“Ha, that’ll never work! I know a better way.”
Rick thought he was smarter than the rest. Yet again. But we’ll get to it.
Today I want to introduce you to three old college friends of mine.
Just like you and me, they struggle with bad habits.
Recently, however, all three of them successfully broke a bad habit.
Even though the habits were very similar, each of them used a very different approach to breaking their habit.
Letting go of bad habits is not a straightforward task, and the process looks different for everyone.
You and I can learn a lot from how my three friends did it, so I asked them to share their story with me.
Here’s what they told me.
Meet Sudden Sammie
She’s really cool, but she was always so nervous in class.
She constantly bit her nails.
But one day, she just walked up to me and said:
“Nik, I’m quitting! I can’t take this any more. You know, I went to the doctor about my nail biting when I was 12 years old.
He said: ‘Yeah, that’s normal, she’ll quit it by the time she’s 18, that goes away.’
I’m 22 and I’m still biting my nails!
From tomorrow on, I’m never going to bite my nails, ever again. I swear!”
And just like that, she quit.
What I mean by “just like that” is that she spent the entire next day catching herself every 5 seconds, when she was about to bite, and her hands kept shaking for no reason.
But the next day it was a little easier, Sammie said. And even easier the day after that.
Exactly one week later, she showed me her long, naturally grown nails.
She was beaming: “Look Nik, I did it! This is the first time I have to cut my nails in 10 years!”
All she needed was a strong reason.
Once she was truly convinced she needed the change, her intrinsic motivation was incredibly powerful.
So much, that it allowed her to quit a habit that had nagged her for years.
That day, she changed her identity.
She stopped identifying with the habit. It was not a part of her any longer.
And that’s why she could stop it from one day to the next.
This is something that always bothered my second friend, Gary.
Introducing Gradual Gary
Gradual Gary was the party kid in school.
If someone even just whispered: “Sammie is throwing a par–”, he was off to the liquor store before they could finish with “-ty tonight.”
Several hours later, you’d be sure to find him strutting into the place, wine bottle in one hand, beer in the other.
The only thing that lived up to his phenomenal drinking skills, was his skill to sleep in class the next day.
But one night, he took it too far. Gary woke up on a stretcher the next morning. In the hallway of a hospital.
He didn’t know where he was, or how he got there. He had no jacket and no wallet. His phone showed a 7% battery charge.
The nurses told him that he’d been brought in with an ambulance during the night, discovered alone in the rescue tent at a huge college party.
After he managed to find his way back home, he swore to himself, that one day, he would quit drinking forever.
However, Gradual Gary was no Sudden Sammie. Letting go of drinking wasn’t easy for him.
It took him about 2 years of gradually decreasing his alcohol consumption, until he finally gave it up entirely.
The process was cool to watch. At every new party he would have a few drinks less than at the one before. The wine bottle went first. Then the beer bottle.
Eventually, when his sister visited him during the last days of his first internship after college, he took her and her boyfriend to a party.
He disappeared for a while after they got in, and just when his sister thought: “Oh boy, what is he up to now?”, she spotted him across the room, standing in a corner, talking with friends
— sipping orange juice.
When he saw her, he grinned, gave her a secret thumbs up and stuck out his tongue.
From that day forward, he remained completely alcohol-free.
Similar to Sudden Sammie, Gary changed his identity.
But for him, it just happened to be a more gradual process.
He couldn’t just change his beliefs over night, but the little steps he took over a period of 2 years built up his confidence and showed him that he was capable of making a change.
Once the momentum he had built up reached a certain point, it was only natural for him to completely make the transition.
“2 years?!” — my third friend, Rick, almost spilled his tea when I told him Gary’s story.
“Dude, I know a much faster way to break a bad habit! Trust me, it works for anyone!”
Hello Replacing Rick
My last friend, Replacing Rick, was always the overachiever of our little gang.
Being a straight-A-student, with a very clear vision of what he wanted in life, you’d see him walking to the library at the same time every morning.
The look on his face: determined.
The thermos in his hand: filled with coffee.
Like clockwork, he would sit at the very same spot at 7:00 AM sharp and start working.
Being as disciplined as a monk, he never drank more coffee once his thermos was empty.
However, Rick was always looking for ways to improve the quality of his life.
When his girlfriend told him that even though coffee isn’t toxic, like alcohol or smoking, it can have the same addictive effect, he knew that he had to run yet another experiment.
“I’m on day 79 of my no caffeine test right now.”, he tells me, as he takes a sip of his tea.
“Here’s how I did it: I knew I had to have a hot drink with me in the morning, as it’s been a ritual for me for years.
So just giving up coffee altogether wouldn’t have worked.
That’s why I just replaced it.
For the first week, I just filled my entire thermos with decaf coffee.
That gave me a chance to get my body off the caffeine, without giving up any part of the experience.
The week after that, I slowly introduced herbal tea as the next replacement. I filled my thermos with decaf coffee 5 days of the week, and with tea for the remaining 2.
Week by week I increased the tea days and decreased the decaf coffee days, and after 6 weeks, I had switched entirely to tea.
Trust me Nik, this is the fastest way to break a bad habit, anyone can do it this way, for sure!”
Replacing Rick’s coffee habit was so ingrained in him that it would’ve been impossible to let it go from one day to the next, like Sammie did.
Gradually decreasing also wasn’t an option, but simply replacing his routine, while leaving the cue and reward of the habit untouched, worked fantastically.
Now Rick might be an A-student, but I still think he had one part wrong.
There are lots of ways to break bad habits
There are several interesting takeaways from the stories of Sudden Sammie, Gradual Gary and Replacing Rick.
- To let go of a bad habit, at some point, you’ll have to stop identifying yourself with the habit. You might not be able to do that over night, like Sammie, but eventually, instead of “a nail biter, trying to quit”, you’re gonna have to become “someone who just doesn’t bite their nails”.
- Making this identity change permanent often requires a defining and sometimes shocking moment. Once the change becomes the only possible future for you, it is only a matter of time until you have gradually built up enough confidence and momentum to make the transition.
- The easiest way to get started on building said momentum is often to just leave the trigger, which initiates the habit, and the reward, which is the benefit you get out of the habit, the same. Just tweak the routine by replacing it with a slightly better routine.
That’s all good and helpful to know, but here’s where Replacing Rick was wrong:
Replacing the habit is not the fastest way to break a bad habit for anyone.
It was the fastest way to break a bad habit for him.
But we all have different tendencies. There are lots of ways to break bad habits.
It’s just that different habits require different strategies at different times.
The truth is, I’ve been all 3 of these, and chances are, you have been too.
I was a Sudden Sammie when I stopped biting my nails in February 2013, after reading a new article on Zenhabits, literally over night.
I was a Gradual Gary when I slowly quit drinking for good during my internship with BMW M last summer, and had my last drink on 6th of June 2014.
And this year, when I quit caffeine for 100 days, I was a Replacing Rick.
Again: Different habits require different strategies at different times.
However, we all have a tendency to lean towards one or the other.
Most of the time, I’m a Sudden Sammie. I can easily quit or pick up habits from one day to the next.
Which Type Are You?
Just knowing which type of bad habit breaker you usually are gives you a huge advantage. Maybe, you already have a hunch what type you lean towards. If not, take some time to explore. Which type are you? Find the answer, and then replace your bad habits with ease.