Why you’re unable to stop doing something (and what to do instead)

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Are you unable to stop doing something? For example a habit such as using social media too much, or thinking about something or someone repeatedly? It’s a very common problem, and here is the reason why and tips on what to do instead.

Why you are unable to stop doing something

The answer to why you’re unable to stop doing something can be found in neuroscience.

Our habits, including actions and thought patterns, are based on synaptic connections in the brain. Every time you do that action or think that thought, you activate that connection in the brain. Every time you activate it, the connection becomes stronger and stronger (Hebb’s rule: What wires together, fire together).

And so if you’re continually and frequently doing something or thinking a certain thought, that means those connections in your brain have become strong and are easily activated again. That’s why you feel like you are continuously repeating the action even without much effort.

These synaptic connections in your brain do not disappear out of anywhere (if ever). That’s why people have relapses in addictions and such even after decades of staying clean. And scientists do not yet know how to effectively disrupt or destroy connections in the brain. 

So, that’s why it’s hard and sometimes feels impossible for us to stop doing something we’re used to doing.

But! The good news is that there are alternative methods you can implement to stop yourself from doing something.

Here’s what to do instead

Now, we’ve gone over why it doesn’t help much to say to ourselves “Just stop thinking about it”, or “just stop doing it”.

The solution is to instead build new and stronger synaptic connections that become stronger and more easily activated than the old ones. You replace one habit with another.

Now, this is not always an easy task, but it is possible.

For example, if I can’t stop checking my Instagram, it doesn’t help to tell myself “Stop checking Instagram”. Instead, what is more effective, is that whenever I get the urge to open my Instagram app, I instead go and open my journal. Do you see? I exchange one action for another. 

And with time, the synaptic connections that get activated by me opening my journal grow stronger and stronger until hopefully, it becomes stronger than the connections that make me open Instagram. 

So then, I have built new and stronger synaptic connections that become my new default behavior. 

It’s the same principle if you want to stop thinking certain thoughts. Instead of telling yourself not to think about it, start focusing your thoughts on something else instead. Decide what else you’d want to think about, and start thinking that thought as much as possible, especially when you catch yourself repeating the old thought you want to get rid off. This is the basis behind practice affirmations, where you repeatedly tell yourself statements until you believe them to be true.

Interesting! Isn’t it?

Other methods

Apart from the above-mentioned method, you can of course make things easier along the way. For example, you can block yourself from certain actions and give yourself punishments from repeating actions you want to stop (e.g. you have to give a certain amount of money to your friend if you do it again). Things like that may heighten your motivation to stop, and motivation can go a long way too.

You can also make your new desired action or thought more attractive by attaching rewards to it.

In addition, you can practice noticing patterns of your old habits. Is there a specific time, place, person, or other circumstance that makes you perform the habit or think the thought? You could try avoiding those triggers and see if you also automatically are doing the habit less. Many times, actions are triggered by environmental stimuli (e.g. certain people or some type of stimuli).

And remember! It takes time to form new habits, so keep trying and don’t give up.

Good luck with creating those new synaptic connections of yours! 

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