It's Time to Stop Labeling Our Habits as Simply 'Good' or 'Bad'
January 16, 2019
We all have habits: Nail biting. Toe tapping. Chocolate candy. Some, we think of as good. (See: exercising for 30 minutes, 5 times per week.) Others, not so much. (See: checking Facebook for 30 minutes, 5 times per day.) For every habit, we tend to attach one of two labels: good or bad.
If you asked me to name my bad habits, I could list them in a heartbeat. There’s my tendency to procrastinate once I’ve been working for a few hours, scrolling through Instagram rather than my email. The way I skip meal prepping in favor of $1 pizza slices. I’m cringing as I type these out because, for as long as I’ve had them, I’ve known that these habits are absolutely terrible.
Like many people, every January I resolve to change things—to stop whatever it is I’ve deemed “wrong” and replace it with something that seems more acceptable or productive. It maybe works for a week, but then I slide back into my so-called “bad” habits, feeling even guiltier than I had before.
Feel like a familiar struggle? Turns out, the problem isn’t so much “bad” habits—it’s labeling habits as “good” or “bad” altogether.
“Research has shown us that when we are 'rule-governed,’ or overly adherent to rules and labels, we are less attentive and responsive to the environment in the present moment,” clinical psychologist Lara Fielding, Psy.D., tells Shine. “This means we are less capable of adapting to changes, and more likely to make errors due to old road maps.”
'Research has shown us that when we are 'rule-governed,' or overly adherent to rules and labels, we are less attentive and responsive to the environment in the present moment.' - Lara Fielding, Psy.D.
What that means: Forcing ourselves to ditch "bad" habits causes us to ignore the nuance behind our actions.
For example: When I try to stop my “bad” procrastination habit, I’m sometimes ignoring the message my body is trying to send me to refuel and try again later. By trying to replace my “bad” habit of releasing some steam with a “good habit” of working harder, I’m actually burning myself out. Plus, beating myself up over each slip-up just makes me feel worse—and less likely to kick back into productivity mode—rather than better.
But ditching the labeling is no easier than ditching a bad habit, says Fielding. Turns out, we’re hard-wired to categorize our habits, mentally marking them as “good” or “bad.”
“Human beings organize information by compartmentalizing,” Fielding says. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re born with an idea of what’s right or wrong—or that the practice is helpful. “Labels are usually socially constructed,” she says. “Our culture, AKA time and place, dictate the norms.”
For example: When you’re home on the weekend, spending some serious time watching You on Netflix might be a good habit—it’s a way to relax. But mid-work day? It’d be a “bad” habit. Habits can constantly ping-pong between “good” and “bad,” so pinning them down with one label doesn't set us up for success.
What does work, according to Fielding, is to think through how each habit serves you and adjusting accordingly.
My early morning email habit helps me whip through my to-do list. My mid-morning latte orders are an absurd waste of money, sure, but they also add a little joy to my day. My afternoon social media binges, while distracting, do serve as a sort of mental health break.
Going forward, instead of trying to change from a “bad” habit to a “good” one, I’m just shifting from one way of doing things to another if it doesn't serve me in the moment.
And if you still feel that self-shame when you notice a habit isn’t really serving you? Fielding suggests practicing a little self-compassion.
“Shame, like any other emotion, is part of being human,” she says. Know you’re not alone in feeling guilty, but remind yourself: You’re doing the best you can.
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