When it comes to habits there’s a lot of talk about how to create good ones but we also need to consider how to break bad habits. Bad habits can be incredibly detrimental to our lives and sometimes even have profound impacts on our health. In addition, when our schedules or lives are impacted by bad habits it can be very difficult to find the time, energy, or enthusiasm for creating good habits. Here are some simple tips to break bad habits for good!
How to Break Bad Habits
If you’ve tried (about a half a million times) to break your bad habits and failed, I want you to know you’re in good company (or at least my company). I tried for MANY years to break a long string of bad habits including, hair twirling, smoking, junk food binging, nail biting… the list goes on and on. To be honest, it was when I quit smoking that this all really came together for me and the path to breaking bad habits became crystal clear. So, if you’re looking to drop your habit for good follow these six simple steps. It might take time and tenacity but you can break that bad habit for good!
1. Change Your Language
I’d never really thought about it until I started really digging into habits and identity but guess what… your brain hears you. I mean, clearly we all know that, but what I mean is it’s not just listening, it HEARS you and acts accordingly (if only we could get our kids to be so responsive). That means that every single time you say “I’m quitting smoking” or ” I’m trying to stop emotional eating” your brain is like “oh yeah… I’m a smoker who’s quitting smoking, BUT, I’m still a smoker”. *Trigger cigarette craving here *.
Instead of speaking of yourself within the framework of your old habit start using language that represents the new you. You aren’t “quitting smoking” you’re a “non-smoker” (period… don’t add the word “now” there). And whenever possible avoid the term used for a person who engages in that habit all together. So, rather than saying “I’m not an emotional eater” you’d say “I’m a mindful eater”.
And… go ahead and start this language change now. If you start emotionally eating or smoking go ahead and say your new statement to yourself out loud (under your breath will do). It might seem strange to be smoking a cigarette and saying “I’m a non-smoker” but it weirdly works. Your brain hears you and again, tries to act accordingly so you’re much more likely to put that cigarette out and not relight quite so soon when you start telling yourself this.
2. Get Curious
So… you hate that bad habit and want to stop doing it but you keep on doing it, why? Seriously… do you know why? Understanding where your habit is coming from and what need it’s meeting for you makes all the difference to long term change.
Perhaps you engage in your habit only when you’re bored or stressed. Maybe it’s hormonal and your habit only exists 4 days a month. It could even be something everyone in your family has always done and so you feel pressured to do it too.
When you understand more about your habit, the need it’s meeting, and the environmental cues that contribute to it it’s easier to enable yourself to break the habit.
P.S. When I got curious about my nail biting habit I noticed that my biggest trigger to starting back up was action scenes in Star Wars & Marvel movies (yeah, I know, I’m a bit of a movie geek).
3. Remove Triggers
I’m absolutely not giving up my favorite movie franchises to avoid biting my nails, so don’t worry, this isn’t the only way but removing triggers where possible can be very helpful.
I’ve found that laziness can be my very best friend when it comes to breaking bad habits. It turns out that I’m too lazy to go to the store for pop or ice cream (or even cigs). That means that if I simply don’t have them in the house I’m much less likely to engage in my bad habit.
But if my trigger is more internal, like boredom, finding something to counteract this is very helpful. I find that I am most likely to engage in my bad habits when I’m up late watching TV because I’m a bit tired and bored at the same time. So… it’s just about making sure I’m neither. I created a healthy loving boundary for myself that if I’m tired I go to bed but if I’m bored I… (see step 4).
4. Find Something New
Distraction might just be the easiest way to break a bad habit for good. You can address your triggers in a new way or simply find things to crowd out your bad habit. Sometimes keeping busy truly is the best way to shake off a bad habit.
If you find that your habit is more likely to occur when you’re watching tv you can switch to audible books or podcasts and eliminate the reduce tv time. Or you could find something else to do instead. For example to break my hair twirling habit I started crocheting and it works like a charm. However when I quit smoking I quickly realized that I was spending around 2.5 hours a day engaging in this habit and I had no idea what to do with that 10 or so minutes every hour. This led to boredom (cue boredom eating habit). So I decided to create mini projects I could do when I started to feel restless.
Psst… the “something new” could be a new habit you’re trying to create like doing a few squats, tidying up your house, or drinking water.
5. Penalties That Pay
If you’ve been hanging around here for a while you know that I’m totally against punishing yourself when you miss it. I think we already do quite enough of that and it does nothing but sabotage our progress and mindset. That said, creating a meaningful consequence that’s tied to a reward can be very beneficial.
One of the things I’ve found to be very helpful is creating a fine system. If you engage in your bad habit you pay a fine, BUT, when you quit your bad habit for good your fine money can be used for a reward.
For example, every time you catch yourself biting your nails you put a quarter into a jar but when you finally quit for good you get to use the money in the jar for a mani / pedi. Clearly this doesn’t work if you look forward to putting a quarter into the jar (because you’re like me and truly enjoy seeing those quarters add up), so you could also choose to do this in a revers fashion. When I quit smoking I made a commitment to spending ALL of the money I was previously using for cigs to treat myself for the next 6 months. That’s a lot of massages, books, shoes, and skin care products I wouldn’t otherwise have splurged on.
6. Get Support
Don’t do this at home! No… seriously… don’t! Very often when people talk about getting support it’s advised to get your spouse involved. I’ve seen this turn south way too many times. If you’re struggling with breaking a bad habit it’s very likely that you feel some level of conviction, embarrassment, insecurity, or even shame about it. And the last thing you want is a spotlight on it. You don’t want your spouse mentioning it every time they notice it because it begins to feel like they’re nagging you and you project all your feelings about the habit onto them. No… they’re not telling you to stop binging potato chips because they think you’re fat… they’re telling you because you asked them to. So, just don’t!
Instead get support from a support group, a friend who’s also working on breaking a bad habit (if it’s the same one, nice, but not necessary), or from an online community (like mine). In addition, you can use a habit tracker to help hold you accountable as well.
Just because you’ve had that bad habit for a long time or have tried to break it a million and two times doesn’t mean you are condemned to have it for life. Using these 6 steps can help you free yourself of pretty much any bad habit you may have. But if you find that you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges while trying to shake your habit, consider consulting with a health care professional or therapist. Almost anything can become addictive to the human brain and you may need some extra support.