How to Reframe Bad Habits as Good Opportunities
When we think about our bad habits, our instinct may be to judge ourselves for having them and perhaps to feel ashamed of our inability to break them. We may think that piling on the guilt will motivate us to change those bad habits, but it usually just makes us feel worse and results in a deepening of the self-defeating behavior. Instead of judging ourselves, it’s often more helpful to approach our bad habits from a place of curiosity. After all, it’s confusing: why do I keep doing something that I know is not in my best interest?
Although you may be inclined to conclude that the cause is some character flaw, more often than not there’s a very good reason why these bad habits developed. Approaching this question from a place of curiosity removes that unhelpful layer of guilt and allows you to more freely examine the underlying issues.
An excellent example of this approach was highlighted in a recent article in the New York Times about the bad habit of procrastination, a very common tendency to push off tasks we know we really have to get done. Obviously that tendency appears to be self-defeating, but when researchers studied it scientifically they found that the “bad” habit actually provides a benefit, albeit brief, in the form of stress relief. Procrastination is essentially avoidance, which is a way to protect ourselves from experiencing the sometimes overwhelming fear, frustration, or despair that may confront us when we sit down to begin a task.
Of course, procrastination ultimately doesn’t really help us because the task remains where we left it, and sometimes the consequences pile up the longer we avoid it. Still, gaining insight into the reason why we might tend to procrastinate reframes it not as a bad habit, but instead as a flawed solution to the core problem of how to cope with challenging emotions.
With this reframing, the question then becomes: is there anything else you can do to manage the stress associated with a task you’re inclined to avoid? One option might be to learn a behavioral relaxation technique to practice when the task is making you feel tense. Or perhaps it would be worth exploring how to ease the fear, frustration, or despair triggered by the task.
The goal is that practicing a better solution to the core problem will make the bad habit obsolete and allow it to fade away. By reframing bad habits as flawed solutions we give ourselves the opportunity to search for better ones.