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
With the start of the new year comes the inspiration (or pressure, depending on how you feel about it) to set goals and aim high for change. Now, more than ever probably, we all want to make this year better than the last. But it can be very daunting to change everything all at once. Many people try. But according to some estimates, only 4-8% of people actually stick to their new year’s resolutions, and most people will ditch their resolutions before the end of January. Does this mean that it’s a hopeless pursuit to try to change your life? Absolutely not. It just means that it takes some work to do so.
At Worth the Work Fitness, we believe that quick fixes and short term programs lead to short term commitment. And we see that as a problem, because our health is something that matters for our entire lives. So we try to change the game by focusing on a long term vision. And we do that by helping people create sustainable habits that build a healthy life. But as we mentioned, that takes some work. So today we’re offering up 9 tips that we often use to guide our clients on their journeys to build healthy habits that stick.
1. Give It Significance
As our core values state, when it comes to health and wellness we believe in being fueled by a big picture 'why'. That’s because if you know why you want to do something, it will make the work you have to put in worth it to you. Your ‘why’ gives you the motivation you need to keep fighting if you ever feel like giving up. The same goes for when you’re building a habit. By attaching a ‘why’ behind the habit you are forming, you make it mean more to you. You give yourself more incentive to stick with it.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you want to exercise every day. Why specifically do you want to do that? Maybe it’s to lose weight. But let’s take it further: why do you want to lose weight? Maybe it’s to have more self-confidence. Well, there you have it. Now you have a ‘why’ that means something far more to you than simply exercising because you think you should.
Note: I want to speak to that last word there: should. I don’t want you to focus on all of the things that you might think you “should” have as habits. Because shame and guilt are empty motivators. But unfortunately, a lot of the health and fitness industry still tries to use them in order to convince you to follow their program or use their products. So be sure to make your ‘why’ something that is important to YOU - not what others think or say you should be doing.
2. Start Small
This is probably one of the most significant tips: don’t try to take on everything all at once. Sure, motivation is high this time of year, and I don’t want to doubt what you are capable of. But oftentimes big behavior changes require a high level of motivation that can’t be sustained. And we’re all about sustainability here. We want to help you not only form healthy habits - we want to enable you to stick to them!
Start by breaking down the overall habit you want to achieve into something so small that you don’t even really need to rely on motivation to get you to do it. Here’s an example: Say you want to eat healthier. Now that’s a very broad habit, and there are a lot of ways to take it on. So let’s break it down. Instead of completely upending your lifestyle and eating only nutritious whole foods at every single meal, every day of the week, think smaller. Start with simply putting an apple in your lunch bag every day. Or aiming to eat one serving of a vegetable at each meal.
Don’t let yourself believe the lie that you’re setting the bar too low. The point is to give yourself some foundation to build on. Once you feel firm about one habit, your willpower and motivation will have increased and you can build the habit further, or you can add another in. Doing it this way makes it easier to stick to your habit over the long haul.
Oftentimes, the more pushback we get on something, the more likely we are to give up on it. Now there is certainly a time and a place for challenging ourselves, but when just starting out on a journey towards healthy living, it's best to make the process easier so you can stick with it. One way to do that is to remove the obstacles that might stand in the way of your new habit.
A common example is laying out your workout clothes at night so that when you wake up in the morning you have already removed the decision of what to wear. Or packing your gym bag and leaving it by the door so it’s already ready to go.
Another way to simplify a habit is by breaking it into chunks. Let’s say you want to meditate for 20 minutes a day because it relaxes your mind and eases your stress. But it’s hard for you to consistently have 20 minutes of uninterrupted time every day. How about instead you break it into two 10 minute segments. Or even four segments of 5 minutes a day. Break it down in a way that works for you and prevents excuses or interruptions from getting in the way of you sticking to it. Then, once you master it, you can build on it.
4. Stack It Up
Oftentimes the best way to form a habit is to attach it to a habit that you already have established - it’s called habit stacking. You take something that is already automatically a part of your day and you add in the new habit you want to build with it so that it can become a natural part of your day as well.
Let me give you a personal example from when I set the goal to drink more water each day. I already had the well established habit of drinking a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, so when I went to turn on the coffee pot, I filled up a glass of water to drink before my coffee was ready. I didn’t change my regular routine. I just added to it. Or here’s another example: you can use the two minutes it takes to brush your teeth to do a quick pick up of a room in your house because that alleviates some of your stress. And, I mean, we all already brush our teeth every day anyways...right??
Many of us already have some semblance of a morning or evening routine in place, so those can be prime spots to try to habit stack. Think about what you already do, and consider how you might be able to group your new habit with it. If you build it into your routine, then it becomes something you do, instead of something you have to do.
5. Schedule It In
Too often we can catch ourselves saying, “I really want to do X, but I can never find the time for it.” We’re all far too busy for our own goods. Instead of sitting back and hoping that the perfect opportunity will scream out at you each day, make it a commitment and make time for it. This is especially relevant for those habits that are a bit more time consuming.
Say you want to work out 4 days a week. At the start of the week put those 4 workouts into your calendar as if they were a meeting and stick to them. Or say you want to get better at meal prepping. Schedule a block of time on your day off to do all of your meal prep at once.
By practicing this you have already made the decision that you are going to do the thing, so all that’s left to do is to do the thing. Stop waiting for your habits to happen. Make them happen.
6. Stay Consistent
Quite honestly, habits can take awhile to really stick (depending on the habit itself of course). But they’re more likely to form faster when we do them more often. This is another reason why it is important to start small. When you are just setting out to form a new habit, focus on building consistency by doing it every day. You can even take it a step further and find consistency in the time of day you do the habit, or in where you do the habit.
For example, if you want to start walking each day, and you usually have a spare 20 minutes after your lunch, schedule in a 20 minute walk (because remember, we put these kinds of things in our calendars now) at 12:30 every day to go walk the same route that you know will take those 20 minutes. After you’ve made a habit of it, you can start playing around with different paths or different times of days to find out what works best for you.
Being consistent with the timing can also make it a little easier to build habits that you aren’t able to do every single day. For example, say you want to workout for 30 minutes three days a week. Try to schedule in those workouts for the same time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Keep in mind that habits that you try to do every few days are totally capable of being built, but they are more challenging to lock in, so be aware of that and hold yourself even more accountable to stick to it.
7. Seek Accountability
Which brings us to an important aspect of living a healthy life: accountability! If you can’t stick to a habit, it defeats the purpose of setting the goal to do it in the first place. So set yourself up for success and find ways to be held accountable to your habits. This can come in many shapes and sizes:
Set alarms in your phone to remind yourself to do it. Schedule it in your calendar (like we already mentioned). Ask a friend to either check in with you or be the person you reach out to when you feel like quitting. Or, challenge your friend to join in on the habit building by participating in a friendly competition with you. Write down your goal or habit, and your why behind it, and put it somewhere that you’ll see everyday. Whatever holds you to it, do it.
To help with this, we’ve created a very simple tool called the 30 Day Habit Builder. It’s a free download that you can use to write down your habit and your why behind it, and then it gives you 30 days worth of bubbles to fill in or check off and track how many days you complete your habit (because who doesn’t get a slight satisfaction from filling in a bubble?). The goal is to fill in all 30 days, of course, so that by the end of it you will have a well established habit. You can click here to get your own tracker to get started with it now!
8. Stay the Course
Now of course, no one is perfect. There will be bumps. Slip ups will happen. No one sticks to a habit every single day for the rest of their lives flawlessly. In fact it’s much easier to break a habit than it is to build one. But the important part is that when you do slip up, you get back on track and keep going. And you do so as quickly as possible.
My dad often said, just show up and do the best you can each day. There will be days that life gets in the way. But don’t count it all as loss. Research shows that missing your habit once does not have a measurable impact on your long term progress, so when it happens, just show up the next day and do the best you can. Ditch the all-in or all-out mindset and embrace that progress is more important than perfection.
Along these same lines it’s important to remember to be patient with yourself. Sustainability takes time to establish. As you slowly increase your habit, or add more habits into the mix, it can get harder to maintain it all. But if you grow slowly, you will better master your habits and make them second nature, which will open the door for you to grow, or add in more, in an attainable way. So don’t get discouraged if it takes a while. Stay the course, and keep going!
9. Set Your Eyes On the Prize(s)
To help reinforce your habit, it’s significant to recognize the progress you make along the way. Paying attention to changes in yourself, or in your actions, is important. Your health is a lifelong journey, so you want to celebrate all of the little victories along the way. So try to notice when you complete your habit for the first time without even thinking about it. Or pay attention to how completing your habit makes you feel differently than you did before. Recognize what improves in your life as you implement your habit. By pausing to mark these little victories along the way, you can deepen the ‘why’ behind the habit and therefore make it mean more to you. This can inspire you to continue with it even further.
Now that you’ve heard all these tips, are you ready to get to building a new habit? As a reminder, we’ve created this simple tool to incorporate some of these tips and help you successfully build a habit that sticks. Because we believe that a healthy life is built one small habit at a time. So let’s get building!
Let us know in the comments what habit you want to focus on building first this year!
Written by Kelly Pruim and Brett Henderson