We’ve all got a few habits that are…less than desirable. Whether they’re sneaking a cigarette on our lunch break, spending too much time on Instagram, or stopping at the KFC after gym, overcoming them can be a massive challenge, and can sometimes even feel impossible. But there are a few ways to break bad habits a little more easily and – more importantly – a little more effectively. Here’s how:
The two Ps
Some bad habits are harder to break than others. If a habit becomes a dependency, it could take multiple failed attempts before we finally manage to get rid of it. That’s why, in a piece for Business Insider, addiction expert at the University of York, professor Ian Hamilton, and King’s College London addiction researcher Sally Marlow recommend keeping in mind the two Ps – perseverance and planning.
It may seem disheartening that it could take dozens of tries to break your particular bad habit, but that’s where perseverance comes in. “It’s important to be realistic about the need to persevere,” they write. “Incremental change is known to be superior to overly ambitious targets — appealing as they might be”.
As for the second of the two Ps, planning refers to the timing of when you’ll attempt to break the habit that’s holding you back.
“Although spontaneous attempts can be successful for smokers, picking the right day to start changing other habits is likely to play a part. We know that motivation and energy fluctuate, so think about when you will have maximum levels of both. Starting well gives the initial encouragement needed to get to day two”.
Know your bad habit triggers, and avoid them
In order to implement the two Ps, we first need to be aware of the situation in its entirety. According to Elliot Berkman, director of the University of Oregon’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab, habits have three components: a cue, a routine, and a reward.
The cue is what triggers the habit – a break at work might trigger snacking or smoking, and browsing online stores when you’re bored might lead you to spend money on things you don’t need. This is the situation in which you’re likely to engage in the behaviour that isn’t serving you. Avoiding the things that trigger you may be the simplest way to start reducing the amount of time you spend on that habit. For example, don’t keep snacks in your drawer at work, or find something else to do when you’re bored, like playing a mobile game.
Berkman also recommends using times of major change to remove the habits that don’t serve you. Starting a new job, for example, can be stressful, but it’ll also put you in a situation where your cues are completely different, and it’s a great time to make or break habits.
Do a switcheroo
Rather than simply trying to stop doing something, try to start doing something else – something better.
If every time you crave a smoke, you chew some gum, or walk up and down the flight of stairs a few times at work, eventually your brain starts to associate that craving with the new habit. This can be a lot easier than simply trying to sit at your desk and not think about cigarettes – which of course, will backfire. If you’re used to having a drink every night before bed, try to replace it with a cup of tea, rather than just avoid drinking anything at all. If you take a nap every day at 3pm, try to do some exercise instead. It’ll probably give you more energy than the nap would have!
Like quitting, though, forming new habits can take time and here again you’ll need to rely on perseverance in order to succeed.
Set achievable goals
“I will start exercising” sounds like a very noble mission, but it’s vague. without having clarity and specifics in our goals, they’re very hard to achieve. “I will exercise three times a week for the next three months”, is more specific, easier to track, and is more likely to get your butt to the gym. Likewise, when breaking habits it’s better to set realistic goals that are easy to track. Instead of “I will stop eating cookies”, try something like “I will only eat one cookie instead of two” or ” I will avoid all cookies for the next 30 days”.
Keep in mind that the reason we engage in bad habits is because we do get some kind of reward from them. This may be in the form of dopamine released when we eat something tasty, for example. It’s important then to reward yourself when you abstain from these bad habits too! Maybe that means buying yourself something nice, or having that second cookie after your 30 day abstinence period – as long as you allow it to stop there and not to become a bad habit all over again.
The best way to track your habits is to start a journal, or to download an app which allows you to monitor the particular habit you’re working on getting rid of. Whichever you choose, you’ll need to hold yourself accountable somehow.
To share or not to share
The jury’s out on whether or not telling people about your goals is beneficial or not. Some sources claim that telling friends and family members about what you hope to achieve gives you a rush of satisfaction that can trick your brain into thinking it’s already achieved the task – leaving less willpower for you to actually go and do it.
Other sources recommend telling people about your goals, as oftentimes feelings of guilt and shame are strong negative emotions that people will try to avoid at all costs.
Here, it’s probably best to try out both strategies and figure out what works best for you. Maybe it’ll be easier to break bad habits without the pressure of friends and family breathing down your neck, or perhaps you’ll be a lot more motivated if you have the support of a buddy.
Finally, you could get professional help
If you’re dealing with something serious which has a very big impact on your life, perhaps it’s time to consult an expert. According to Psychology Today, “this may be a doctor who can prescribe meds for the underlying anxiety and depression, a therapist who cannot only help you unravel the sources and drivers of your habits, but also provide some steady support and accountability”.
We all have bad habits, but we’re not doomed to have them forever. With a little bit of work we can easily improve our lives and possible even carve out more time for all of our good habits. It all starts with a little motivation.
Which bad habits are you going to break?