Break a Bad Habit, Slowly

“If you don’t wish to be a hot-head, don’t feed your habit. Try as a first step to remain calm and count the days you haven’t been angry. I used to be angry every day, now every other day, then every third or fourth… if you make it as far as 30 days, thank God! For habit is first weakened and then obliterated. When you can say ‘I didn’t lose my temper today, or the next day, or for three or four months, but kept my cool under provocation,’ you will know you are in better health.”


Today’s guidance from The Daily Stoic is that habits form (and are removed) slowly. The author uses the example of ‘the chain method’ popularized by Jerry Seinfeld, to help build a good habit. This same method can be used to break a bad one.

The idea is that it’s hard to completely quit a bad habit suddenly, and therefore it’s best to try to build up some momentum over time. Whatever it is you’re trying not to do, try to break it one day at a time. Stop doing that thing for 1 day, then see if you can go two days, and try to keep the chain going. Don’t break the chain!

This has a connection to willpower, and the idea that you need to convince your brain that you’re capable of keeping promises to yourself. If you tell yourself you’re going to quit fighting with your wife immediately, and then a couple of days later you have a big fight with her, then you’re going to be hard on yourself for not keeping your promise. You will have convinced yourself that you can’t do it, that you’ve failed — because you couldn’t do what you said.

The wisdom presented here by Epictetus is to take it in bite-sized chunks, and see if you can get some momentum going. By repeatedly keeping your ‘one-day promise’ to yourself, you start to build up willpower. Your mind starts to believe that you can actually do this — that you can be trusted to do what you say. You start to believe in yourself. And then it’s just a matter of not stopping. Before long, you’ve broken the bad habit, slowly! And then you can start to think about replacing it with a good habit.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate here at the end, and just call out that for certain people, and for certain bad habits, the slow method just doesn’t work. For example, I tried to quit smoking slowly about a hundred million times. I tried to cut back, I tried to go one day, then one more day. It just never worked for me. The only thing that worked was quitting cold turkey and never looking back. There are other habits that I’ve had to break suddenly as well, because it wouldn’t have worked slowly. So I guess I’ll just say that everyone is different, and it doesn’t work the same in all circumstances.

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