Is Your Bad Habit an Addiction? 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

What’s the difference between a habit and an addiction? For instance, almost everyone these days makes a habit of checking email. When is email-checking a constructive habit, and when has it become an addiction?

Habits make actions reliably consistent. Addictions similarly insure that you will do specific actions with regularity. So what makes them quite different?

Take a look at the following example of habits versus addictions. What would you conclude?

A habit of checking email every day when you return from lunch insures that you will know what messages came to your email that morning. The habit increases the likelihood that you will respond to your morning messages in a timely way. In the business world, and in friendships too, others appreciate being able to connect with you in this reliable way. When they need a quick response they will get it.

Yet checking emails can become an addiction. Here’s four signs:

1.Frequency and duration.

Ask yourself, “How often do I check my emails?” If you check several times a day, that’s probably constructive. If you are checking emails with such frequency that the habit interferes with your effectiveness in getting other work done, hmmm. Odds are you may be addicted to the small spurt of happy chemicals that seeing a note that pleases you can initiate.

Pay attention also to duration, that is, once you start doing your habit how long do you keep at it until you stop? Checking for 3 minutes is quite different from checking and writing for half an hour.

2. Displacement.

What would you be doing if you were not so frequently checking your email? Finishing other work you need to be doing? If the time you spend doing your habit could be better spent in other activities, addiction may be the issue.

3. Harm

Ask yourself “Is my frequent email checking harming me, others, my relationships, or my work?”

If the frequent email checking is harming you, others, your work and/or your relationships, there’s for sure an addiction afoot. I say for sure because the clinical definition of addiction is a habit that you persist in doing even though it causes harm to your work or to your relationships.

If you used to hug your spouse last thing before climbing into bed, and now instead of hugging you turn your back to your bed-mate to check your email or cell phone for messages, that’s addiction. Likewise, if checking emails when you first wake up in the morning irritates your spouse and yet you find yourself sneaking your cell phone into bed to check them nonetheless, that’s addictive behavior.

Similarly, enjoying a glass of red wine with lunch may be fine. Drinking enough wine that you act silly, antagonize others, or go back to work and fall asleep on the job signals addiction.

4. Craving.

Ask yourself, “Do I get an urge to check even when I am in a meeting or other place where checking is inappropriate?” That’s craving.

Focus on one of your questionable habits. How did you do on these four questions?

A yes to any one of these questions signifies a potential problem. Yes to all four signifies that your pleasurable and at times functional habit has slipped from habit into addiction.

What’s the next step if you have a habit that has become an addiction?

If your habit has become more of a problem than you had been thinking it was, here are two options.

—Cut back.
—Go cold turkey.

Cut back on the frequency and quantity of the habit. Or eliminate the habit altogether.

In the case of emails, to cut back you might set specific times and do zero checking other than at those times.

To eliminate evening and early morning email-checking altogether, you might decide to keep your cell phone, and computers as well, out of your bedroom.

To establish the new pattern, aim for at least three weeks of serious focus and effort. Usually three weeks is enough to halt an old and launch a new set of automatic behaviors.

If your goal is to end the habit or addiction altogether, after three weeks away, make sure that you think twice before you resume. Make strict rules of when and how much you will allow yourself again to indulge in the habit and stick to them faithfully.

Once you have crossed the line into addiction on any given habit, your risk of becoming addicted again zooms up. Keeping away altogether may be preferable. Slippage happens.

The bottom line

Habits can be healthy routines or harmful. When a habit is detrimental and yet you persist in doing it, think addiction.

In that case, be realistic: Bringing the habit to an end and establishing a new habit to replace it will be challenging.

You can do it. You can win in challenging situations. At the same time, make sure that you devote the major commitment of time and attention to the change process that success in breaking bad and addictive habits requires.