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The Science Of Breaking A Habit

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There are two kinds of habits we develop, empowering and disempowering ones. Empowering habits are the ones that take us towards the person we want to be. The disempowering habits are the ones that take us away from this person. The idea is to increase empowering and reduce disempowering habits.
Is it possible to put a stop to a habit after it is formed? Interestingly, no. Azrin and Nunn in a path breaking study published in the Behaviour Research and Therapy Journal (no. 4, 1973) discovered that neural pathways once laid cannot be reversed. Altough, they may be modified using the same cues and rewards.
Modifying a habit is a difficult process. As we let go of something, the body creates a strong craving for it. It stays on our mind, depleting willpower.This results in consuming more sugar after the motivation to abstain from it sets in.
Creating Is Better Than Breaking
Create a new routine using an existing disempowering routine as an anchor. Let us take an example. Social media is an addiction. People end up visiting networking websites as often as every ten minutes, despite knowing there will be nothing new on the website. One of the ways to eliminate the habit may be to create a routine immediately after this. The design may be something like-, after I log into my social media account, I will take three deep breaths. 
The addiction to social media partly stems from an anxiety within. It acts as a constant distraction. Creating a habit of breathing using the existing addiction as an anchor creates the same reward. The flip side is that the new habit also goes away because the anchor is lost. 
If you really do want to let go of an old habit then the process below should help. 
Purpose is the single most important contributor in letting go of disempowering habits. A question to ask oneself could be, why do I want to let go of this? How will the world be a better place because of me?
Decide, and by this, I mean actually decide. A lot of people kind-of want to leave a habit but are just not able to decide. Most of the times, they wait for something to happen on its own. Each of us carries a choice. It is possible to exercise the choice for oneself. I highly recommend making a choice. The worst thing we can do is not making a choice when we need to make one.  
Untangle, the associations with that habit. It is amazing how many people derive a vicarious pleasure from their addictions. Talk about letting go of smoking or sugar. Because of this association, they are not able to let go. A way to untangle is to write down all the words associated with an addiction. Honesty to your own self may be a good idea here. If there are positive associations like importance, a topic of conversation, go back to the purpose and see if you are ready to decide for yourself. 
Levarage, as any engineering student will tell you,is the act of using limited power to create a massive amount of power. A pulley thatlifts a heavy vehicle is a good example. Leverage may be associated with a routine by mentally associating infinite amount to that habit.
When trying to break a habit of smoking, picture an impotent man or if you're trying to give up sweets then picture an obese, unfit person. When the urge arises, create this picture mentally. This helps give strength and connects back to your purpose.
Understand the mechanics of habits including understanding the trigger and the reward and tweaking the routine. Triggersmay include a certain time, place, smell, preceding activity, thought etc. Make this as comprehensive as possible. Include week days and weekends. 
List the reward that is being derived from the routine. Is it company, happiness, a feeling of accomplishment or overcoming an insecurity? 
The trigger and reward take some experimenting with each other. Once done, replace the old routine with the onethat gives the same reward. 
Get up again, if you fail once or twice or even multiple times. It is okay to fail. What is not okay is to give up. As Winston Churchhill said "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." This is the process of modifying a routine. It is fairly effective in letting go of addictionsand moving towards a more empowered life. 
Enjoy this journey of adventure with yourself. The joy when we gaina victory over ourselves is immense. Enjoy the moment. The pain is temporary.
The world is limitless. Let us take the first step.

The author is an engineer from IIT BHU and an MBA from MDI, Gurgaon. He has worked with General Electric, Proctor & Gamble and Infosys. Reach him at [email protected]

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