How to Break Bad Habits
Everyone has at least one bad habit – not one of us is perfect. It may be that you smoke, you may have a chocolate habit, perhaps you skip workouts and watch too much television. All of these bad habits act against your best interests.
The Science Of Bad Habits
So, why don’t you just stop doing it? Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy… as evidenced by every failed New Year’s resolution. Your bad habits are simply automatic, they are just your way of life. We shrug and tell people hey, it’s who I am, it’s what I do… this is me. It feels as though your habits are bigger than you are and that they are impossible to overcome.
If you have ever wondered why you just can’t quit your bad habits, it’s because humans tend to repeat behaviors that make them feel good. It feels good to drink alcohol, even if it ends in a hangover. The buzz you get from smoking a cigarette temporarily relieves your stress levels. TV and sugary food trigger a heavy release of dopamine.
Your brain becomes accustomed to your bad habits feeling good. So, they serve a purpose, even though they are bad for you. The end result is never ideal, but the outcome that you receive in that very moment… it’s great and it’s what makes it so difficult to let go.
You get home from work… what’s the first thing that you do? If it’s crashing on the couch to watch television, then there’s a good chance you will never get back up to take care of what you need to. You forego workouts, you may even skip making dinner and order something in. Just like that, one bad habit begets more nasty habits.
We don’t want to make you feel bad about this because even if the rewards eventually bring harm, it is human nature to seek them out. According to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, around 70% of smokers want to quit their bad habit, yet most of them never do (Source).
Around half of those people made an attempt to do so, but of them… just 6% were successful. This, despite the fact that everyone knows how terrible it is for health, as well as just how expensive it is.
How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One?
So, what should we do instead of trying to quit those bad habits? You can start by building good habits. Stop wasting your effort, stop wasting your time… because the best way to break free of your bad habits is to instead focus on building new good habits.
You may have already started the journey, and when it doesn’t go well you tend to beat yourself up about it. That’s not the way to overcome your bad habits. By judging yourself harshly, you are creating self-doubt and tarnishing your self-image. This will simply fuel your bad habits.
No one enjoys focusing on their faults. It’s no fun. There’s a good chance that when you think about breaking your bad habit, your mind conjures up a laundry list of justifications for your behavior. (Source)
You actively attempt to convince yourself that you should keep at that bad habit. There is comfort in bad habits and it’s difficult to just let that go. Moreover, if you have had this habit for years, it is so firmly entrenched it feels as though it’s almost impossible to overcome.
Say you want to cut back on your alcohol intake. You are in the habit of pouring yourself a large glass of Malbec as you make dinner. So, you read about just how dangerous it is to drink too much, you scold yourself for being careless, and you vow that this will be the last time. There’s a problem with this plan.
The more likely outcome is that you don’t like the idea of giving up your habit and you start to feel shame about having the habit in the first place. So, what do you do? You just keep on drinking.
The Cause of Bad Habits
There are two big problems that cause bad habits – boredom and stress. You indulge in retail therapy because you are stressed out. You are bored, so you snack absentmindedly. You can find different ways to cope with both of those issues, which will serve as a substitute for your bad habits.
It’s important to understand that boredom and stress may be fueled by deeper problems. It isn’t always easy to think about or consider so, in order to process this properly, you will have to be deeply honest with yourself.
Is there an underlying reason, feeling or belief that could be driving your bad habits?
Recognizing the cause is crucial to the process. We all have our habits for a reason, whether they are good or bad. As we discussed above, bad habits often bring rewards, even if they are temporary and the damage is long-term.
Smoking a cigarette offers a biological benefit, staying in a terrible relationship has an emotional cause, and many other bad habits are an attempt to cope with your stress levels.
Yet, that same action is destructive to productivity, it fuels your stress and disrupts your focus.
The reward it offers, though, is that you feel as though you haven’t missed out. So, you keep doing it. If you smoke because you feel stressed out, then you can’t simply stop smoking. You have to learn how to manage your stress more effectively.
Ultimately, your bad habit is addressing a need that you have. This is why it’s vital that you replace your bad habit with a new good one. Otherwise, you will struggle to overcome your bad habits.
A New Approach: Adopt Good Habits
You need to adopt a new approach. You have to consider what behaviors you can develop that will provide you with the same comfort your bad habit does, but without the damage to your health. You are more likely to be motivated about adopting a new habit when you recognize how much better you will feel because of it. This is a lot easier to do than it is to break a habit.
When you sit down to identify your bad habits, you need to consider it as a detective would evidence. You have to look at it from a different perspective and be objective. This can be incredibly challenging and if it’s something you struggle with, then pretend you’re helping a friend with their difficult situation.
So, you have a list of your bad habits. Now, when did this habit start, what triggers it, and where is the root? For example, you may have picked up an unhealthy habit of getting fast food after you finish work. It started because work was hectic, you were constantly running late, and you just didn’t have the energy or time to cook when you got home.
Fast food was an adequate solution, but it was supposed to be a temporary one. Here you are, months later, and you are still doing the same thing. You have to create a new habit that will provide you with the same comfort.
You can start by preparing meals in advance and choosing some of your favorite meals so that you look forward to getting home and making dinner.
How to Break Bad Habits with Awareness
It’s fairly easy to get caught up in your feelings when it comes to your bad habits. You feel guilty, you daydream about how you wish things were… but, that distracts you from the truth of the matter. Awareness is going to help you change.
When does it happen, how many times a day do you indulge your bad habit, who are you with and where are you when you do it? What is it that triggers your behavior? Start by tracking your issues.
The easiest way to get started is to determine which bad habit you’d like to replace first. Then, track just how often you do it by keeping a tally of how many times you do it each day. Once you get to the end of your day, you can count just how many times you did this.
Don’t be tempted to judge yourself. Don’t feel guilty about it. Your goal is simply to be aware of just how often you indulge your bad habit. You can’t wrap your head around the issue until you’re fully aware of the problem.
From there, you can implement some new ideas. Don’t worry, we have prepared a number of them for you. It takes time and effort to break your bad habits. More importantly, it requires perseverance. You might fail multiple times before you succeed, but that’s okay!
Breaking Bad Habits with a New Identity
We tend to think about goals in strict terms. We think about an outcome that will reshape our identity. One way to overcome this type of thinking is to tell yourself that you are a certain type of person. For example, tell yourself that you are the type of person who exercises daily.
You are the type of person who drinks a lot of water. You’re the kind of person who is a writer. You are whatever you want to be, you just have to change the story and start narrating it properly. It’s much easier to create a new habit when you can conceptualize it as part of your identity. Your habits reinforce identify, so create a clear view of your identity to help enforce new habits.
Whether you like it or not, habits embody you as a person or the person that you want to become. When you exercise you are embodying the identity of someone who works out every day and is in good shape. (Source)
When you write you then embody that identify. When you take action, you are essentially voting for yourself, for the person that you want to be.
Creating an Environment to Support your Good Habits
Think about how your personality influences your habits. Also, consider how your environment influences you. Can you change your environment in order to build better habits? You may have an addictive personality, one that makes it easy for you to fall into bad habits like smoking, drinking, and watching too much television.
You want to change this habit, and you know you can’t just flip a switch to stop being an addictive personality. It’s time to change your environment. Why not think about rearranging your living room to support healthier habits than watching television. Let’s be honest, we all decorate our living rooms with the seating area pointing at the television.
Another example could be your cleanliness. You struggle to keep your home organized because you don’t naturally feel compelled to do so. You can create your physical environment to contain cues that prompt to carry out a certain task. Once you do this repeatedly, you will have a habit.
The point here is that you can use your personality to inform the strategy that you make to create your new habits.
Self Improvement Through Habit Change
Self-improvement requires good habit building. Do your habits inhibit your efforts to improve yourself or do they promote them? It doesn’t matter what good habit you would like to start, it’s believing that you have the potential to carry it out.
It’s easy to ignore your small daily habits, but they are essentially the interest you gain during the course of self-improvement. Those small habits build bigger habits. (Source)
Think about habits are solutions. Your brain comes up with solutions for the problems that you come across. When you face the same problem repeatedly, your brain gets quicker at providing you with a solution. For example, you have a stressful day at work, you arrive home, and your brain is telling you to relax.
There are a number of ways you can answer that call, but many people pour wine, some light a cigarette… but you could be slipping into a bubble bath with a good book. There are plenty of solutions to the same problem, it’s just that some of them are healthier.
Your brain just wants a solution that works. That doesn’t mean it’s the right habit. It’s just making suggestions and you’re seizing on them.
Your habit is convenient. So, you can only be distracted by your smartphone if it’s handy. If you plan to sit down and write for an hour, but your phone is in a different room, then you won’t be thinking about it. Instead, you will be fully focused on your writing.
They are distractions and that is often something that fuels our habit. It’s a convenient habit that breaks your focus. You are unlikely to interrupt your work to trek to another room just to see if someone has contacted you.
There are four steps to changing your behavior, and this is how good habits form. You create an environment with cues and make it obvious, you make it attractive and easy, and make it rewarding.
That’s it. Reverse those four steps and that’s how you break a bad habit.
What does that look like in practice? Do you want to eat healthier? Buy healthy food, keep your cabinets fully stocks and have healthy recipes on hand. Start a food journal and/or read about the health benefits you will experience from improving your diet.
Those are the steps to eating healthy, but what about the steps to not eating unhealthily? You remove all of the junk food in your home and read about how it impacts your health. You take the money you saved from buying junk food and invest it in healthy food. You keep a journal to note how you feel when you eat junk food.
Systems, Not Goals
The purpose of a goal is to provide clarity and offer direction. However, when we talk about goals for the purpose of making changes, it isn’t goals that you should focus on, it’s systems. What does that even mean?
When you achieve a goal, you do so by creating a system of habits. You could spring clean your home, but it won’t stay clean unless there is a system of habits in place to maintain it. So, while we live in a society that is results driven, our habits deserve much more attention than we give them.
Setting a goal means nothing if you don’t have a system of habits to drive you to achieve it.
Your habit is a solution to a problem. So, to create new good habits you need to create context. Do you want to watch less television and read more? Then don’t sit in the same seat you do to watch television while you read, find a special place to do it.
You have to create new habits in an environment that you don’t have existing behavioral associations with. (Source)
Adopt a Substitute
You have to consider what you will do instead of your bad habit – especially when you’re faced with the trigger for your bad habit. When you feel the urge to light a cigarette, what are you going to do instead? Perhaps, meditation.
When you feel the call of social media luring you to procrastinate, what are you going to do instead? You have to plan for temptation. You have to plan for stumbles and hurdles.
You should try and purge as many of your triggers as possible. So, if you know that you smoke more when you drink, cut back on your alcohol intake. If you know that you always eat ice cream while you watch sitcoms, don’t buy ice cream.
If you know you immediately turn the television on when you wake up, keep the remote in a different room. It’s easier to break those bad habits when you can limit the triggers. Your current environment is fueling your bad habits, which only makes it harder to adopt good habits. You can change the outcome by changing your environment.
Sometimes accountability is all it takes to make the change stick. So, find someone who wants to quit the same bad habit and adopt a new one and team up to do it together. You can celebrate your wins together, lean on each other in hard times, and stay responsible.
Surround yourself with others who are living now how you want to live.
That doesn’t mean you write off all of your old friendships, but there is power in finding a new social network. Especially when it’s a healthier one.
Imagine yourself tossing your bad habit, imagine yourself indulging in your good habit. Visualize yourself destroying your bad habits and embracing your new good ones. Visualize success and imagine yourself creating a new identity for yourself. It isn’t about being someone you’re not, it’s about being who you really are.
For some reason, we think that we have to be a new person to break old habits. In truth, you don’t need to quit your habit, you simply need to hard reset yourself to a time when you weren’t that habit. You lived without this habit once, and you can absolutely do it again.
But? Others have failed like you. And like them, you’ll grow and still succeed.
- I keep failing, but everyone has failed before.
- I’m so out of shape, but in three months from now, I could be back in shape.
- I smoke too much, but I can change that.
- I’m so hungover, but if I learn how to manage stress, I can stop drinking.
How to Break Bad Habits – Final Thoughts
Instead of focusing on breaking your bad habits, refocus on forming new good habits. It’s a much easier task and helps you kill two birds with one stone. You aren’t quitting something, you’re simply starting something new and healthy that will improve your life.
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