Sliding Bad Habits Into Good Ones

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on Honoring Your Hidden Goals, consider that hidden goals are similar to hidden habits. In each case the hidden aspect means that some part of you is finding a way to meet a need or desire that you’re not necessarily acknowledging.

When you identify hidden habits, you can also trace them back to their needs and desires, and then you can devise more deliberate ways to satisfy those desires.

It’s likely you have some habits you may identify as bad or problematic, but they’re actually serving you well.

Think of a bad habit as a good habit in disguise – as a habit with some negative side effects.

For instance, I love cuddling my wife in bed, but this desire can easily make me want to linger in bed longer each morning, such as by sleeping in super late – like until 6:30am or even an ungodly 7am.

At one point I did have this habit, which interfered with my other desire to get up at 5am and go for a pre-dawn run to start my day (which I love). But the cuddle-sleep habit does serve a nice need as well – human connection, touch, some extra happiness, and a happy wife who also loves to cuddle.

These mixed feelings were easy to resolve by sliding the habit of cuddle-sleeping into a different form. Instead of doing this in the morning, we often enjoy a 20-minute cuddle-nap together on the couch, usually shortly after lunch. This siesta gives us a nice midday connection and refreshes us for the afternoon, but it doesn’t interfere with my early riser habit.

Here are a couple of other examples of sliding problematic habits into better ones:

If you have a habit of over-checking the news lately (i.e. doomscrolling), maybe it’s because you like consuming content. Maybe you like learning something new each day. So you could experiment with sliding this into a deliberate content consumption habit like reading books, listening to audiobooks, listening to podcasts, or working through online courses. See if you can increase the quality of the content you consume each day. Many highly successful people swear by the habit of reading a lot each morning to start their workday, sometimes for 2-3 hours – they just do their best to make it purposeful. If you could slide this habit towards a more structured approach that involves higher quality content, it may be worth keeping.

Maybe you check social media a lot because it satisfies your desire for human connection. Of course it can also be shallow and distracting. Where else could you slide this habit to make it more beneficial? Perhaps you could invite people to join you on one-on-one calls to connect. Or you could continue using social media, but nudge yourself to do a live video each week to push further beyond your comfort zone, so it’s more of a growth experience for you. Alternatively, you could slide this habit towards five or six days per week instead of seven, so you have a day or two of screen-free time each week. Or you could slide towards meditation or a personally meaningful spiritual practice. For instance, the Submersion course includes daily lessons to help you improve your relationship with life, so you can feel more connected each day.

Whatever you’re doing that feels like a bad habit, look into what hidden need or desire it addresses. Does it give you a break? Help you relax? Make you feel more informed or connected? If the habit was all negative, you’d probably drop it, so you’re keeping it in your life for a reason.

Then see if you can raise your standards above and beyond what the hidden habit is realistically doing for you. If a habit helps you feel social, for instance, what would be a higher standard for socializing? Perhaps you could connect with smarter people, more depth, more impact, more ripples, more playfulness, more edginess, etc. Could you satisfy this desire in a more growth-oriented way without making it overly complicated?

Sometimes it’s best to start with a minimal slide. See if you can elevate the habit slightly, and then lock it in at the elevated level. You could keep checking the news, but add one lesson from an online course immediately afterwards (or right before). One way to do this is to create a tab group in your web browser for your favorite news sites, and then add one extra tab to that group for an online course you’d like to complete. As you work through (and close) the news tabs, you’ll soon reach the online course tab, and then you can do just one lesson of that course each day along with your news checking.

You can also slide good habits towards better ones. I did this with my morning runs this year. I gradually increased my running distance, just sliding it forward a little more week by week, till I was running double the distance I was running before. Now I’m doing something similar but with speed instead of distance, pushing myself to go a little faster on some of my runs. It’s a little slide forward each week, and it adds a lovely growth element to what I’d previously been regarding as a maintenance habit.

Another way to slide a habit forward is with appreciation and acknowledgement. Thank the existing habit for what it’s doing for you, even if you semi-dislike it. Thank it for the connection, the relaxation, the pleasure, the information, the satisfaction, the entertainment, etc. Don’t over-focus on the negative side since that can blind you to the needs and desires that still matter to you – and which you might lose abruptly if you tried to immediately drop the habit.

Sliding a habit into a better one is easier when you acknowledge the hidden needs and desires that habit is satisfying. Instead of demonizing the habit for being all bad, recognize that it’s actually serving a purpose. And accept that if you want to replace a problematic habit with a better one, it’s wise to keep fulfilling the habit’s beneficial purpose.

Broaden your awareness of what you actually care about by looking for the hidden needs and desires behind your so-called bad habits. Maybe you care a lot about being entertained, being informed, feeling connected, feeling secure, and so on. Maybe these aspects of life are more important to you than you’re willing to admit. It’s fine to value those parts of life, and it’s easier to fulfill those desires in more aligned ways if you acknowledge that you do indeed value what they’re doing for you.