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What are some of the ways you can build good habits and break bad ones?

Jan 6, 2023

Are successful people born “talented” or did they become who they are today through consistent hard work and good habits? Nature vs nurture is an age old battle and it is probably true that some people have genetic endowments that help them excel in certain areas. However, I’d argue that anyone can reach the top 10% of a field through consistent hard work. It’s not a constant slog either - you get to the top through daily habits that you start small and build up over time. At the same time, you’ve gotta address the bad habits that get in the way of productivity.

It’s estimated that 45% of your daily decisions are the result of your habits. You can’t always be productive and full of good traits. But, you can try to break bad habits and build good ones. 

A habit is considered “bad” if it prevents you from reaching your desired goals. They could actually be innocuous activities (e.g. checking email or Facebook) that are fine in moderation but not so great if you spend too much time on them or do them at the wrong time of day. Some habits (e.g. smoking or shooting up intravenous drugs) are maladaptive coping strategies that help you deal with stress in the immediate term but create more problems afterwards. 

According to Volkow, your brain experiences resistance when you try to avoid bad habits. Many of these activities have become habits because they are pleasurable. As such, you need a careful strategy to move them out of your life.

I’m not immune to bad habits myself but have found ways to help me break bad habits and replace them with habits that help me improve. 

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Table of Contents

1. Identify your bad habits

The first step is to identify what your bad habits are. Make a list of things that you repeat in your everyday life which are slowing down your progress towards your goals.

For example, if you want to lose weight and can’t stop munching on high-calorie snacks, then the lack of control over eating high-calorie snacks is your bad habit. Or if you want to exercise but never wake up in time to do it and you always find something to do at night instead of exercising; that would be a habit you need to train your brain to break.

To counter the sinking feeling that you might experience when writing this list, jot down the good habits as well. It may be that expanding the good habits will help you drop some of the bad habits.

2. Make the bad habits less attractive and harder to do

There are three factors that convert a one off activity into a habit:

  • Motivation/pleasure
  • Triggers in the environment
  • Ease of execution

Your bad habits probably tick all three boxes. For example, one of my bad habits was checking emails first thing in the morning. I was motivated to do this because sometimes I’d get good news in my email (or bad news that I wanted to immediately act on). I had triggers in my environment: my email was normally open on my computer when I’d turn it on and the app would be dinging on my phone. It was easy for me to check: a few seconds to change to that browser tab. And yet, this act of checking emails first thing was pretty bad for me. It led to anxiety and time blindness - I’d often have 30+ emails to review and I could lose two hours or more processing them. This came at the expense of self care activities that are actually good for me: meditation, exercise, journaling etc.

I wanted to change and so I looked at how I could alter those three habit forming factors. The motivation piece is hard: motivation is fleeting. If I relied on willpower to resist opening email in the morning, I’d likely fail because I’m often groggy first thing in the morning. However, I could leverage willpower to change the settings on my computer to make it harder for me to access my email first thing in the morning.

Installing Focus Bear was that act for me. I configured the app to block distracting apps (including email) in the morning until I finished my morning routine. Creating some friction so that it’s a lot harder to open my email and also removing the triggers (I can’t actually see my email because the app shows my habits in full screen) did the trick for me. I no longer check my email first thing in the morning.

3. Incremental progress

You can transform your lifestyle by taking baby steps. If you want to run a marathon but can barely run round the block right now, you’re going to have to start small. The key is to be consistent.

  1. Do the habit every day. (You can use Focus Bear to help)
  2. Gradually increase the intensity/duration over time.

Over time, the habit that seemed so trivial (e.g. 5 minute run each morning) will become impressive (30km long run on Sundays).


It is possible to change bad habits and build good ones. Start small and you’ll be amazed at where you get to after six months of consistent progress. 

If you need help, try the Focus Bear app.

Jan 6, 2023

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