Habits are our Achilles heel. No matter how hard we try and what external changes we make — houses, our sense of style, friendships and more — habits keep following us. It becomes especially difficult when we start allowing these habits to take over our lives.
Learning how to break bad habits should be as easy as following a formula. It should be as easy as identifying what we want to stop doing and simply to stop doing it. But that's easier said than done, especially when life gets stressful.
In stressful times, that bad habit can become our crutch — something that gives us relief and comfort.
It’s okay to leave your dirty clothes all over the floor, but when you have bad habits that stop you from pursuing your goals and being genuinely happy, then it’s time for real change. There are many theories on breaking bad habits, but the following are the three most powerful and effective ways you can do so.
Start Small and Replace Bad Habits with Good Ones
Leo Babauta, the writer behind Zen Habits, has written extensively on how to go about making a change. Babauta has quit smoking, lost weight and gone from couch potato to exercise lover. He listed several strategies to successfully break bad habits and replace them with new ones.
First, start off by identifying the triggers of your bad habits. Maybe you eat junk food whenever you have a big assignment thrown your way. Or you start biting your nails whenever something goes wrong in life. Each one of your bad habits has a trigger. Identify the trigger and you can break the habit.
Next, find a healthier good habit to replace the bad habit. Instead of eating junk food to relieve the stress of a big assignment, go for a run. Instead of nail biting when things are going wrong, reach out to a close friend for support. Babauta encourages us to create reminders so we never forget our goals, and he stresses the importance of positivity when going through this process. Never underestimate the power of an encouraging sticky note on your snack drawer!
There are two additional key points that stand out from Babauta’s guide:
- Start small – If it’s getting off the couch and working out you’re after, start with just one push-up. It sounds like nothing, but it also means you have no excuse for not doing your single push-up of the day. No matter how late or tired you are, one pushup is always doable.
- Have someone to hold you accountable – Accountability is there to help you keep going when things feel too hard. You only need one person who cares about your well-being to know about your new habit. Have them hold you accountable by pushing you and stopping you from indulging in your bad habit.
Treat It Like a Business Plan
A well thought out strategy is powerful for any business when you have goals you need to reach. Without a strategy, it will be much too easy to give up when things get difficult or when you don’t know how to proceed next. So if you’ve got a bad habit you’d like to break, make a strategic plan.
To start, identify your triggers and list them out. Then, write down a simple way to replace the bad habit. For example, if you’re looking to lose weight, start by cooking a healthy dinner every night. If you’re unsatisfied with your current job and want a different one, email one person a day who may give you a better opportunity. If you want to quit smoking, find someone you can reach out to for support every time you feel a craving for a cigarette.
From there, you need a way to track your progress. Use a calendar as a road map. Hang it in a room you go into every day and make an “X” on each day that you go without indulging in your bad habit. You can also carry a notebook with your goals highlighted so that you never forget them. These tools will help you stay focused.
Drawing out your goal is even more powerful. Visualize the habit change you want to achieve by creating a vision board. Carry images in your diary, have a vision board in your office or create one online. You can use Pinterest or a specific vision board tool.
Get to Know Your Bad Habit
Often, our bad habits are a sign of something else. We see people struggling with weight loss because they use eating to cope with stress, anxiety or depression. Others never work towards their career goals because fear holds them back. And often, we don’t even realize that our bad habit is keeping us from realizing our full potential.
During his TED Talk, psychiatrist Judson Brewer spoke about how we should look at our bad habits more closely to understand them. When do we most indulge in them? Do we fall into our habits when we are happy or only when we are frustrated or sad? Can we think of a time when we didn’t need this habit to keep going? Through these questions, we can identify the triggers of our habit. More than that, we can dig deeper to understand what’s causing us to use this habit as a crutch.
How to Break Bad Habits for Good
Failing to achieve your goals because of bad luck or a misguided decision is one thing, but failing to do so because of a bad habit is even more tragic. Bad habits are our guilty pleasures, ones that often cause a great deal of self-loathing. It can feel impossible to ditch our bad habits, but with the right strategies it is possible to kick those old habits and replace them with healthier behaviors.