Most of us have tried many times before, but just haven’t been able to work out how to break a bad habit. We know we’d be better off without the habit, but for better or worse it serves a purpose in our life.
Maybe it’s biting your fingernails, compulsively checking email, eating past the point of feeling satisfied — whatever your habit is, in this post we’re going to dive into why some habits are so hard to break, and what we can do to replace them with habits that actually help us.
What Makes A Habit Bad?
First, let’s define ‘bad’. A bad habit is a pattern of behavior that…
- Is destructive to your physical, mental or spiritual health
- Is destructive to others’ physical, mental or spiritual health
- Damages important relationships
- Creates problems in your life that would not arise without the habit
- Stops or delays you from reaching your goals professionally and personally
Note: we’re not talking about addictions here. Suffering from addiction is very serious and the following steps will not be sufficient to overcome substance abuse or other types of addiction. If you are suffering from an addiction of any kind, please seek the help of trained professionals.
All habits form in response to some stimulus. They form as a result of something that happens over and over in our lives, and bad habits form most often in response to stress and boredom.
An obvious example of a bad habit might be overeating when stressed or bored (or both), or conversely, overexercising and overworking. Less obvious bad habits might include shopping for things we don’t need when we want to distract ourselves from stress, or refreshing our social media pages every few minutes when we’re bored.
Fortunately, there’s no habit that can’t be broken with the right tools and approach.
Getting to the Root of the Problem
Only once we’ve identified the function of the habit can we find something constructive to replace it with.
This is the key to overcoming a negative behavior. The goal is not actually to break down the habit and leave a vacuum — we want to put something constructive into its place, because otherwise we will just fall back into the old pattern when the old stimulus arises again.
Begin by asking what the habit provides you. Does the habit give us a moment to relax? Does it help us unwind and release some stress? Does it help us feel engaged or entertained? Does it make us feel connected? Or is it a safety blanket, a way to protect ourselves from something uncomfortable?
With an answer in hand, you’re now ready to begin the journey of breaking and building a new, better habit.
How to Change A Bad Habit
There are a few key steps to breaking a habit. Some of them might seem obvious, but if you’ve had a hard time breaking this habit in the past, it’s important to commit to the process and work through all of them consistently.
- Identify and track the habit.
Keep a record of how often you engage in the habit. For example, keep a tally of every time you duck outside for a cigarette over the course of a week, or install a time-tracker on your internet browser to log how many minutes each day you spend on social media. What gets measured gets managed, and you might be surprised at the actual amount of time this habit is stealing from you — we tend to underestimate the impact of negatives like this.
- Control your environment.
Our environment is frequently a culprit in sustaining a bad habit. If there is junk food in the house constantly, we’re going to eat it. But if the house only has healthy, natural food, it’s much harder to keep snacking on junk. Throw out all the junk food and replace it with healthy options. If you want to stop checking your email every few minutes, log out of your account and shut the browser every time you check it. Having to start all over again every time slows you down, and gives you a minute to decide if you actually need to complete that action.
- Choose a positive replacement.
No matter how good we get at controlling our environment, the stimulus that created the habit will still come up every now and then. This is where the rubber meets the road — this is the moment we have to have something else to do, instead of falling back on the old habit. If your response to a stressful day was previously to have a drink as soon as you get home, what can you do instead that will make you feel good? Maybe it’s heading to the yard with your dog and running around for a few minutes, taking a hot shower and getting changed out of your work gear, or taking ten minutes to journal everything out of your head.
- Get support.
We all fall off the wagon. It’s called being human, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. If you have a resort to old habits, spend some time breaking down why it happened and talking it through with someone you trust. Having someone in our corner can make such a huge difference in getting through this process. An accountability partner, support group or even just someone we trust to be a cheerleader can be the deciding factor in whether we replace the habit for good. Knowing that someone is going to ask how we’re doing with the new habit is often pressure enough to keep us on the straight and narrow.
- Track your progress.
Research from the University College of London in 2009 found that it takes, on average, roughly 66 days to form a habit. While that sounds like a significant period of time, it’s manageable. And once we’ve put the time in, the research shows we’re likely to reach ‘automaticity’ — where the new behavior has become ingrained and we do it without having to really think about it.
That’s why we have the 66-Day Challenge. It’s specifically designed to help you track the days and keep you focused. The Challenge comes with a special calendar that allows you to check off each day you stick with the new habit, and soon enough, the process takes on a life of its own. We don’t want to break the chain of success and so we stick with it until the habit is ingrained.
Join the 66-Day Challenge here to get started on replacing your habit. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll be free of it, and ready to enjoy what researchers call the halo effect — where one new habit can create a positive cascade of changes throughout the rest of your behavior. The ONE Thing community is here to support you, so get started today!