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How to Develop Good Habits and Break Bad Ones

What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I just realized that I have a superpower. I have the ability to alter the future. All I have to do is to closely examine and change my habits. You, my dear friend, have also been bestowed with this power but perhaps you haven’t learned to utilize it yet. In order to use that power, we have to overcome the human curse: thinking our thoughts define who we are.

On the contrary, our thoughts are just infinite possibilities of who we could be. The thoughts we act on reflect our true nature. When our thoughts are aligned with our actions, we live in peace. However, when they are unaligned we live in chaos. So, how can we move towards a more aligned life? By examining, and taking control of our habits. Enter: Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break the Chain” technique.

The story goes a young programmer — by the name of Brad Isaac — was trying his hand at being a stand-up comedian. One fateful night, Brad ended up performing at the same venue as the legend himself: Jerry Seinfeld. In search of wisdom, Brad asked the legendary comic for advice on becoming a better comedian. Jerry’s Advice: don’t break the chain.

01 | The “Don’t Break the Chain” Method

The “Don’t Break the Chain” method goes like this:

  1. A person decides that they want to improve their life. They either want to break a bad habit or cultivate a good habit. For example, let’s say the person wants to write jokes everyday in order to become a better comedian.
  2. That person proceeds to take out a calendar for the whole year.
  3. They start performing their daily habit of writing jokes.
  4. After completing the habit, they draw a BIG RED X on the calendar over today’s date.
  5. They repeat this the next day.
  6. And then again the next day.
  7. Until, eventually, a small chain of red x’s has been developed.

As you may remember from my “How to Build Good Study Habits” article, studies suggest that the median time to build a habit is 66 days. That means, for roughly the first 2 months, it’s absolutely essential that the chain is NOT broken.

The chain of red x’s begins to act as a psychological motivator and propels the person towards accomplishing their goal. It sounds simple, but…

02 | Why Does This Technique Work

I believe that there are two key psychological pillars that support this technique.

Pillar #1: the release of dopamine. Every time we complete our daily ritual and put the big red X on our calendar, we feel a sense of accomplishment. The result? Dopamine (the feel good hormone) is released. As you may already know, our brains are wired to repeat actions that release dopamine. It’s a feedback loop. This is also the reason social media is so addictive.

Pillar #2: loss aversion. As the chain gets longer, the stakes associated with not doing the habit rise. We start to feel like we have a lot more to lose. We might say things like, “I’ve already been doing this for 60 days in a row, I don’t want to stop now!” One of the most influential economists in the world, Daniel Kahneman, performed a landmark study in which he demonstrated the principle of loss aversion. As stated in the study:

…changes that make things worse (losses) loom larger than improvements or gains. — Daniel Kahneman

Simply put, our desire to avoid losing $5 is greater than our desire to gain $5. It’s human nature to avoid loss. You may be wondering, “why?” Some people believe that it’s a hardwired behaviour passed down from our ancestors. They were more averse to loss because loss meant death. For example, having less food than was necessary resulted in death. However, having a bounty of food made life more comfortable.

The principle of loss aversion also applies to the “Don’t Break the Chain” technique. Once we have a few red x’s on the calendar, our desire to not lose our streak is greater than a gain we might get from doing any other activity. We’ve already committed so much time and effort into being consistent with our habit, we feel compelled to not break it.

03 | How Can the “Don’t Break the Chain” Method be Used to Break Bad Habits?

On the first day that you DON’T perform the bad habit, mark it off with a BIG RED X on your calendar. Build up a small chain, and try to keep it going. Hopefully, in 66 days, your habit will be broken. Note: studies show that the time taken to develop a habit falls between 18 and 254 days for different individuals. So, don’t be discouraged if it takes a little longer for you to make or break a habit.

04 | Give Me Apps: I Don’t Want to Use A Big Calendar

To help you practice this technique, here are three apps that I can recommend:

1. Habitica: I’ve recommended this app before as one of my top 3 productivity apps for students. Habitica allows users to keep track of daily habits which the app refers to as dailies. Every time you complete a daily, you can check it off and keep track of your streak by looking at the little arrows at the bottom right corner of a habit. The benefit of Habitica — or the con depending on how you look at it — is that it also functions as a to-do list and an RPG game. If you want these extra features, this app will be perfect for you. Habitica is also available for free as a mobile app, desktop app, and web app on both iOS and android.

2. Momentum: If you can do without all the extra bells and whistles, you might want to check this app out. It’s a simple app that allows users to tick off habits and keep track of their chain. It only tracks habits so it’s a lot simpler in design and use than Habitica. Unfortunately, it’s only available on iOS — as far as I could see — and you’re only allowed to keep track of 3 habits at a time with the free version.

The full version costs $6.99 and comes with benefits such as:

  • the ability to enter an unlimited amount of habits (this should be a free feature tbh)
  • a desktop app
  • iCloud syncing
  • reminders
  • data exporting
  • Touch ID locking
  • the ability to analyze trends

Personally, I didn’t need all the extra benefits and so I couldn’t justify the cost.

3. Chains: I used to use Habitica, but this is the app I’ve been experimenting with lately. It costs $2.79 and it’s very simple in terms of design and utility. It allows users to colour code habits, and assign habits to specific days of the week. For example, I can tell it that I only exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and so it will only build my chain on those days. After I insert a habit, I simply open the app on the day I performed the habit and swipe right to mark it as complete.

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