Why is it that we can’t rid ourselves of bad habits? We tend to do well for a week or two, and then back at it with the drinking, over-eating and procrastination. How is it that our best intentions are nearly beaten every time? We want to have good habits, but always refer back to our old ways. The answer isn’t our mental toughness or not understanding what we want. It’s that we don’t know how to healthily deal with stress and boredom. The habits we have support our stress and boredom. They’re called coping mechanisms. For some of us, these bad habits are caused by deeper issues. But if we want to make changes, we have to be honest with ourselves. Whether it’s fear, limited beliefs or historic events, recognising our bad habits are crucial to overcoming them.
Fortunately, there are ways to remove our coping mechanisms in an effective way, where we can rid these habits and replace them with something that we know we should be doing.
You Can’t Eliminate a Bad Habit
Because our bad habits have been ingrained in us, the hardest thing we could ever do is think about eliminating them straight away. All the habits we have right now- whether they’re good or bad, are in our life for a reason. When we try and break a bad habit, we try and rewire our brains. The problem is, our brain is wired to enjoy habits, which requires a lot less mental energy than conscious decision-making- so it fights back against the idea of change. This is why the advice of “just stop doing it”, which brings out the “easier said than done” response rarely works.
Instead of eliminating a bad habit, we should replace it with a new one that provides a similar behaviour. For example, if you drink when you get stressed, the idea is to not just “stop drinking”. When stressed, you should come up with an action that provides a similar benefit. It could be going for a run, or venting to friends. Expecting ourselves to remove the habit without replacing it will cause us to have certain needs that are unmet, which is why we revert back to our old ways after a week or two. Replacing a habit that provides a similar benefit creates a more sustainable routine long term.
Breaking a Bad Habit
Four steps are involved in breaking a bad habit and they all relate to the science of habits;
Make your cues unseen. What triggers our bad habits come in many forms. Our phone buzzing, driving past a fast-food restaurant or having a carton of beer in the fridge are all examples of what could be triggering our bad habits.
- If you are always checking your phone, leave it in another room.
- When you drive past fast food restaurants on the way home and feel yourself struggle, take a different route.
- If you have a carton of beer in the fridge, only leave a couple in. Breaking bad habits becomes easier once the cues are removed.
Make the cravings unappealing. Have you ever found yourself regretting staying out late after a big night? We’ve all been there. Too much alcohol, too much greasy food, and a two-day hangover. We can make a late-night less attractive if we schedule a morning workout session, or an early morning catch up with a friend. Staying out late becomes unappealing which makes us recognise we should go home earlier. If you struggle to eat healthily, joining a gym goes a long way to curbing your bad habit cravings. Being surrounded by people who take their health seriously makes us rethink eating bad food all the time. We are a product of our habits, thus, a product of our environment. Breaking bad habits requires a support group that encourages us to be the person we wish to be.
Make the response harder. Bad habits are formed because they are the easiest to implement and give us the least resistance when we’re bored or stress. After all, why bother responding to stress and boredom by doing something difficult? Breaking a bad habit can be made easier by increasing the amount of resistance associated with performing it. For example, if you have trouble snacking and eating too much food at home, clean out your pantry. Replace the bad foods with good foods. If you find yourself always checking your phone, turn off your notifications. Our bad habits are hard to break because they become too easy and convenient to live our lives. Increasing the steps it takes to make the process difficult makes it easier to rid ourselves of bad habits.
Make the reward unappealing. The final step in breaking a bad habit is to make the reward that’s associated with the bad habit unattractive. Ultimately, our good habits are compromised by our bad habits. The cost of our good habits are in the present and the cost of our bad habits are in the future. Say you’re eating pizza on the couch every night. The reward is a dopamine hit from the carbs and fat. Our brains aren’t built to weigh up the long-term costs and short-term costs accurately, so we need to find ways to make our bad habits unappealing.
Our bad habits separate who we are, from who we wish to be. It’s important for us to realise our dependencies. We should acknowledge how our dependencies interrupt our work, social interactions, and life. It’s only then we can identify our trigger. Commit to breaking a bad habit today and expect some slip-ups. When changing behaviour, lapses are extremely normal. Instead of using the setbacks as an excuse to give up, use them as a chance to understand what went wrong and adapt accordingly.