How to Break a Bad Habit

Habit creation is innate in humans.  How to break a bad habit is not so much.  Whether a habit is considered “good” or “bad” is ultimately up to the individual who has the habit in place.  If it is decided the habit is bad, a person often will continue the with the habit, even though it can lead to negative consequences.  Why is this?  Mostly because of how difficult it is to re-train the brain to a new line of thinking.    One of the reasons people have difficulty with actually following through in breaking a bad habit is they are not yet equipped with the tools to break the habit long-term.  What follows below is a list of steps to bring a bad habit to an end for good.

How to Break a Bad Habit – Step #1:  Define What The Bad Habit Is

People often err when trying to break a bad habit because they do not investigate where the root of the problem actually comes from.  Perhaps you are constantly sleeping in and can’t get up in the morning.  Simple fix, right?   Go to bed earlier.  Wrong.  Promising yourself to hit the sheets earlier hasn’t exposed the bigger question.  The question that needs to be looked at is why.  Why is it you are sleeping in late?  Is it because you are naturally a night owl, or is it something deeper, like you are self-sabotaging by sleeping in so that you don’t have to take action on a commitment which you have long told yourself you would do?  Avoidance behavior can be a symptom of a bigger problem.  The fact is, until you really ask yourself what the problem actually is, you won’t be able to define the bad habit clearly enough at it’s root to be able to break it once and for all time.

How to Break a Bad Habit – Step #2:  Identify Your Triggers

I use the term “trigger” to describe any behavior or event that acts as a catalyst for you to carry out the bad habit.  For example, in the case of smoking, when do you find you smoke?  Is it at particular times of the day, or is it throughout the day at varied times.  If the times when you carry out the bad habit are at regular intervals each day, then that can be solved with simple substitution, which I will address in the next section.  If the bad habit is carried out at what seems like varied times, study this closer.  Keep a log of when you feel the urge to, or actually do follow through on smoking.  What you will find is there is typically a trigger that will set off this need to have a cigarette.  In some instances it may be a stressful event, such as an argument at work, or additional workload.  Perhaps it is the pressure of a social occasion where you join friends for an alcoholic beverage.  Due to the fact that others smoke (and for no other reason), you feel compelled to join, not wanting to be excluded.  Maybe you smoke when you are bored, giving your hands something to do with your nervous energy and taking extra time to unwind.  The three triggers here a clear – stress at work, social situations and boredom.  While the three situations are different, they all lead to the same end, which is they cause you to follow through on the bad habit.  Before you can act on breaking a habit, you have to have the triggers to these habits clearly defined so that when they come up, you can acknowledge them and the risk they pose.  Until they are acknowledged, you will simply carry on ignoring these triggers, only to later feel regret about the actions you take as a result.  Once these triggers are acknowledged, it is most important to immediately take steps, limiting any further action that leads to the bad habit being carried out.  How, you ask?  Read on.

How to Break a Bad Habit – Step #3:  Substitution

I talk about the concept of substitution in my article on tips to avoid procrastination which is a habit that usually comes to rise in a similar fashion to what I’ve described above.  Once you have identified your habit and your triggers, it is not enough to simply say to yourself “don’t do that”.  You need to have a plan which contains an exit strategy from the bad habit behavior and one that leads you to the creation of good habit behavior.  What you are basically doing by substituting is changing out a behavior which has a negative outcome for behavior that has a positive outcome.  Think of it like a “patch”, similar to what is often provided for your cell phone operating system.  Sometimes there can be an error in the script, which blocks the software from carrying out functions the way it was originally intended.  When a patch is added, the cell phone begins to operate smoothly once again.  Substitution is no different, you are simply teaching your mind to access one set of behaviors over another in a given situation.  One of the keys to the successful implementation of substitute behavior when triggers arise, is creating substitutes which are easy to act upon and more desirable than the bad habit.  If the substitutes are harder work than say, just going for a cigarette, then the bad habit will win out.  Partly because it’s easier, though also because it has had time to establish itself as the default behavior.  You really must be mindful in these trigger situations to act without delay on a “good habit” substitute which is both easily accessible and leads to positive stimuli as a result of doing it.

How to break a bad habit

How to Break a Bad Habit – Step #4:  Let Others Know

Often people feel ashamed of bad habits and as a result try and break them without any help from others.  This kind of thinking, in and of itself is faulty behavior.  The fact is you are choosing to improve your quality of life by eliminating a bad habit.  When you do this, any true friend will be there to support you in your endeavor.  If they won’t, then you should really reevaluate the benefits of having such a relationship, if there are any.  Going it alone is always more difficult than when you have the support of others.  My earlier mention of feeling the need to smoke in a social situation is a perfect example.  If you advise your friends that you have resolved to give up smoking and would appreciate their support, you will not only find the pressure of the situation is removed, you will also find that your friends will inevitably monitor the situation to reduce the risk in any way they can (including reminding you of your goal during a moment of weakness).

How to Break a Bad Habit – Step #5:  Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

The key to success in changing your behavior model and eventually breaking a bad habit with the substitution of a good habit is including a gut check.  What this means is that regardless of planning and good intentions, you will have moments of crisis, where you will wish to revert your old behavior.  This is natural, the mind wants to do so because it is easier than adopting the new habit.  Breaking a bad habit is work and takes real commitment. So when these tests come up, how do you pass them?  By reminding yourself why you started removing the bad habit in the first place.  You have to be clear.  You have to be concise.  This is the reason that some people use a mantra (a repeatable phrase, used as a reminder) to support the change in behavior.  I have found a short list of “if/then” scenarios also help, such as:

If I smoke, then:

  • I put my health at serious risk
  • I also may continue other bad habits associated with smoking
  • I continue to do something I know makes feel badly about myself

If I don’t smoke, then:

  • I improve my health instantly
  • I feel better about myself and gain confidence about what other goals I can reach
  • I save money I can use for a different pursuit

How to Break a Bad Habit – Step #6: Go Zen

In my article on meditation for beginners I discuss the concept of being in the present moment.  Why this is important when it comes to breaking a bad habit is that you may find throughout the process of breaking the habit that you falter and temporarily revert back to the old behavior.  These instances open up the door for an individual to feel self-pity and self-loathing.  Such behavior is counter-productive to the process of changing habits from bad to good.  Zen Buddhist teaching is predicated upon “being in the moment” philosophy because it simply does not allow for such behaviors.  It only allows for accepting what “is”, in that moment.  Being concerned with what resorting to the bad habit might mean in the future, or considering that you have failed at previous attempts to break a bad habit is irrelevant.  The only thing you truly have control over are your actions in the present moment.  If you reverted to bad habit temporarily throughout the process to break the habit, simply acknowledge the event and let it pass by in the same moment.  Letting go and moving on will allow you to realize that such failure to keep from acting on the bad habit is simply the absence of the good habit as the recognized “default” behavior up to that point.  Once you understand this concept fully, you will no longer feel the need to dwell on instances where the bad habit prevails, knowing full well it is a temporary situation as you have decided to make a conscious shift in mindset.

While the key as to how to break a habit lies in the actual follow through of these steps, I’ve tried to provide them in a way that is realistic and achievable for everyone who truly chooses to break a habit, beginning right now.  The estimate on how long it takes to break a habit varies, depending on the research you look at.  I have read estimates anywhere from two weeks, to six months, depending on the type of habit and the length of time the habit has been in place.  Realize the degree to which the habit is engrained in your everyday life will place a part in how challenging it is to overcome.  Still, any habit can be replaced by another over time.



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