How Cyclical Bad Habits Trap Us

What makes us endlessly doomscroll on news sites? Veg out in front of the TV? Compulsively smoke? (insert your bad habit here).

If you’d asked me a month ago I’d have said, “reading news sites is how I take a break - relax from work”… but is this true?

I’d have to say that I do a little bit too much ‘relaxing’.

I check the news right when I wake up and before I to go bed. Reading news takes hours of my day and gets in the way of more productive projects. For me this bad habit is not a bad habit, it’s more of an addiction.

No, we don’t use our bad habits to ‘relax’

This idea - that we use these escape strategies to ‘relax’ - is common knowledge but is it true?

Allan Carr challenges this idea in his book The Easy Way To Stop Smoking.

In the book, Allan claims smokers are confused. They think they’re smoking to relax but really they’re smoking to get rid of the sense of unease they experienced FROM THE WITHDRAWAL CREATED BY THE PREVIOUS CIGARETTE.

Let me break it down:

It’s not, “I’m stressed”… smoke…

It’s smoke… nicotine withdrawal (which creates stress)… smoke (which gets rid of the nicotine withdrawal symptoms for a time)… nicotine withdrawal…

Smoking one cigarette plants the seed for smoking the next cigarette which plants the seed for smoking the next cigarette, etc… It’s like the explosions in a combustion engine. Each explosion leads to the next which leads to the next. It’s cyclical and self-sustaining.

Vices are cyclical

I realized my news reading habit is similar.

I read about the war in Ukraine and I feel worried. “Will Putin use nuclear weapons? Will Ukraine win? How will this story end?”…

I go about my day but the thought keeps popping into my head, “What’s been going on? I should check the news… nah, I have stuff to do… but checking will set my mind at ease and then I’ll be able to focus on my work”…

If I give in and check the news I feel releived and relaxed (no nukes yet). But I also just planted the seed for the next news craving - “Ok, I know what happened last time I checked (15 minutes ago), but what if things have changed since then?”

It’s not… stress, check news relax. It’s stress (from the previous time I checked), check news, relax + PLANT THE SEED FOR THE NEXT CRAVING and, like smoking, the sequence is cyclical.

Stress (what’s going to heppen?), check (relieve + plant), stress (what’s going to heppen?), check (relieve + plant), stress (what’s going to heppen?). On and on forever.

How reframing helps

Sometimes gaining a new understanding of a situation can be what you need to change behavior.

If you believe, ‘smoking helps me relax’ then it’s attractive - something you need to get through your hectic and stressful day.

However, if you believe… ‘Smoking is what creates stress - it plants the seed for needing to smoke again in the near future’ then it’s unattractive - if you can interrupt the smoking cycles you’ll probably feel less stressed overall so why do it.

Both of these thoughts are true so you can choose which one you pay attention to. This is called ‘reframing’.

Reframing is a very powerful and effective way to change behavior. It’s the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy which is clinically used to treat depression and anxiety. It works. If you want to learn more I recommend checking out David Burns’ book Feeling Good.

Where reframing fits into chaning bad habits

I actually learned about Allan Carr’s book (I’m not a smoker) from another book - James Clear’s Atomic Habits.

I think it’s useful to understand where reframing fits into breaking bad habits. Here’s what Clear has to say about breaking bad habits.

Habits are built around a cycle. Theres a trigger (something causes you to start the habit), there’s a craving (a feeling of wanting / needing), there’s the action (the thing the habit causes you to do) and the reward (the feeling of relief you experience).

If you want to break a bad habit you need to -

  1. Make the trigger invisible
  2. Make the craving undesirable
  3. Make the action hard to do
  4. Make the reward unsatisfying

Reframing is a way to address the craving - #2. A simple mindset shift can help you make the craving less desirable (you’re not releiving stress, you’re planting the seeds for the next binge session).

That’s all for today! Hope this was as helpful for you as it was for me!