Positive and negative behaviors and the chain system

This post will be a departure from the normal for me, but let's just see how it goes. When I decided to leave my previous career and learn to code properly, the primary reason to do that was to improve myself. I wanted to better my life, and coding provided a clear path to that goal. There were other reasons of course, I enjoy problem solving and creativity, both of which are needed to be a good coder, it's a career that suits me, but personal growth was a big part of my plan. I have a growth mindset, and that means always wanting to better myself, not just in my career but in all aspects of my life.

Like everybody on earth I'm a flawed person, and as part of that I have bad habits, negative behaviours that I want to kick out of my life for good. When I learned a few years ago that I was going to become a dad for the first time it made me sit up and take notice of my life, and I vowed to make changes to turn myself into the best version of myself possible.

Around that time I came across a simple system championed by Jerry Seinfeld, the chain system. I'll paraphrase here, but essentially Seinfeld's suggestion is that if there's a positive behaviour that you want to practice every day, keep track of it on a calendar. Each day that you do that particular thing, put a big cross on the calendar. Pretty soon you'll have a chain built up, and at that point it'll be easier to keep the chain going, because you won't want to break it. You'll know that if you break the chain it'll take you ages to get back to where you were, so you'll be more likely to stick to that positive behaviour.

I like the chain system, I've used it for years with the help of various apps and it works well for enforcing positive behaviour. This is no revelation, thousands if not millions of people use the chain system every day. However I know that a lot of people, myself included, have also been using the system to keep track of negative behaviours that they don't want to practice each day, and that's where I think the problem lies.

While the chain system has worked well for me when enforcing positive behaviours, it's failed every single time that I've tried to use it to remove negative behaviours from my life. I've finally realised, after countless failed attempts, why the chain system isn't working for negative behaviours.

The best way to break an negative behavioural cycle is to completely remove not only that behaviour from your life, but any ‘trigger', or reminder of that behaviour too. A brain that has become hooked on a bad behaviour, has become entrenched in a particular way of thinking that always leads back to those negative behaviours. The best way to tackle those behaviours is to completely replace them with more positive behaviours. Often people tackling negative behaviours will take up fitness, art or something else unfamiliar to them, to keep their mind away from the negative behaviour for long enough that that behaviour's hold has become significantly weakened. When using the chain system however you're never giving yourself the chance to forget that negative behaviour, because every single day you're reminding yourself that it exists, you're forcing yourself to think about it every time you draw that cross on the calendar, or tick that box in the app. If you really want to break a negative behaviour you need to stop thinking about it entirely, and focus your time on more positive behaviours instead.

I believe that the chain system works well for reinforcing positive skills, it's great to remind yourself every day of how well you've adhered to your positive behaviour chain. However when it comes to negative behaviours, I now believe that you shouldn't constantly remind yourself of that behaviour, you just need to forget about it for a while, find some more positive habits to replace it with, and before you know it you'll have reached the longest chain of abstaining from negative behaviours that you ever have. Think about it this way – forget about tracking how long you haven't practiced a negative behaviour for, instead replace that negative behaviour with a positive one, and track that instead.