Bad habits are like something affecting your life and health. Bad habits interrupt your life and prevent you from accomplishing your goals. They jeopardize your health — both mentally and physically. And they waste your time and energy.
The cycle is understandable, because the brain doesn’t make changes easily. But breaking an unhealthy habit can be done. It takes intent, a little white-knuckling, and some effective behavior modification techniques. But even before that, it helps to understand what’s happening in our brains, with our motivations, and with our self-talk.
Choose a substitute for your bad habits
You need to have a plan ahead of time for how you will respond when you face the stress or boredom that prompts your bad habit. What are you going to do when you get the urge to smoke? (Example: breathing exercises instead.) What are you going to do when Facebook is calling to you to procrastinate? (Example: write one sentence for work.) Whatever it is and whatever you’re dealing with, you need to have a plan for what you will do instead of your bad habit.
Cut out as many triggers as possible
If you smoke when you drink, then don’t go to the bar. If you eat cookies when they are in the house, then throw them all away. If the first thing you do when you sit on the couch is pick up the TV remote, then hide the remote in a closet in a different room. Make it easier on yourself to break bad habits by avoiding the things that cause them.
Right now, your environment makes your bad habit easier and good habits harder. Change your environment and you can change the outcome.
Accept that success isn’t a straight line
As you try to change, there will be bumps and setbacks, which are part of the process of lasting change. The problem is that we’re our own worst critics, and some people view anything except total success as complete failure.
Marques says to try to take a third-person perspective and think about how you’d react to a friend who said that having one bag of chips had ruined their whole diet. You’d be kind and reassuring, not critical, so give yourself the same treatment. A lot of the struggle with self-criticism is not seeing thoughts as facts, but merely thoughts. It takes practice, but it’s the same idea as with meditation. You treat what comes into your head as clouds, acknowledging them and letting them roll on through. “Everyone has distorted thoughts all the time,” Marques says. “It’s what you do with them.”
It also helps to reduce stress and minimize that sense of failure to know that the goal isn’t to make the old habit disappear, because it won’t. You’re just trying to strengthen the new routine so eventually it takes over, and the old habit isn’t even a thought. But it’s a constant process, made easier with self-compassion, because there’s no way to prepare for every situation or be able to predict when and where a trigger might happen.
Mindfulness can help you develop awareness around your thoughts, feelings, and actions. This practice involves simply observing impulses that relate to your habit without judging them or reacting to them.
As you become more aware of these routine behaviors and the triggers that lead to them, you may find it easier to consider other options, such as avoiding reminder cues or not acting on the urges.
Let go of the all-or-nothing mindset
Accepting you’ll probably slip up a few times when trying to break a habit and coming up with a plan is one thing. Preventing feelings of frustration and failure when you do slip up is another story.
If you fall back into an old habit, you might wonder, “Can I really do this?” You might begin to doubt yourself and feel inclined to give up.
Myers recommends looking at your successes instead. Maybe you’re trying to quit smoking and you succeed for 3 days in a row. On the fourth day, you have a cigarette and spend the rest of the night feeling like a failure.
“Having a cigarette after going a few days without smoking doesn’t take away those past days,” said Myers. Remember, you can make a different choice tomorrow.