A habit is defined as ‘a thing that you do often and almost without thinking, especially something that is hard to stop doing.’ These can be positive actions, ‘good habits’ if you will, but we also tend to develop habits that have a negative impact on our life in some form; maybe your health, or your relationships, or your possessions. The actions that have a negative impact in some form can be called ‘bad habits’, and because habits are done ‘often and almost without thinking,’ it can be incredibly difficult to stop doing them, even if we really want to.
REASONS WHY IT’S DIFFICULT TO GIVE UP A BAD HABIT
Edward Thorndike was a psychologist at the turn of the 20th Century, and proposed a principle known as the ‘law of effect’, and this suggested that actions that produce a satisfying effect in a given situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and actions that produce a discomforting result become less likely to occur again in that situation.
The key phrase in that definition is ‘a satisfying effect’ – this is the reward for the action taken, and is what reinforces the behaviour, establishing the habit. The problem is that ‘a satisfying effect’ can be the result of actions that ultimately negatively impact our lives in some way.
Take smoking as an example – the hit of nicotine is the reward, giving temporary satisfaction and relief from a stressor – the stimulus. The action taken in response to the stressor is to smoke. So we have a stimulus or ‘cue’ that triggers a particular action or behaviour, that results in an established reward. What makes smoking a bad habit is the fact that it negatively impacts your health overall – a high price to pay for temporary satisfaction. This process is known as the ‘habit loop’, the process by which habits form, through learning and repetition.
The problem we have with the habit forming system is that it is evolutionarily beneficial – it is a way that the environment elicits automatic responses from us, and this would have been useful in developing survival techniques like foraging for food and avoiding predators. It is a system that allows us to react to external stimuli quickly, typically in a way that has worked in the past.
This is where giving up a bad habit becomes troublesome, because the body knows what it needs to get the desired reward. This is how people fall into certain actions even though they might be actively thinking against it. Anyone who has tried to give up smoking may well have experienced this internal dissonance, and there is an important lesson to learn here – you aren’t in complete control of yourself. Without going deeply into the psychology, this is a painful demonstration that our subconscious is pulling more strings than we realise.
TIPS FOR BREAKING A BAD HABIT
To break a bad habit means we are wrestling with our subconscious – but how do you wrestle with that which has no form??
Jokes aside, breaking a habit requires dedication and focus. It is a difficult process, so when trying to break a bad habit, make sure you go in armed to the teeth – so to speak – with tips and tricks.
WHY DO YOU WANT TO STOP THE HABIT?
Identifying why you want to stop a bad habit is important as it will be the driving force behind the effort. If the ‘why’ isn’t strongly established, and doesn’t mean much to you, then only the most disciplined of people will manage to break a bad habit.
Smoking remains a stalwart example, as the habit is formed and reinforced by the addictive nature of nicotine – nicotine is a highly addictive substance that makes it very hard to give up ‘cold turkey’. We all know that smoking is bad for your health, negatively impacting many areas of the body from the respiratory system to the circulatory system. Even with this knowledge, even for those who are experiencing some of the long term effects, it is not easy to stop smoking.
Spending too much time on social media is a new bad habit, one that appears to have very damaging consequences. The interactions between users triggers the release of dopamine in the brain, so users are rewarded whenever these interactions occur. This has led to people being ‘glued’ to their phones, apparently unable to walk the streets without seeing what is happening in the virtual world. One of the more damaging aspects of this is that the smartphone is becoming a primary lens through which people see the world; the social media sites function with algorithms to put stories in your feed to keep you on there, and sell data to advertisers to help them target you for specific products, all to keep you engaged on their site. This skews your understanding of the world, and tribalizes certain points of view, and – on a human level – the phone acts like a barrier between you and those who are trying to interact with you.
To stop a bad habit, the desire to stop must be there, and being alive longer for the ones you love can be a powerful form of impetus. In an increasingly isolated world, more people are finding themselves without such a driving force, so must look elsewhere – it may be the desire to have a family that is the encouragement you need to break some bad habits, or getting further in life by maximising productivity – whatever that may mean to you.
Establish why you are breaking the bad habit, and keep that reason clear in your mind.
KNOW YOUR TRIGGERS
If you know what triggers a bad habit, it makes perfect sense that avoiding these triggers will help you avoid doing the action in the first place – eliminating the cue from the habit loop. I will grant you that, in many instances, this is easier said than done.
Stress is unavoidable in daily life and is a trigger for many bad habits we establish. Therefore some cues you will be able to avoid, some are unavoidable and will require new methods to address. Knowing your triggers means you can identify which cues are unavoidable, allowing you to brace yourself for the habit about to be triggered, and establish a new way to deal with it.
If you are faced with a trigger that you can’t avoid, you have a few choices. You could try doing some form of meditation, breathing exercise or mindfulness training until the cue has passed, and your body’s desire for the reward subsides. In many ways, this technique is used to replace a bad habit with a good one, as the forms of meditation or breathing exercises (behaviour) provide the reward (stress relief) part of the habit loop.
You could engage in some physical activity, this will keep your mind occupied, and the stress of exercise itself may take precedence over the initial stressor, and so the exercise and the recovery afterwards becomes your main concern, eclipsing the desire to engage in the bad habit. Regular exercise is also shown to have a positive effect on a person’s ability to cope with daily stress, and as stress is a common trigger, reducing its impact may help you tackle a bad habit with more success.
Goal setting is an overlooked tool that can help you break some of these bad habits. The process of goal setting is like priming your brain for what you expect to happen, and gets you to think about the way you can try to tackle some of the cues that pop up in your daily life. Setting goals is a good first step to breaking a habit, because it is likely to get you thinking about all the other aspects of the problem, and to begin setting out a plan to achieve that goal.
If you have established the end goal, make sure to schedule some smaller steps, or ‘mini-goals’. This helps to track your progress, as well as breaking up the long and arduous task into smaller, manageable steps. When planning a trip up Mount Everest, you don’t aim for the top from the foot of the mountain, you aim for the first camp. From there you aim for the next camp, and so on, dealing with each leg of the journey before finally reaching the top. This helps make the task seem more achievable, and the power of holding that perspective cannot be understated. As a bonus, if you find yourself off course, head back to that last milestone and start again from there!
Daily tracking is another great idea. Write up a spreadsheet with the one habit you are trying to change or the new habit you are trying to develop, and record your daily progress, just a cross in a box will do. We can all work on a single thing everyday, and this is an easy, manageable way to start making progress, and building confidence.
Having broken up your main goal into smaller, manageable achievements, make sure to celebrate when you hit one of those targets! It is recognition of the work you have put in, and rewarding yourself in some fashion helps to reinforce the positive feelings associated with breaking a habit, instead of feeling only frustration.
Be mindful not to interrupt your progress though – if you are trying to stop eating junk food, by all means reward yourself with a tasty treat, but it may be more sensible to reward yourself in a way that doesn’t impair your progress – so think about spending the money you would have spent on those snacks and use it to buy a new video game, collectible item, or whatever floats your boat!
If the habit you are trying to break is smoking, then you really can’t afford to reward yourself with a cigarette due to the addictive nature of nicotine, so find another way. You should be saving a fair amount of cash, even if you are vaping instead of smoking, so put that money to good use.
REPLACING A BAD HABIT WITH A GOOD ONE
We touched on this earlier; when faced with unavoidable stress, turn your attention to an alternative to your bad habit. In many cases this could (and should) be to exercise – it costs you nothing, can be done anywhere, and provides sufficient stress and challenge that it takes precedence over cravings, and distracts your thoughts from focusing on the bad habit itself.
Some people may find that a sufficiently challenging intellectual exercise can be a good distraction, and this could be anything from a crossword to an engaging video game. Just make sure you don’t develop a habit of doing little else!
There won’t always be a ‘healthy alternative’ but it is always worth considering if there is something you could ‘sub-in’ instead of the bad habit – for smokers this could be switching to using an e-cigarette, which Public Health England maintains is 95% less harmful than smoking. For junk foodies, you could try to find healthier alternatives – personally I like a nice bar with nuts and dark chocolate as a treat, and there are health benefits to those ingredients so it ticks all the boxes!
For some, it may be that your bad habit is being inactive, and there’s not really any alternative to doing some exercise. You do have a choice of how to exercise though, and there are ways to make it a less stressful experience. Go for a walk while listening to your favourite artist or audiobook, or do some static exercises like jumping jacks and press ups while watching your favourite TV show. If you have a friend or family member trying to make a similar change, supporting each other and doing activities together can help keep morale up, and gives the opportunity to pull each other through the more difficult periods.
If the habit happens to be more innocuous, like biting your nails, then you may find alternatives are easy to find – chewing gum, or a carrot – but the challenge lies in identifying the triggers and staying vigilant, because it’s so easy to start biting your nails while you focus on something else, like work.
Seeking professional help may be a sensible course of action if you have tried many times to break a habit, and have consistently failed. There are forms of acupuncture that purportedly help with addictions and habits, and hypnotherapy is another option that many people claim to have helped them kick a habit.
A mental health professional will also be able to provide tools for someone with a bad habit, so if you are struggling with a habit that is affecting your health and/or relationships, consider psychotherapy as an option. Most of us need some sort of help from time to time, there is no shame in it, and professionals in that field chose that profession to help people, so let them!
PERSISTENCE, DETERMINATION AND THE SELF
A pervasive theme making its way through our society at the moment, is the relinquishing of agency – a denial of the power we have as individuals over our own lives. Too often people say ‘it’s too hard’ or ‘I can’t do it’, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and so they jump straight to external help to solve, what is essentially, an internal problem.
So how do you tackle these things? You must find something you want, something you need, and work towards it. Breaking habits takes time and effort, and requires determination. Determination then breeds persistence. Being persistent makes progress, and progress garners confidence. Confidence then bolsters your determination, and the positive feedback loop continues.
If you are struggling to find that determination, you may need to give yourself a break! Be kind to yourself, give yourself a chance, and with time and patience, you may surprise yourself. Determination doesn’t have to be loud and aggressive. It can be quiet, understated; a promise to yourself to see what you are capable of.
TIPS FOR SUCCESSFULLY BREAKING A BAD HABIT CONCLUSION
We all develop bad habits, but some of those habits impact our lives more than others – a smoking habit can lead to serious health issues, for example. If you can identify some harmful habits that you have, then you are aware enough that you can start to do something about it.
Make sure to employ some or all of the tips and tricks in this article, they may help reduce the number of times you stumble on your journey, and help speed you on your way to breaking some of those negative automatic behaviours!