Everything we do in life is driven by our habits. They determine our successes and our failures. They embody who we truly are.
While much has been said about forming new habits, there’s not as much discussion on the subject of breaking bad ones. The thing is, habits don’t just disappear, they are replaced. Good ones can become bad ones and vice versa, so ensuring you have more good ones in your corner is the name of the game.
Before we explore how we can break our bad habits, let’s first quickly review what habits really are.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle
According to the dictionary, a habit is, “an acquired behavior patterns regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary.” Pretty much it is what we do day after day, without really thinking about it. Understanding how that really works though is where we begin to see how habits can be manipulated.
In his best-selling book, Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg introduces us to the habit loop — the core mechanism of all habitual behavior.
According to Duhigg, there are three parts to the loop: the cue, the routine, and the reward. The cue is what triggers the routine behavior in the first place. The routine is the actual habit that we perform, be it smoking or working out or flossing. The reward is the reason the loop exists. It is what keeps us coming back for more.
An important thing to understand is that every habit, good or bad, has a reward. Though bad habits may have more negative impact, there is still an associated reward that keeps us coming back.
Now that we’ve got the basics covered, let’s dive into the important part: how to break your bad habits.
1. Find the Trigger/Cue
As we just learned, every habit has a trigger or cue that set’s it off. The key to any habit change is better understanding that habit, which begins with the trigger. If we know the trigger, we can create situations that will make such cues less likely.
These triggers can come from almost anywhere and are categorized in these five areas:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- An immediately preceding action
The next time you find yourself engaging in a bad habit, pay attention to the situation and what’s triggering that behavior. If you can figure that out, you can go along way towards breaking your habits.
2. Identify an Alternative
Just as important as the trigger is the routine. If you seriously want to break a habit, it’s important to find an alternative to replace it with. As we learned above, habits don’t disappear, so finding a good habit to go in it’s place is important.
If you usually did X in a certain situation, try to replace it Y instead. Why do you have to replace the habit? The Reward. Every habit has a reward, whether it’s a feeling, an outcome, or a self-belief. When you search for an alternative, your goal should be to find something that will give you a similar reward to make the change actually stick.
3. Leverage Pleasure or Pain
An effective ingredient to any habit change effort is to utilize pleasure or pain, as both are powerful motivators ( though pain seems to be stronger).
For example, inflicting a penalty whenever you engage in your bad habit, is one way to make this work. This penalty is almost like a bet. It can be monetary or it can be an outrageous deal among friends. The point is, whatever it takes to move the needle is worth trying and inflicting pain for poor behavior vs. pleasure for good behavior (the carrot vs. the stick) is a useful approach.
4. Remove Temptation
My personal favorite strategy is to remove the temptation of a bad habit completely when possible. This isn’t always an option, some habits are too ingrained in your life to simply remove the temptation (smart phones anyone), but some situations benefit greatly from this method.
Say you have a sweet tooth and find yourself curled up in bed with your favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s far too often. One approach would be to have to battle your desire of ice cream everyday when you know it’s in your freezer.
The alternative is much more effective. Instead of trying to stop yourself from getting ice cream from the fridge, stop yourself from buying it at the grocery store. By taking the option completely out of the picture, you’re much more likely to follow through.
5. Make It Enjoyable
Another favorite is to balance out the pain of not indulging your bad habit, with the pleasure of doing something you love. This makes it more palatable to change your behavior, despite any struggles.
For example, if you’re trying to start running or working out everyday, you could make it more enjoyable by listening to your favorite podcast as you do so. This may seem like a small thing, but it takes some of the sting away from difficult changes in your behavior. Think about how you can make the pain of not doing your bad habits a little more tenable.
6. Take It Slow
It would be great if we could suddenly change our habits over night, but it doesn’t really work that way. Going cold turkey isn’t the best method, though it does work for some people. Instead, it’s important to take things slow and give yourself manageable steps to changing your habits and behaviors.
I’ve taken the first of many steps towards going vegan, but there’s no way I can drop it all at once. I wouldn’t last more than a week. Instead, I’ve taken a small step by giving up dairy. From there I plan to increment towards my goal. This is not only more manageable, but it greatly increases the odds of success and helps you build momentum towards your true goal.
7. Get Support
Accountability is a huge component in any habit changing effort. Having friends and family to encourage and ensure you stick to your habit changes can make all the difference. The problems arise when they do the opposite. Often times our habits are born from our environment, so changing them means going against the beliefs of the individuals you are closest to.
In these situations it is important to find a new environment that promotes the changes you desire. Location and people make a huge difference. Support groups, meetups, and the like, can help you make major changes in your life. Is this the only way? No, but it certainly helps.
As hard as it is to walk away from those you love, finding that support is often the only way to break the bad habits and instill better ones.
“First we form habits, then they form us. Conquer your bad habits, or they’ll eventually conquer you.” — Rob Gilbert
Habits are kind of a big deal. They truly do make up your life and who you are. You should take them seriously.
They are also difficult. It’s important to remember that all habit change is littered with failure. Breaking habits is no easy task. Nobody is perfect and setbacks happen. The key is to not let those setbacks turn into more than that.
Understand why it happened. Realize that it’s OK that it did. Most importantly, get back to it and don’t let it undo all the progress you’ve made.
If you build a life out of good habits, you will build a life worth living.