Habits form when we repeat an action and often they are very helpful to us. A signification portion of our daily routine is done without much thought, so habits free up our brains to focus on other tasks. We form bad habits because they have short-term benefits, and we ignore the long-term consequences for this momentary payoff. The more enjoyable the instant gratification, the harder the bad habit is to break.
Why is it so difficult to break bad habits? When behaviors are enjoyable, even if they're unhealthy, they can release a chemical in the brain called dopamine. The habit becomes even stronger, and we continue doing it regardless of how we feel afterward (i.e. overeating, obsessively checking social media, etc.).
Strategies to Break Bad Habits
It is possible to break bad habits, but how long it will take varies for everyone. For example, if you've been eating unhealthy lunches for years, then it won't be easy to switch to salads every day. Smaller changes can make the transition out of a bad habit more bearable. It's a myth that it only takes a set amount of days to break a habit. Everyone is different, and we all progress at our own rate.
Luckily, humans are good at learning how to exercise self-control. Along the path to better habits, we must start by making a choice. Here are several strategies to break bad habits:
- Identify purpose - Perhaps the most helpful strategy is to understand what purpose the bad habit serves. If you weren't getting something from it, you wouldn't keep doing it. For example, maybe you smoke to help calm you down, or you overeat for comfort. Once you're able to identify the needs behind the habits, you can look for healthier alternatives.
- Identify progression - What actions typically lead up to your habit? Disrupting the progression of events that trigger your bad habit sets you up for greater success.
- Identify motivation - How would you assess your commitment to change? On a one-to-ten scale, how would you rate your motivation? If you're at a three, that's not a shameful thing. Instead of focusing on how to be a ten, consider what changes would take you from a three to a four. Small adjustments can make a big difference. Also, identify why you want to change. Feeling a deep connection to your "why" helps make difficult choices worth it.
- Identify influence - Try to avoid individuals who are linked to dangerous habits like excessive drinking or drug use. Their influence could make you want to go back to the old behavior.
Moving toward good habits
- Plan ahead - Don't trust your strength in the moment. Making a plan ahead of time for dealing with temptation prepares your mind to resist the urge. Try calling a friend or someone to hold you accountable.
- Change environments - Be mindful of situations and temptations where it might be easy to continue in your behavior. Perhaps, you desire to change your eating habits. Consider taking a new route home if you routinely pass a desirable fast food restaurant. This will help to eliminate the potential for a slip-up.
- Practice mindfulness - Pay attention to your mind and body. Be mindful of the emotions you’re experiencing and what's going on in your body. This will help you take better care of yourself.
- Replace with good - Trade out your bad habits for good ones. For example, swap out the time you once spent overeating and use it to exercise. Create healthy, daily routines to help fill the need or craving of your bad habit. It might not completely eliminate your desire, but it could subdue some of your bad habit urges. Consider spending time with loved ones or develop a new hobby or interest.
Possible Setbacks along the Way
- Not alone - You don't have to do this alone. Find someone wanting to quit one of his or her bad habits and team up. Or, consider partnering with someone who's already quit as an accountability partner or mentor. Don't compete against each other, but encourage one another along the way.
- Forgive - If you slip up, don't beat yourself up. Change takes time. Some days you might take a step back before you keep moving forward. Forgive yourself and keep trying.
Rewards are also a great way to stay motivated during the journey from bad to good habits. Choose healthy rewards that won't prove to be a gateway back to old behaviors, and congratulate yourself for even taking small steps. You can also reward yourself by being vocal in your celebration. You can literally rewire your brain by cheering, smiling, and clapping when you do something positive.
As with any difficulty, don't be afraid to reach out and ask for help. To learn more about yourself and your habits, consider finding a therapist or support group. You can also talk to your doctor about how to make healthy decisions. They might be able to steer you toward the best strategy to break your bad habits and change them for the good.
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