How to Break Bad Habits
While many of us won't readily admit it, we all have a bad habit or two that we'd like to kick. Whether it's biting your nails, smoking, or chewing with your mouth full (among other offensive habits), here are a few ways to change your ways for the better. (See also: How to Learn From Your Mistakes)
1. Become Conscious of What You're Doing
The first step to changing a bad habit is to recognize what you're doing. While we're usually aware of the big habits that affect others around us — smoking, talking with a mouth full of food — other, more private habits like biting our nails are often done subconsciously. To change it, you have to first become conscious of the action. Inspirationalist Ellie Peterson has devised a plan to help. "One way to become aware of what you are doing is to perform 'Meditative Movements,'" Peterson says.
This simple practice helps you become mindful of your own body, mind, and spiritual being. Many times our actions are on automatic. However, all actions are preceded by our thoughts and beliefs from our subconscious and conscious mind. For example, by completing the 'I Choose' movement, you are taking the time to be open to the messages you are sending yourself. You can feel in your own body the resistance to this statement and through repetition can start to take ownership for yourself. Then you can learn how to strengthen your focus and by listening to your entire self, you are able to get in touch with what you are doing.
2. Make Note of It — on Paper
When we were in school, we took notes for a reason — so we could remember the material, study it, learn it, and memorize it after the class ended. Even today, we make notes to remind ourselves of something we need to do. When trying to break a bad habit, it's a good idea to write the habit on paper along with why you want to change it and some of the steps you'll take to make that change.
Rhonda Richards-Smith, a licensed mental health expert, agrees. "One of the most powerful tools we can use to change our behaviors is to record them," she says. "Prior to attempting to change the behavior, keep a daily log of what time you engage in the behavior, where it tends to occur and what you are thinking and feeling just before you do it. Once you become aware of your pattern, you can come up with a strategy for how to change it."
3. Think Small to Start
Many times when we're making big changes in our lives — New Year's resolutions are a prime example — we have a tendency to bite off more than we can chew by trying to do too much at once. The result is almost always failure. When attempting to break a bad habit, then, it's best to start by making small efforts toward a larger goal.
"After the person writes down or makes clear what it is they want to change, they are instructed to do one thing per day towards that change," suggest Dr. Ramani Durvasula, creator of the concept "Promise for One," a set of actionable steps toward achieving a goal.
For example if the bad habit is around eating too much sugar, on Day One the 'one thing' may be to drink two liters of water instead [of soft drinks]. Day Two may be to throw out the cookies. I suggest people put an alarm on a phone to ring once per day to remind them to do their one thing — and then to make a record of it — because the accumulation of the one simple thing a day seems not overwhelming in the day to day but over time shows the change in behavior.
4. Change Your Routine
To get your mind off the habit in which you engage — let's say smoking, for instance — it's important to take your mind off the activity and focus on something else.
Andrew Schrage, founder of Money Crashers, says, "Changing up your routine is a great way to break a bad habit. If you find yourself smoking a cigarette after each meal, replace that with something else, such as reading or any other activity other than smoking. Attempting to simply stop a bad habit without adjusting your activities is going to be a challenge."
Over time, your new routine will become the new habit, which is hopefully a positive one, like drinking a glass of water or taking a five-minute walk every time you have a craving.
This tip isn't just for smoking, however. It applies to a broad list of bad habits as health coach Natalie Wahl points out.
"In health coaching, we teach our clients to crowd out the bad foods with good ones. If you don't have the bad foods on hand, or you are eating an abundance of fruits and vegetables, then your cravings for unhealthy foods will diminish," she says.
This also works for other habits. I have worked with several autistic children, and my own son is autistic. They often have inappropriate behaviors that they use to stimulate or soothe themselves, and what works best is replacing that behavior with a similar but socially acceptable behavior. For example, instead of biting nails, chewing gum, or sucking on hard candy may curb the habit. Instead of eating mindlessly, or eating junk food, taking a drink of water and having prepared veggies on hand can help you break out of the bad routine.
5. Keep at It for a Month
Dr. Marlene Caroselli agrees and furthers the logic of routine change by reminding us of William James' observation that replacing a bad habit with a good one only takes about a month to implement.
"America's first psychologist, William James, found that a given action, repeated 30 days in a row, becomes a habit," she says. "Those who are serious, or even only half-serious, about making a change, need only build time in for one whole month. Desire then overtakes excuses. Keeping a log will help, too, as will having a support system."
Have you tried to break a bad habit? How did you do it? Tell us how you did it in comments!