How to Kick Bad Habits to the Curb
Essays 2017 / Finalists
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
What is a habit? A habit is a routine behaviour that is followed regularly to the point that it becomes involuntary. This behaviour then gets stored in the Basal Ganglia, the sub conscious .
There are many pop-psychology books today that deal with overcoming habits. Luckily for us, we have age-old sources in Torah and Chassidus that give us the tools to deal with any challenge -‐-‐ bad habits included.
Much of the Rebbe’s directives concerning Chinuch were directly related to habit-‐forming. When you train a child to practice positive habits such as washing Negel Vasser, saying 100 brachos a day, it will enter their sub-‐conscious in such a deep way, that it becomes their second nature. In a Sichas Shabbos Parshas Chayei Sarah 5751 (Roshei Dvarim), The Rebbe spoke about training young children to say 100 Brachos a day so that it will be something that will come easily to them when they are chiyuv in Torah and Mitzvos. ” …And by educating them this way in their youth, then not only when they get older will they not stray, but even during their youth it will become their nature to recite brochos quite automatically.”
In this essay, I put forth a 5-‐point plan, based on the beauty and practicality of Chassidus, on how to get rid of a bad habit-‐-‐ and replace it with a better one.
1- Make A Chesbon Nefesh
The first step to overcoming any habit, is getting to the root of the issue. What prompts you to practice this behavior? Is it boredom, stress, anger? Sit down with a pen and paper and think back to all those times you engaged in that habit. Find the common link between all of them. In some cases, it is straightforward; in other cases, not so. When you are mindful of the trigger, it will be easier to win over the urge.
2- A Little Bit of Light Dispels a lot of Darkness
In Chapters 12-‐13 of Likutei Amarim, The Alter Rebbe compares the body to a small city. When the Good Inclination expresses itself through Thought, speech and deeds, the Evil Inclination has no choice but to be silent. It hasn’t been completely eliminated, rather it is dormant for the time being. If the good inclination stops working for an instant, the evil inclination resurfaces. The goal of a Beinoni is to put the Yetzer Harah to sleep and have the Yetzer Tov constantly active.
This is the way to beat a bad habit. Rather than to try to fight the negative behaviour, replace it with good behaviour, and the bad habit will be subdued. In a letter written in 5724 to a man struggling with a bad habit, the Rebbe wrote: “The way to overcome this habit is to completely divert the mind from it. This means that one should not attempt to wrestle with the problem in his mind to convince himself that it is a bad thing, or a sin, and the like, but to dismiss it entirely from the mind. But, in order to be able to disengage the mind from one thing, it is necessary to engage it immediately in something else, which has no relation whatever to the other thoughts. The best thing, of course, is to engage the mind in a matter of Torah, because the Torah is called “Light” and even a little light dispels a lot of darkness. However, if it is impossible to engage the mind in Torah, at the moment when that thought occurs, it should be engaged in anything, as long as it is completely unrelated.”
In other words, replace the bad with the good. As the Alter Rebbe taught in Tanya “A Little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness ”, when we introduce good into our lives, the bad automatically fades away. Rather than trying to fight a bad habit the urge arises, replace the negative routine with a positive routine.
For example, Avi spends a lot of time on his smart phone playing dumb games and texting no one in particular. Through his Cheshbon Nefesh, Avi has identified the root of his behaviour as boredom. So Avi has replaced his routine of mindless texting by carrying around a sefer that he finds interesting (this is important since it will be easier for him to change his habit). Anytime he feels bored, he learns a section. In the beginning, it is extremely hard for him to forego his phone, but gradually, the brain gets signals that Avi’s reward to boredom is through learning the sefer. After mindfully practicing this many times over, eventually Avi begins to crave learning when he is bored. A new habit is formed.
This concept is not limited to overcoming physical behavioural habits, it can be applied to cognitive and emotional habits as well. For example, when one is faced with failure in his life, he may right away revert to deep insecure thoughts. He may blame himself, blame others, blame his mother and maybe even blame G-‐d. What Chassidus is teaching us, is that rather than try to fight those thoughts, replace them with positive messages. This will take a lot of Avodah and hard work but the more one does it, the more ingrained it becomes in their sub-‐conscious.
In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg breaks down habits into a three-‐step loop. The first step is the cue, which is a trigger that prompts the habit. The second step is the routine, which is the behaviour itself. The final step in the reward, which trains the brain to revert to the habit the next time the cue comes around. Duhigg suggests that rather than try to fight the behaviour every time one gets triggered, change the behaviour to a healthier habit which leads to the same reward. For example, if somebody bites their nails every time they get stressed, change the behaviour to something that will give you the same reward sensation of de-‐stressing, but less harmful to your health .
3- Tracht Gut V’zet Zain Gut
There is a well-‐known Chassidic adage from the 3rd Chabad Rebbe, Tracht Gut V’zet Zain Gut, Think Good and It Will Be Good. The Rebbe explains that by having Bitachon and trusting that there will be a good outcome actually draws down blessings for a good outcome .
The Kuzari teaches that the definition of a chasid is a person that has complete control over their mind. This includes, among other things, the power to visualize events or occurrences clearly-‐-‐for example , the Giving of the Torah or the Holy Temple .
Practically speaking, if you are trying to stop overeating, envision yourself thinner and healthier, buy yourself clothes in your ideal size, trust that Hashem will make your goal one day be your reality.
The Rebbe strongly encouraged all of his Chasidim to have a Mashpia. Why? Because as finite humans, it is hard for us to see ourselves objectively. A Mashpia is there to help us hold ourselves accountable for our actions and to be there as support when we find it too hard to do on our own.
The Mitteler Rebbe explains, being that the Animal soul is selfish, it has no interest in the accomplishment of a fellow animal soul. However, the G-‐dly soul’s sole purpose is fulfilling the will of its creator. When one is alone, it is a one-‐on-‐one battle between his animal soul and G-‐ dly soul. Yet, when there are two Jews together the battle becomes Two-‐against-‐One, the two G-‐dly souls against the animal soul .
As written above, the Alter Rebbe compares the body to a small city with two strong forces battling for dominance. The Alter Rebbe writes an important note; it is written that “A little light dispels a lot of darkness”. What is this light? This is the Or Ein Sof . The Yetzer Tov cannot dominate the body without the help of Hashem. As written in the Tanya “…Our Sages say “[Man’s evil inclination gathers strength daily,…and] if the Almighty did not help him (i.e., help his good inclination) he could not overcome it (his evil inclination) .”
In 2005, a group of researchers interviewed thousands of addicts to find a link between spirituality and Addiction. They discovered that addicts who believed in a higher source were more likely to keep their sobriety intact when faced with stressful situations . Emunah is believing in Hashem and believing that there is a higher purpose to our lives than the simple mundane. When everything in your life is elevated, you see challenges and struggles through a different lens. When an addict or someone struggling with a habit gets into a stressful or challenging situation it is easy to reason with yourself. Emunah transcends reason. Emunah and reason are not playing on the same field, reason being finite and Emunah, infinite. By bringing Emunah into our lives and truly living with Emunah through our daily struggles, when the Yetzer Harah tries to reason with us, we have the upper hand.
In conclusion, while it may seem slightly overwhelming, pick one habit to work on. Through your Cheshbon Hanefesh, when you recognize the trigger, change the behaviour from negative to positive. Do this enough times, and it will become an inherent part of your sub-conscious. Believe that there will be a good outcome, find a Mashpia to guide you and most importantly, have faith in Hashem that he will help you overcome these challenges.
Sources and Footnotes
2 Likkutei Amarim 12
3 The Power of Habit, Duhigg, 2012
5 Kuzari, Ma’amar 3, Ot 5
6 Igrot Kodesh vol. 2 p. 73.
7 Likutei Amarim 13
8 Kiddushin 30b.