Are you ready to drop a bad habit (or two)? Are you done with “trying harder” to change something you are doing? There is good news! Researchers have spent a great deal of time looking at what works for breaking bad habits and these are things you can start today.
The first step to breaking a bad habit is to clue in—pay attention. Think about what is going on whenever you do the habit. Do you often chew your nails when you are watching TV? Or do you grab a smoke when you need a break from work? Do you reach for junk food when you are too tired to make a meal, or always complain when you are with certain people? These are important clues that help you make a plan and break bad habits.
Keep notes about what is going on, even if the notes are quick jots in your phone. List the habit, the environment (where you are when you do it), what you are feeling, and anything else that you notice. Habits are things we do without thinking, so this new awareness helps you break bad habits.
People tend to think of bad habits as things to stop doing. While this is true, it is more helpful to focus on something positive that relates to changing an action. Instead of saying “I won’t complain” you could say “I will say something I think is good”. Every bad habit can be replaced with a positive statement. This shift in words helps to shift thoughts and feelings, and you feel more control over your situation.
You could make a positive goal of taking a quick run when you need a break from work, instead of grabbing a cigarette. Or have fresh vegetables handy to snack on when you feel tired. Not only will these positive goals help you shift your thinking to what you can do, they are all good, healthy habits to develop so you win both ways.
After you have paid attention to your bad habits and set positive goals, you can make plans to help you be successful. Think about the situations when you are most likely to do the habit, and plan for what you will do instead. Be sure to include thoughts you will use during your plan.
The simplest plan involves an “if” and a “will”. Planning “If I am watching TV, I will squeeze a stress ball” helps someone stop the bad habit of chewing their nails while watching TV. A more detailed plan can involve choosing different environments, getting involved in new activities where your bad habit is inconvenient, and having reminders about positive goals posted where you can see them.
Always include rewards for success. Your brain has associated your bad habit with something rewarding for a long time—otherwise, it would not be a habit! Now, you need to let your brain know it is good to replace the bad habit. So, when you eat healthy food instead of junk food, reward yourself somehow. Maybe buy yourself some flowers, or indulge in your favorite video game for a while. Whatever you choose, you send a new message to your brain that helps break the reward cycle of the bad habit.
You can also choose to give a consequence for failure, like having a swear jar you put money in every time you swear. Just move on after the consequence and get back to your plan. Beating yourself up and focusing on negative self-talk does not help you break bad habits.
If you have supportive people in your life, include them in your plan. Let them know what you are working on and ask for their support and encouragement. In the beginning, they can also help you become aware when you are doing your bad habit. Think about specific ways they can help you and ask for help.
Give yourself the best chance for breaking the bad habit. Remove things that tempt you or trigger the bad habit. Get rid of the junk food, avoid the “smoking spot” at work, turn your phone off at night and leave it in the kitchen. Whatever your bad habit is, make it harder for you to turn to it.
Some experts recommend going on a vacation when you want to break a bad habit. A new environment away from triggers and temptations can kick start your plan and help you break bad habits. If this is not possible or practical, find other ways to change things up so you are not stuck in old unhealthy routines.
Think about your life without the bad habit. Visualizing is an excellent practice for changing your thoughts and helping you look forward to getting rid of bad habits. Imagine being able to leave your hands visible because your fingernails look nice and healthy. Think about fun things you can do with the money you used to use to buy cigarettes. Write down what you want and how it feels to have it. And enjoy your new life without old habits!
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