How to Kick Bad Habits to the Curb

By Rivkah Shanowitz, Montreal, QC
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 [1].

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 [2]”,  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.

Comparative  Research
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].

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 [4].

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 [5].

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.

4-­  Mashpia
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 [6].

5- Emunah
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 [7].  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) [8].”

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 [9]. 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.