How to Break Bad Habits
We all have developed habits over the years. Some habits can be positive and useful such as using the restroom before leaving the house or laying out your clothes for work the night before. Other habits can be negative and not beneficial such as picking your cuticles or scrolling the internet on your phone the moment you wake up in the morning. Many of us have developed unhealthy habits surrounding eating and food choices such as reaching for something sweet when we feel stressed or eating those salty chips while watching our favorite television show. Breaking unhealthy habits can be difficult, especially if you have been engaging in these unhealthy habits for a long time. If you are trying to break a bad habit it helps to first understand how a habit is formed.
There are many theories on how habits are formed. The 3 R’s theory identifies the three main components that are associated with creating and maintaining a habit.
- Reminder. This is a trigger, or cue, that could be a conscious behavior, such as turning off the light when you leave the room, or a feeling, such as nervousness.
- Routine. This is the behavior associated with the trigger. Exiting a room cues you to flip off the light switch, while feeling stress triggers binge eating sweets. Doing something repeatedly can make the behavior routine.
- Reward. The reward associated with a behavior also helps make a long term habit. If you do something that causes happiness or relieves angst, the release of dopamine in the brain can make you want to repeat that behavior, thus maintaining a habit.
While keeping the 3 R’s in mind there are many methods you can use to help break a bad habit:
Identify Your Triggers
A trigger is one of the first steps in creating a habit so it is important to identify what your triggers are. Try to take note of where the trigger occurs and what time of day. Identify how you feel when the trigger occurs and if other people are involved. Ask yourself if the trigger occurs right after a specific event. For example, let’s say you want to stop snacking at nighttime. After you take the time to identify your trigger and what surrounds this trigger you realize you tend to snack when you are watching Netflix at night after the kids are in bed. You then decide to remove the trigger by going for a walk or reading a book rather than watching television. By removing the trigger of television you make it more difficult to carry out the habit of late night snacking.
Focus on the Why
Take some time to focus on why you want to change a bad habit. It is also helpful to list these reasons down and keep this list posted where you will see it regularly such as your bathroom mirror or refrigerator as a visual daily reminder. Common reasons for wanting to achieve a healthier weight can include improvement in overall health, improving mobility, increasing self-confidence, getting off of medications, making your family proud, and wanting to be stronger both mentally and physically. If you happen to have a setback you can always refer to your list of reasons why and this can help motivate you to get back on track with achieving your goals. Creating a vision board of activities and people that are your reasons can also be a great visual aid to keep you motivated such as photos of your family, a marathon runner, backpacking through Europe, etc.
Breaking a bad habit can be difficult but when you have support it can make it easier to deal with. If you have someone close to you who is also trying to change the same bad habit it can give you both a sense of camaraderie facing the challenge together. Even if the people in your support system are not trying to change the same habit as you they can still support you by encouraging you in times of doubt and reminding you of your goals.
Replace the Habit
Replacing the unwanted behavior with a new and healthy behavior can be a very effective way to break a bad habit. For example, if you want to stop eating fast food during your lunch break you need to be able to replace this behavior with something else that will better align with your goals such as packing a healthy lunch to bring into work. As you continue to repeat this new behavior of packing your healthy lunch for work, the desire to follow the new routine develops and becomes a new habit. As you notice an improvement with your health from this positive habit change this will only motivate you more to continue this healthy behavior.
Mentally Prepare Yourself for Setbacks
Remember that developing a solid habit takes time so breaking a habit will also take time and there can be setbacks. It is very easy to fall back into old bad habits, especially if the new habits you are trying to adopt are not yet routine or solidified. Mentally prepare yourself for potential setbacks so that if/when they occur you are not discouraged and tempted to give up. The important thing is that you learn from your mistakes so that way you can hopefully avoid future setbacks by changing your approach so you are more likely to stay on track.
Change Your Environment
Your surroundings play a very important role in your daily habits. If you are trying to lose weight it is important to cleanse your environment of tempting items that could throw you off plan. If you live with other people you can create a separate area for your healthy food so that you are not constantly seeing their foods that are not on your diet plan. You may need to change your daily walk so that you do not pass by the café with the high calorie lattes and baked goods you enjoy. The people you surround yourself with also can impact your habits. Consider taking a break from spending time with those who contribute to your habit or do not support your decision to break a bad habit.
Breaking a bad habit is a form of self-care and it is important to practice other aspects of self-care while going through the difficult process of breaking a habit. When breaking a habit, it is especially important to prioritize your own wellness. This not only boosts your chances of success, but it also helps you keep motivated when things get challenging. Other acts of self-care that are important to practice, especially when you are trying to break a habit, should include adequate sleep, regularly seeing your healthcare provider, being physically active, taking time to do things that make you happy and improve your mood, and eating regular nutritious meals.
Motivate with Rewards
Make sure to acknowledge your accomplishments and try to give yourself healthy rewards along the way. For example, if you have been able to lose weight and go down a few pant sizes, take yourself shopping for some new clothes that fit. Even small motivators, like telling yourself what a great job you are doing, can boost confidence and increase your determination to keep trying. When you focus on the progress you have made, you are less likely to become discouraged or engage in negative self-talk, both of which can decrease your motivation. Make sure to celebrate all the small wins. You may not be at goal weight yet but you are now able to walk upstairs without getting out of breath and that should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Breaking a Habit Takes Time
While trying to break a bad habit it is important to keep in mind that it takes on average 2-3 months or more to change an unwanted habit. The amount of time it takes to break a habit depends on multiple factors such as how long you have had that habit, if you have a good support system, and the amount of physical or emotional pleasure that habit brings. If a few weeks have passed, and you have not made much progress, it can be helpful to revisit your approach. Consider seeking help from a mental health professional, especially for habits that are more deeply ingrained in your behavior or cause you a lot of grief.
If you need any additional support or have questions during your weight loss journey about breaking your bad habits, contact your physician or behavioral health educator so they can best direct your next steps!