The Half-Life of a (Bad) Habit

For the month of January, I’ve committed to posting every day, having accepted the 30-day challenge.
This is day 9 of 30.



That’s the technical definition of a half-life and unless you spend a lot of time in either a high school science class or are employed in a lab you probably think of it (if you think of it at all) as the amount of time some medication will be in your body after you stop taking it. Some medications you take and POOF! they’re gone. Others? They like to make themselves at home and stay awhile, like unwanted relatives who seemingly moved into your spare bedroom without asking.

One day I started thinking about it, though and came to the conclusion that habits also have a half-life of their own sort, you know? You stop doing the bad thing (skipping training to binge-watch CSI) (for example) (I would never do this), but even though the behavior is gone, some part of it — the part that draws you in when you least expect it — lives on inside your head for far longer. It’s really a pain in the ass, amiright?

It’s like saying I’m not going to have cookies, not buying cookies, not having them in the house, but still opening up the cabinet where the cookies would be stored approximately 129 times a day hoping that they magically appear.

You just never know, right? Perhaps they’re hiding? That habit, despite not feeding it (figuratively or literally), is still a part of you.

And that’s what makes bad habits so hard to kick, I think. Long after you’ve quit the behavior, the triggers and desire still exist. You never completely wipe the slate clean, it seems — there’s always some residue of your former lifestyle there, obstinately immune from being cleaned off the chalkboard of your brain.

Of course, some habits are hardier than others; I was off Diet Pepsi for almost a year (though I don’t necessarily consider it a bad habit, to be honest) but then I had one, then another and before I knew it, I had Diet Pepsi stocked in the refrigerator. It’s like somewhere deep in the primordial part of my brain there’s a file called “I love Diet Pepsi” and it never gets shredded and discarded and just waits for someone to come looking for it again.

How do you get around this? How do you truly change when the old behavior is so ingrained and satisfying and never seems to completely go away?

I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. Maybe it’s luck. Maybe it’s taking the pain to really analyze and fully understand why the old habit has to go. Perhaps it’s just a matter of acknowledging the remnant of the habit and coming to terms with the slightly uneasy feeling of having the enemy living inside, constantly on the look out for it coming back to life.

I know what will help: being mindful of goals and aggressively noting how the new habit makes you feel better, writing up a mental comparative essay of the old and new habit. What else? Do as much as possible to cleanse your body and brain of the old habit. Eliminate old habit triggers and instead try and replace them with triggers for the new, desired behavior. Simple, but not easy.

But in the end, I almost think you just have to outlive it. Just keep on keepin’ on until the old habit is no longer a part of your DNA. It’ll happen eventually, right?

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