Bad habits creep up on us.
One day we smoke that first cigarette, eat that first bag of Cheetos, or discover how easy it is to charge things on a credit card.
Before you know it, that one decision has mushroomed into big, bad habit. We become physically or mentally addicted to substances, food, spending, nail biting, and any number of actions that don’t reflect our best selves.
You know what your bad habits are, don’t you? It’s kind of embarrassing you can’t stop them. You don’t really want to admit they’re habits, but in your heart of hearts, you know they have a hold on you.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably tried many times to quit, to break the habit and set yourself free from limiting, unhealthy actions or thoughts. Maybe you’ve had a little success, but eventually you go back to that stinking habit like a crow returns to carrion.
And boy does that do a number on your self-esteem. Why oh why don’t we have the self-control to just STOP??
If it makes you feel better, bad habits are really, really hard to break. That’s because you’ve spent a long time “teaching” your brain to embrace the routine. You’ve carved out deep and solid neural pathways for this habit.
Imagine walking through the woods on a clear and easy path. Then you decide to get off the path and make your way through the brambles and thick forest. Pretty quickly you find yourself jumping back on the beaten path. That’s what happens when you try to jump off the bad habit path and forge new behaviors.
So is it possible to get off the bad habit path for good and not return to it? Yes . . . it is if you understand the very specific skills involved.
Here’s how to break bad habits using good habits:
Identify the bad habit.
If possible, for your first try at breaking habits, you want to start with a relatively easy bad habit. If you smoke or drink too much, don’t start with these as they involve strong physical addictions. Begin with something like biting your nails or snacking before bed so you increase your likelihood of success the first time around. If your only real bad habit is something difficult, just realize it will take more time and patience.
Ok, this might seem crazy, but make a note of every time you crave your bad habit by using an app on your smartphone or a note card. Ask yourself where you are, what time it is, what you are doing, and who you’re around.
The answers to these questions will reveal the prompt for your bad habit. For example, if biting your nails is your bad habit, you might observe that you do this every time you sit down to watch TV or when your mother-in-law walks in the room.
Isolate the reward.
Every bad habit satisfies some need or desire. You might bite your nails to relieve stress. You might overspend to get the satisfaction or thrill of having something new. Maybe you eat chips because you love that salty, crunchy taste. Think about exactly what you get from performing this bad habit, and how it makes you feel.
One reason it rarely works to drop a bad habit cold turkey is that you leave an empty void — one that longs to be filled. If you don’t replace your bad habit with something else, you’re bound to go right back to the old behavior.
Find a new, positive behavior you can substitute in the place of bad habit. Remind yourself of the rewards you get from the bad habit, and find a positive habit that might give you the same or similar rewards.
For example, if you bite your nails because you’re nervous, maybe you take up knitting or some other hand skill that occupies your fingers and works off that nervous energy. If you like crunchy, salty snacks, maybe you eat cucumbers with hummus rather than potato chips.
If you can’t find a similar replacement habit that’s positive, then choose a reward that’s the complete opposite of your bad habit. For example, if you surf the net too much after you get home from work, go out and take a long walk instead.
Your reward won’t completely satisfy the craving for your bad habit, but it provides a similar substitute action to help you ride out the urges and redirect your behavior.
Keep a journal.
Studies show when you measure behavior and keep records of your progress, you are more likely to follow through and succeed. Measuring your actions and watching your successes (and failures) to change the habit provides motivation and awareness.
Every day, write down whether or not you were able to identify your triggers and replace the bad habit with the good one. Make a note of your feelings and how difficult it was to skip the bad habit and perform the new one. Give yourself a score from 1-10, with one being very easy and ten being very hard. In time, you’ll notice your scores getting lower and lower.
Ride out the cravings.
You will have strong cravings in the beginning and feel the overpowering urge to perform your bad habit. Rather than thinking this means you can’t be successful, force yourself to wait fifteen to twenty minutes.
Do some deep breathing, perform your positive habit, and even phone a friend to distract you. If you can ride the wave of your craving, you’ll notice it diminishes on its own. Over the coming weeks, these cravings will be less and less powerful, especially if you’re performing your substitute habit regularly.
Life inevitably throws curveballs our way — we get some bad news, we feel blue, or we’re in an unfamiliar or stressful situation. These are the times when we might adopt a “what the hell” attitude and fall back into our old habit patterns. If you plan for these situations in advance, then it’s much more likely you can maintain your new habit and not disrupt the routine you’re so carefully developing.
Think about how you tend to react to stress, mood swings, or other life difficulties. Have you found yourself relying on the bad habit to get you through? If so, how can you use positive self-talk, support from friends and family, and other positive means of coping to get through difficult times without resorting to your old ways? Create your own “emergency plan” for these situations.
Breaking bad habits is hard, and it’s quite likely you’ll have a few slip-ups, even when you’ve planned carefully and know what to do. Don’t allow a setback to be an excuse for quitting. It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or incapable of changing the habit. It just means you had a momentary lapse. The method outlined here WILL work, so remind yourself of that. Refer to the successes you’ve outlined in your journal, and use positive self-talk to help motivate you to start again.
Depending on the difficulty of your bad habit, it can take a few months before you feel it has lost is grip on you and the new habit is firmly established. Be patient with yourself. Stay the course, and return to these steps when you have setbacks. With consistent effort, you’ll free yourself from this bad habit — and you’ll have a brand new positive habit that further improves your life.