anxiety, bad habits, stress, routine, strategy

7 Steps to Breaking Your Worst Habits

Lately, I’ve been over-eating and feeling sluggish because of it, and drinking way too much coffee, which is triggering my anxiety. For the sake of my energy level, I know I need to go back to healthier eating. And I’ve accepted that as much as I love coffee, it’s time to kick the habit for good. It’s hard to know where to begin when you want to break a bad habit (or several), especially when you’ve tried before without success. I know that my previous strategy of trying to stop all my bad habits and behaviors, all at once, overnight, has not worked out well. If I’m really serious this time, I need a different approach.

All Bad Habits Can Be Broken

The first step of my new approach was checking up on what the experts have to say about the science behind willpower and the best way to break bad habits. Below, I’ve summarized my research into six basic guidelines for kicking bad habits – whether it’s smoking, nail-biting, or anything in between.
  • You have to really want to do this -- for you. This seems obvious, but it’s important. People are most successful at making changes when they genuinely want to make that change. This is why we see many addicts hitting “rock bottom” before they get serious about treatment. There’s wanting to change, and there’s wanting to change. If you’re not 100% dedicated from the outset, it will be difficult to follow through and to recover from setbacks (as anyone who’s tried and failed to break a habit probably knows firsthand).
  • Don’t try to break all your bad habits at once – willpower can be depleted. There’s a large body of research that suggests that we can, in fact, run out of willpower. Fortunately it’s a renewable resource, but it is definitely possible to use up all your willpower at once and not have any leftover for the time being. This means that incremental changes and setting goals along the way are your best bet when trying to break bad habits. For my personal goals, this informed my decision to focus on healthier eating before I try to quit coffee completely. I have cut back on coffee to kick-start this process, but for now my main focus is on my diet. When eating well becomes automatic (in other words, when I’ve replaced a bad habit with a good one), then I’ll shift my focus to eliminating coffee.
  • Identify the type of bad habit and what your triggers are. Is your habit an automatic, unconscious one (knuckle cracking, for instance)? Or is it a response to stress (over-eating for example), an addiction (like smoking or gambling), or an attempt to self-medicate (alcohol and drugs). The best strategy depends on the type of habit. Substance abuse will likely require some form of professional help, for example, while nail biting probably won’t. Additionally, breaking many habits will call for you to avoid certain situations – such as not attending happy hour with your coworkers if you’re trying to quit drinking.
  • Find some tricks to help you, or adopt a “replacement habit”. Depending on the type of habit, there are probably some tricks you can use to help you. You’ve likely heard of the horrible-tasting nail polish for nail-biters, but that is just one example. Other ideas:
    • Having a bowl of fruit in the afternoon instead of the usual candy bar
    • Keeping a rubber band around your wrist and snapping it when you get the urge to pick at your cuticles
    • Drinking tea instead of coffee
  • Don’t try to suppress thoughts and urges. Research shows that thought suppression is one of the WORST strategies for making lifestyle changes – yet it’s also the most common method we try. It is nearly impossible to force deeply rooted thoughts and urges from your mind. You’ve probably heard this one – “Don’t think about a pink elephant” -- and of course, you then automatically think of a pink elephant. The same goes for your bad habit. “Don’t think about cake” will not be an effective strategy giving up sweets. Instead, you’ve got to sit with those inevitable thoughts and urges and let them pass. One thing you can do, however, is argue with your urges: “Sure, I want cake – but when does my sugar addiction not want cake? The real me doesn’t want to give up on my goals for instant gratification.”
  • Repetition is key. The more you do something, the more automatic it becomes. You will have slip-ups, but this doesn’t mean you’re not still making progress; just don’t lose sight of your ultimate goal. Forgive yourself, and keep going. With enough repetition and effort, you can literally re-train your brain.
  • Find a way to stay accountable. Finally, most of us need to be held accountable by someone, whether it’s a friend, relative, coworker, online support group, social media friends, whatever works for you. When you’re updating someone regularly about your progress, there is a lot more incentive to keep going.

Yes, breaking longtime habits may seem like a huge challenge, or maybe even impossible – but experts insist that any bad habit can be broken with enough effort and the right strategy.