Last week we shared tips for forming habits that build up into a healthy way of life, but we’re back today with the second side of that same coin: breaking bad habits. Because oftentimes we don’t just have a need for healthier habits - we need to shed the not-so-healthy ones too. And just like it takes practice and repetition to form a new habit, it takes the same kind of discipline to break an old one.
Now ‘bad’ can be a bit of a relative term here. There are plenty of good things that can become bad habits if we fixate on them too much (i.e. tracking macros can be a helpful nutritional habit, but if you get obsessive about it and it’s causing you stress, it might not be the best thing for you). So when we refer to bad habits, we want you to consider what habits you have that are not helping you live the kind of life you want to be living. With that perspective in mind, here are 7 tips to help you break the habits that aren’t helping you live your best life.
1. Understand Your Habit & Its Triggers
There are three primary parts to a habit: the reminder, the routine, and the reward. The reminder, or trigger, is anything that cues your habit to occur, the routine is the action of the habit itself, and the reward is what helps make the habit stick (such as a release of dopamine that makes your brain want to repeat the habit). With these parts in mind, if you can identify the reminder of your bad habit, you are going to be more successful with cutting off the routine of it.
So a good place to start is to take some time to track your habit (anywhere from a few days to a week, depending on the frequency of it). Try not to do anything to interfere with the habit just yet - just seek to understand it. Take notice of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of it.
Who are you around, or who is involved, when the habit happens?
What exactly triggered you to perform the habit?
Where are you when the habit happens?
When does the habit happen? (i.e. what time of day)
Why does the habit happen? (i.e. many bad habits are a way of dealing with stress or boredom)
How do you feel when the habit happens?
As an example, let’s say you want to stop staying up so late. When you start to track your behavior you recognize that you tend to stay up later if you start watching TV when you get in bed. You tell yourself it helps wind you down for the night, but before you know it Netflix’s “Are You Still Watching?” prompt pops up and you’re still awake. It’s very likely that turning the TV on in bed is a trigger for staying up later than you’d like.
By getting to the root of the issue and identifying the trigger, you can better disrupt the habit and avoid it altogether.
2. Make it Meaningful
Just like when you are forming a habit, having a ‘why’ tied directly to the habit you’re trying to get rid of can offer extra motivation to stick with the change in behavior. If you know why you want to stop doing something, it will make the work you have to put in to change worth it. Take some time to consider the benefits of making a change. Equally important, take some time to consider the risks or consequences if you don’t.
Let’s say you want to stop drinking soda. We all know it’s not the best for us, but why does it matter to YOU to drop this habit? Maybe you want to lose weight and halting this habit can help. If you take it even deeper, why do you want to lose weight? Perhaps you are tired of feeling lethargic and you want more energy to play with your kids. Well there you go, now you have your ‘why.’
By rooting your changes in habit to specific and personal reasons, you offer yourself a stronger motivation to stick with them, especially when you are tempted to return to the habit you are trying to break.
3. Remove Your Triggers
Now that you’ve identified the things that trigger your bad habit, and you have some extra motivation to put an end to it, the next step is to remove as many triggers as you can. If you break off the things that cause the habit, you’ll make it easier for yourself to break it.
For example, if the to-go menus on your fridge make you want to order fast food every time you see them, toss them out. If you eat junk food when it’s in the house, offer your stash to a friend or throw it away. If you end up scrolling on your phone every time it buzzes, turn off your notifications. If driving by the coffee shop on the way to work lands you in the drive thru every day, try going a different route. If hanging out with a certain friend always leads to you having too much to drink, take a break from spending as much time with them if they’re not going to be supportive of your habit breaking attempts. Or, when considering that stress is a root cause of many bad habits, put some effort into intentionally alleviating stress in constructive ways to avoid putting yourself in a state of mind that will trigger your habit.
Not all triggers will be removable, but consider what changes you can make to your environment to set you up for success.
4. Replace The Habit With Something Better
In some cases our habits might add some kind of value to our lives (i.e. smoking a cigarette could give you some sense of stress relief), so cutting them out completely feels much more daunting. James Clear, author of the NYT Best Seller Atomic Habits, has said that “If you expect yourself to simply cut out bad habits without replacing them, then you’ll have certain needs that will be unmet and it’s going to be hard to stick to a routine of ‘just don’t do it’ for very long.” So instead, you’ll want to fulfill the need by replacing the habit with something healthier.
To continue with the example of smoking, any time you are triggered to have a cigarette, pop a piece of gym in your mouth or go for a quick walk instead. Having a concrete action to perform in place of the habit you had helps your brain to disassociate with the negative action and replace it with the better one. The more you repeat the new behavior, the more it becomes an impulsive routine (and hopefully a routine that makes you feel better too).
5. Use Accountability
Like so many aspects of our health, accountability helps us get the job done. The thought might cross your mind that if you take on a habit change alone, then no one will see you fail. But the truth is that if you set yourself up with a support system, you increase your odds of success.
If you know someone who might want to kick the same bad habit as you, partner up to do it together. That way you can have someone who understands the tough moments and can celebrate with you in the victories along the way. Plus, having someone who is relying on you and expects you to be better can be a great motivator.
If you don’t have anyone who is trying to change a habit alongside you, you can still confide in a friend about the habit you’re trying to break. That way, they can be a source of encouragement and they can offer gentle reminders to you if they notice you slipping back into old habits. In some cases, you may even consider more professional help for advice or accountability.
As a supplemental form of accountability, leave yourself reminders to keep you focused when you have moments of weakness. Leave a sticky note in the pantry on the spot where you normally kept your sugar fix. Set a timer on your phone when using certain apps so you don’t lose track of time. Or use our free downloadable Habit Builder as a “Habit Breaker” by keeping track of how many days you successfully avoid your former bad habit (plus it has a place on it to write down your ‘why’ to remind you of your ultimate motivation).
6. Embrace Progress Over Perfection
Here’s the thing, slip ups are bound to happen. Especially when you are breaking a habit you’ve had for awhile. So instead of getting defeated and giving up hope that you can ever break this habit when the slip up occurs, plan for it and give yourself grace.
What we mean by plan for it is to consider an action you can take when you do have a slip up that will get you back on track. Maybe you take three deep breaths, you write down your ‘why’ on a piece of paper, or you list off the negative consequences you’ll face if you fall back into the habit. Whatever it takes for you to pause, get back up, dust yourself off, and make a different choice next time.
But ultimately you are going to have to ditch the all or nothing mindset and give yourself some grace. Mistakes happen, so learn from them instead of wallowing in them. If you have a slip up, consider how many days you went prior to that without engaging with the habit and celebrate it! Having one slip up does not take away those days that you were successful. Anything you do that’s more of what you want is good.
7. Be Patient
Just like with building a new habit, breaking a bad habit takes time, effort, and perseverance. And the time it takes will depend on a variety of things including how long you’ve had the habit, the kind of needs the habit fulfills, or your level of support in breaking the habit. So stay the course and keep going. The path may not be linear, and there may be setbacks and adjustments needed along the way, but if you keep working at it, eventually you CAN experience freedom from your vices, once and for all!
We hope these tips leave you inspired to take on the elimination of the habit that has been lingering in the back of your mind while you read this. We absolutely believe you can shed the things that are holding you back from living the life you want. You are strong. You are capable. And you are worth it!
So tell us in the comments, what bad habit are you going to work on breaking first?
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Written by Kelly Pruim