits very consciously from now on.

Getting the Support:

Creating new habits and fighting the urges to go to the old habit will not be the easiest thing in the world. It is good to have others who support your efforts. Ask the important people in your life for help, commit to them and ask for accountability. Promise to tell them when you are struggling with an urge, and ask for some kind of help from them when that happens. If you do not have anyone in your life you can ask for support, look to online forums for help. There are lots of people going through what you are going through, and you can learn from what they have done successfully and how they have overcome difficulties. And ask them for help when you are struggling.

Finding the Willpower:

You might find that you really want to change a bad habit, but you just do not seem to have the willpower. It is a big project, after all! I suggest that you commit yourself to a small change. For example, you might smoke three fewer cigarettes per day (give yourself a cigarette allowance). Or eat fruit as one of your afternoon snacks instead of sweets. Tell others about it, ask for accountability, make a big public challenge with a consequence, and keep the change very small. And remember your deeper reason for wanting to make this change. This means you will be very motivated but will not have to do too much work. Be all in, and make it easy!

Changing Your Identity:

In the end, you have to change how you see yourself. I used to see myself as a “smoker,” but that wasn’t helpful. So I started seeing myself as a “non-smoker,” and that helped a lot. I changed myself from a person who ate junk food to a vegan who ate mostly whole foods, and this shift in identity became an important part of who I am, and made sticking to the changes much easier. Over the years, I have gone from a disorganized hoarder to a minimalist; from a sedentary person to a marathoner and weight lifter; from a procrastinator to a productive writer; from an impatient dad to a loving father; from a distracted person to a meditator. I am not perfect at any of these things, but my changes in identity have changed my life.

Again, the basic habit method in this book is to create a new, positive habit that happens once per day. That is because it is the easiest kind of habit to form. However, eventually (after 3-5 successful habits, perhaps), you will want to learn how to form other kinds of habits. Besides quitting bad habits, there are a few others you might be interested in forming (and note that there is a lot of overlap between these categories):

First, Irregular habits: These are habits that might occur infrequently and not at regular intervals. For example, you might have the habit of overeating when you go out with friends (maybe a couple times a month?), or responding in anger when you talk about politics with your parents (a few times a year?). The triggers are unpredictable, and might not happen for days, weeks, or even months.

Second, More frequent habits: Lots of habits happen more than once per day. For example, overeating might happen two or three times a day, and getting stuck in email might happen four times a day.

Third, Thinking or emotional habits: This is one of the hardest kind of habits — the way you respond to triggers with emotions or certain kinds of thoughts. For example, you might complain frequently, get frustrated with your spouse or kids, or get angry in traffic. These are difficult because we were often not even aware we were doing them, because they are not physical habits but mental ones. These habits, by the way, might fall into one of the two categories above as well.

Fourth, Continuous habits: Some habits happen really frequently, throughout the day perhaps. This group has a lot of overlap with the above groups, but it is worth a mention here because I have found they are among the hardest, because you have to be constantly aware. A couple examples: going on social media, constant self-criticism, or resentment/annoyance with other people. I am not going to go into detail about how to form these kinds of habits here, but I will briefly give some ideas for each.

Irregular habits:

If you do not know when a trigger will surface, you have two problems:(1) Remembering to do your replacement habit instead of the old habit; and (2) It will take a longer time to form the new habit as you will not get as many repetitions as a daily habit. For example, in one month, you can get 30 repetitions of a daily habit, and it will become much more automatic at the end of those 30 days … but with an irregular habit, if you only get three repetitions in a month, it will take 10 months to get 30 repetitions. Therefore it is harder to form the habit with fewer repetitions.

The solution to the second problem (fewer repetitions) is that you have to wait longer and be more patient. The good news is that you do not have to give it as much focus, and can probably form other habits at the same time.
But remembering to do your replacement habit when the irregular trigger happens is a bigger challenge. If you know ahead of time that the trigger will happen (like when you go out with friends), then it is a good idea to be looking ahead for a few days to a week at a time to see when the trigger might be coming up. Then set a reminder for that day to be on the lookout for the trigger. If you do not know when the trigger will happen (your spouse giving you a certain tone of voice, for example), then it is an even harder challenge. You will have to look out for your response to that trigger, like rising anger … and then try to catch yourself before you respond in anger. Having your spouse support you in this effort, by giving you a gentle sign that you are looking angry, is a good idea. Putting visual reminders where you might be triggered, like your computer for a digital habit, is another good idea. In the end, this takes a special effort to remember, and you have to expect that you will not always get it right — in which case, it will take even longer to form. Look for gradual improvement rather than immediate success.

More frequent habits:

The good news with habits that happen more than once a day (say two or three times a day) is that if you are consistent, they can form even faster than once-a-day habits. You might get 30 repetitions of the habit in 10 days, rather than a month. The challenge is that it is much harder to remember to do the habit consistently. It takes greater focus and a variety of reminders. Having someone else who can help remind you is a great support. You will need to be on alert all day, or at least whenever the trigger might possibly happen, so you can try to be more consistent. However, be forgiving if you forget a lot at first. A good idea is to do an end-of-the-day journal so you review how you did, and therefore even days when you forget can become part of the learning process.

Thinking or emotional habits:

Most people do not even realize that their emotional reactions, or thinking patterns, are habits. But they are just as much a habit as something physical, like chewing your nails or going for a run. They are just harder to spot because you do not always see what is happening. Some examples include: negative thinking, self-criticism, complaining, being resentful or annoyed at other people, or responding to someone in frustration or anger.
I do not recommend tackling thinking or emotional habits until you have successfully formed multiple physical habits. But when you are ready, you will need to commit to greater focus and have lots of reminders (see the tips for “more frequent habits” above). When you notice a trigger for your emotional response (perhaps someone interrupting you is a trigger for responding in annoyance), you will want to catch yourself. Have a replacement response ready, and practice doing it.

For example, when someone interrupts you, you might try taking a deep breath, reminding yourself that you love this person, and responding with a smile. You will need to practice this response very deliberately the first few times, and try very hard to remember. If you start responding in annoyance, simply catch yourself as soon as you can, and try to switch to your new response. Again, it takes time and patience with yourself to form these kinds of habits, and you should not expect to be perfect at it at all. You will get better gradually if you give it enough focus.

Continuous habits:

Some habits do not just happen a few times a day, but might happen a dozen times or more throughout the day. The challenge here, of course, is the continued focus and constant remembering you will have to do. This is the hardest kind of habit, along with thinking/emotional habits, and I do not recommend trying them until you are fairly proficient at other types of habits. When you are ready, you will need as many reminders as you can. You will want to enlist the help of others to remind you. Put physical reminders everywhere, and perhaps wear a wristband or rubber band as another reminder. Have digital reminders on your phone and computer. Ask for accountability from others. And journal at the end of each day so you are reflecting and learning from your mistakes and successes. Again, a lot of patience is required, and you should not be trying to form other habits at the same time. This article is gotten from Leo Babauta, THE HABIT GUIDE, under uncopyrighted allowance.