Last month we talked about creating new habits that we want in our lives. So now, let’s talk about those habits we don’t want, the ones we refer to as “bad” habits.
Now, I don’t consider any habits “good” or “bad”. Rather, there are some habits that enhance our lives, and some that are detrimental to our health and well-being.
So how do we break bad habits we feel are hindrances to living our best life?
There’s a myth that it takes 21 days to make a habit, but this just isn’t true. Sometimes people can break or establish a habit in a single day, and sometimes it takes a year, or two or three. It all depends on how entrenched the habit is, how motivated you are to change, and how reinforced this habit is in your environment.
For example, if everyone you work with smokes, you’ll have lots of cues to smoke at work and it will be harder to stop.
How to Break Bad Habits
Noticing is the first step
We might not even be conscious of habits that are getting in the way of living optimally. Start with noticing how you feel and your internal dialogue. Are you feeling stuck, out of control, or unhealthy? When we persistently feel down, anxious, or checked out, chances are that we have some habits that aren’t serving us.
Observe yourself without judgement. How are you taking care of yourself? What do you want and are your habits helpful to living that life or are they a hindrance?
Let’s say you want to be more productive but you have a habit of sleeping in, taking your time to ease into your day, and distracting yourself with social media. Before you know it, another day has passed and you have very little to show for it. You might notice frustration building up, or you might start having negative thoughts about yourself because you aren’t getting as much done as you would like. Those are cues that you might be ready to change your habits.
Identify the habits that aren’t serving you and that you’d like to change and ask yourself, are you willing and ready to do something about it?
Because if you’re only half-heartedly committed to making a change, you won’t get far. Breaking bad habits takes work. If you aren’t motivated to change, you’re unlikely to do that work.
If you’re not ready, notice that without judgement or blame. For now, pay attention to your habits and the impact they’re having on your life. We often wait for our habits to become very painful before we’re willing to change, but we can choose whether we wait for that point or not.
Learn about your habit
If you want to increase your motivation to break a habit that isn’t serving you, get really clear about the positive impact that breaking it can have on your life. Envision your life without the encumbrance of the negative habit. Imagine being healthier, more productive, or whatever else you want more of in your life.
Judge the habit, not yourself. Make the habit undesirable. Remember to not merge your identity with the unwanted habit. You are not your habit. Habits are behavioral and behaviors can be changed. They do not define you.
Examine how your habitual behavior is interfering with living the life you want to live. Are you harming your health, your relationships, your self-esteem? Examining the reasons why this habit is damaging may provide the motivation you’re looking for!
Look at yourself through compassionate eyes. Imagine someone you really care about has the habit you’d like to break. In your mind, watch them do this habit. Now imagine the people that care about you and how they might feel when they see you engage in this habit. Think of those answers and write them down.
Depending on the habit, researching the negative effects of your habit might be helpful. Read studies about the detrimental consequences of your habits. Read stories about people who were negatively affected by this habit, and who successfully overcame the habit. Write down your findings.
You still might not be ready to change at this point, but noticing the impact, writing about it, and making your habit feel as unpalatable as possible can prepare you for change.
Another action you can take if you aren’t ready to change is cataloging the habit. Record how much time you’re spending watching TV, how often you smoke, or what you eat. What are you getting out of your habit?
For example, if you’re spending 5 hours a day watching TV, what’s the negative impact? Is it completely mindless or are you watching for a purpose, like to learn something? Do you feel energized or rested, do you feel drained and uninspired? Why do you think you’re engaging in this habit? Are you procrastinating or avoiding something? Are you feeling directionless? Are you just doing it because it’s easy? Write down your observations.
Connect to the deep reasons for this non-beneficial, long-standing habit. When you are ready to change, start to take small steps toward breaking the habit.
Set short term goals
When you are ready to break bad habits, set a short term goal. For now, try to think in terms of a day, a week, or a month rather than several months or a year.
Maybe you want to watch five fewer hours of TV this week or work your way down to three desserts per week instead of eating sugar every day. If you want to quit smoking, try smoking one or two fewer cigarettes per day. For example, if you smoke a pack a day, try removing a cigarette from the pack every day. Once you’re successful with that, remove two each day to gradually cut back until you aren’t smoking at all.
Make your habit inconvenient
Make it harder to engage in your habit. Make it the least pleasant and least practical thing to do.
If you want to quit drinking (or drink less), you can get rid of the booze in your house. If you’re addicted to TV, you might hide the remote or ask someone to take possession of it for a period of time. If you want to cut back on sugar, clean out your pantry and take a different route home from work so you don’t drive by your favorite bakery. If you want to quit shopping for entertainment, leave your credit cards at home when you go out and only take a set amount of cash or a debit card with a strict limit.
Get creative with this! The more intense the habit, the more interference you will need to discourage you from engaging in it.
Fill the void
One of the challenging things about breaking a habit is that it doesn’t feel very rewarding, at least not in the beginning. When we remove something from our lives, it leaves behind a void that we want to fill.
If you cut out junk food, stop watching TV, quit smoking, or give up alcohol, now there’s a void with no reward. It’s important to find a new activity or create a reward system to fill that gap.
You can fill that gap with something similar, like a healthy treat instead of a sugary one or a mocktail for your nightly martini. If you are spending a lot of money on books, go to the library instead.
You could also reward yourself with something that isn’t associated with the habit because it doesn’t make sense to reward yourself for a week without junk food by going out for ice cream.
Maybe every day you don’t shop for things you don’t need, you take the money you would have spent and put that into an account for something you really want like a vacation or a new bike. You could also pay down your debt and make a chart to visually track your progress. Now you have a reward for following your habit!
Get an accountability partner
Find someone who can be nonjudgmental, but objective that you can be accountable to. (Life partners don’t usually make good accountability partners, by the way.) This should be someone you will be 100% honest with and who has no skin in the game. It also helps if they’re being accountable to you about something (not necessarily the same thing).
Check in with this person daily, even if it’s just a text to say that you got through the day, or that you took a baby step, or that you slipped up. Sponsorship in Alcoholics Anonymous is based on this concept. When you know someone is holding you accountable and supporting you, it’s a lot easier to quit a habit!
Don’t expect perfection
While some habits, specifically addictions (which are beyond the scope of this post), are best broken with complete abstinence, non-addictive habits aren’t so all-or-nothing.
It’s important to acknowledge your progress and know that each time you work on breaking a bad habit, you’re much closer to actually breaking it. Instead of thinking that you fell off the wagon and completely giving up, get curious. Notice why you engaged in the habit. Did you get bored with your exercise routine? Did you start spending time with people who are couch potatoes? Are you experiencing a lot of stress? Adjust your approach or your environment, or call in some extra support. Do what you need to do to get back on track as soon as possible.