Procrastination, inadequate sleep, lousy diet, negative self-talk - you know that all of these are bad for you. But why can't you shake them off?
Breaking a bad habit can be challenging, especially if it's been with you for quite some time.
The good news is that habits aren't set in stone. Deep-seated as it may have become, anyone can break free from an unhealthy habit.
So what exactly does it take to replace a bad habit with a good one that reflects your personal values? How do you eliminate the bad habits that hijack your efforts toward your most important goals?
Behavioral psychology will tell you that forming good habits take time. So if you're really looking to change your bad habits, don't put it off until tomorrow.
Start your journey today with these 10 tips on how to break a bad habit.
#1 - Identify Your Bad Habit Cues
Habits rely on cues to trigger their corresponding behaviors.
While you may find it easy to identify your bad habits, their cues aren't always apparent.
Let's say that you want to quit smoking. As far as you've known, your smoking behaviors were always kickstarted by a craving.
But have you ever stopped to think about the cues in your daily life that trigger these cravings?
Upon closer inspection, you may find that your smoking habit has multiple triggers. For instance, feeling stressed is when your urges spike the most.
Breaking harmful habits starts with examining their cues. Once we've identified what kicks off our bad habit, we can begin breaking our negative habit loop piece by piece.
#2 - Have a Compelling Reason to Change
Getting to the bottom of your bad habit prompts isn't enough to stop them. There's a reason why habits stick.
Performing a habit activates the brain's reward system, releasing dopamine - the so-called "feel-good" hormone - into the brain.
So every time you're doing your usual social media scroll session, what you're really trying to accomplish is get that same intense dopamine hit you had the last time you performed this behavior.
The brain's reward system can trick us into dependence on a bad habit.
But difficult as it may be, having a strong enough WHY could be enough to break a bad habit.
For instance, if your procrastination is costing you your job, wouldn't that be a good enough reason to get out of your productivity rut?
Your "why" doesn't even have to be extrinsic, where you're looking to earn a reward or avoid a negative outcome.
Going back to our example above, overcoming your career slump to save your job is a good enough reason to level up your game. But this motivation is extrinsic.
Once you've avoided the negative outcome (losing your job), what's going to motivate you to maintain your productivity streak?
The best motivators that sustain good habits are intrinsic.
Instead of having your motivation driven by external rewards, try to make it more personal and intrinsic.
Why not aim for something like "having a fulfilling and meaningful career?" Isn't that more compelling and sustainable than just trying to achieve a short-term gain (saving your job)?
Now you'll have more reasons to resist your procrastination triggers or change how you respond to them.
#3 - Understand How Habits are Broken
Though extremely important, getting to know your bad habit cues is the first step of your complete habit diagnosis.
To replace your bad behaviors with good ones, you'll need to consider the other 2 aspects of your habit loop: routine and reward.
A cue sets off a routine, the nigh-automatic repeated behavior you call a habit.
The brain is compelled to repeat these behaviors because they result in some form of pleasure or reward (remember the dopamine surge we discussed earlier?).
To break a bad habit, you'll need to alter at least one of these 3 facets.
Your first attempt might be to alter the "routine" part of the loop, where you rely on willpower to resist a behavior (e.g., quitting smoking cold turkey).
While this approach can work - especially if you have a powerful intrinsic WHY - it could quickly deplete your daily supply of willpower, leaving you with less to tackle the other important aspects of your life.
A better approach would be to focus on the other two facets of your habit loop.
For example, if you want to lose weight, you might decide to respond differently to your junk food craving triggers.
Instead of closing the loop with a junk food reward, you might replace that reward with something healthier. You're practically keeping the cue but replacing it with a healthy reward.
You can also find ways to cut out your behavioral cues. More often than not, it's only a matter of avoiding tempting situations. After all, your brain can't react to a signal that isn't there.
#4 - Create a Game Plan
Once you've understood a particular habit loop, you can create a plan and a strategy to break it.
Habits differ, and so should your approach.
Some habits require merely avoiding specific triggers. For instance, changing a poor eating habit may simply require being more thoughtful about what you store in your fridge.
However, the same couldn't be said about other life-long habits.
Say that you're someone who always waits for the perfect moment. This bad habit compels you to put off certain projects since you're always waiting for the right time and motivation.
Changing this habit may mean facing your triggers head-on and slowly changing how you respond to them.
Take time to sit down and write a plan for breaking a particular habit loop.
Would replacing this bad habit mean you'd have to avoid a specific situation? What healthy rewards could you substitute as positive reinforcement?
You might also want to consider if you have what it takes to go cold turkey completely, then list activities that can help sustain your efforts.
#5 - Brace Yourself for a Tough Time Ahead
Let's face it; breaking bad habits can be challenging. It usually means trying out new things we won't initially find enjoyable.
Replacing a fast food diet with a healthier alternative requires more time and effort in food preparation. Cutting out on video games to hammer down on a side project meant less downtime and more work.
Of course, these are seldom fun. So prepare for a tough time ahead. Knowing that it's going to be a challenge help set your expectations.
If you stick to it, you'll find it more manageable over time. Remember, the more you repeat new habits, the less conscious effort they take to perform.
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#6 - Control Your Environment
Most of our negative behavioral cues are tied to our immediate environment. You've probably heard that moving to a new location can potentially remove many of our behavioral cues and encourage us to make new decisions.
The absence of a cue is often enough to eliminate an unwanted routine.
Still, not everyone has the luxury or means of just simply changing locations. The good news is that you probably won't have to.
All of us can influence our environment to some extent. And often, the choice to remove temptations is in our hands. For instance, if you want to reduce screen time at night, you can uninstall your social media app or ditch your phone in bed altogether.
#7 - Tap into Accountability
You can't be your best self 100% of the time. There are going to be moments when you feel like you're losing drive.
Practicing daily accountability can help you prepare for these situations.
Accountability is when you blend commitment and responsibility to ensure you stay on track with your short and long-term goals. It means taking action - with or without drive - and ensuring those actions yield results.
Join forces with an accountability partner. Or better yet, find a suitable accountability coach.
Research shows coaching is superior in terms of outcomes compared to self-help or peer-to-peer interventions.
#8 - Start Small
It's only natural to want to overcome your bad habits straight away. Your first impulse might be to plan on making bold changes in your behavior and lifestyle.
After all, big and bold changes are what's going to have the most impact.
There might be a certain truth to this. But if you want to ensure you're building good habits in a sustainable way, start small.
According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, a new habit takes 66 days, on average, to fully automate.
Trying to rush through this process can introduce overwhelm, which can be counterproductive to your efforts to change.
Starting with small changes in your behavior takes less time and energy. You'll have much less trouble accomplishing these behaviors day in and day out.
#9 - Build and Increase Momentum
Minor changes to your routine might not get rid of your old habit overnight. They're rarely transformative.
However, these small rituals are crucial to building consistency since they're much easier to manage.
Remember your school physics? It takes force to start moving. Once you've built consistency, you can expect momentum to follow suit.
Your momentum will increase over time as you engage in the little things that help you replace a bad habit. And once you've built enough, you'll notice that it gets easier to perform the good habit you're trying to cultivate.
#10 - Expect Slip-Ups, But Get Back On Track Quickly
Changing your bad habits is a journey. And every journey comes with its highs and lows. As mentioned above, we can't be our best selves all of the time.
Dissolving deep-rooted habits is challenging enough for you not to anticipate occasional brain slip-ups. Most of these slip-ups occur when we're not on guard.
Remember that time when you were so tired, all you did was watch reruns instead of completing that one final task on your to-do?
Slip-ups are inevitable. But that's okay.
We can create pre-defined plans to help us minimize slip-ups, but once the damage is done, we must be resilient enough to get past the ensuing disappointment, get back on track, and resume our routines.
There you have it, 10 simple strategies on how to break bad habits. These tips might seem simple. But implementing them is seldom a walk in the park.
Tearing down severely engrained behaviors takes commitment and a lot of effort. That's just how the brain works. But with these tips, you'll be better equipped to tackle your bad habits one step at a time.
Keep at it, and you'll eventually be rid of the negative behaviors holding you back.
Why not include accountability as part of your game plan? That way, you'd have additional intrinsic support to propel you toward success.
Start your accountability journey with GoalsWon. We place busy people in front of live personal accountability coaches so they can practice daily accountability.