How to Break a Bad Habit: 17 Expert Tips To Help Achieve Your Goals
New year, new you—and new resolutions to break those bad habits once and for all. Whether it's smoking, nail-biting, overindulging in sugary snacks, or even poor posture, behavioral coaches and psychologists say there is a basic framework to follow for anyone looking to kick their vices to the curb.
Sometimes, even the simplest habit can take an enormous effort to change.
"I had a client who stopped at Dunkin Donuts every morning, went inside and bought a donut and coffee," leadership coach Amie Devero tells Tatler Asia. "Everyday he told himself he would forgo the donut. But once he was inside, the sight and aroma would be overwhelming, and he would relent. "In order to alter that habit, we had to first figure out what the thought was as he drove to the shop. He recognized that he was always running late and so left home without breakfast. The other thing was that he always walked inside of the store.
"So, first he had to decide whether he was going to continue viewing himself as someone who eats junk and doesn't work out–or whether he was willing to look at himself in a different way. He chose to reframe his view of himself as someone who ate healthy foods and looked after his health," she says. "That formed the foundation to alter his behavior. Since he was committed to reducing his sugar intake, and he had figured out the structural issues, we crafted a plan.
"He would write down what he would have the next day for breakfast at bedtime. That way, he could wake up with a plan about what to eat. Then instead of running late, he would set the alarm a bit earlier. He would eat breakfast and then, as he drove to work, if he wanted a coffee, he would go to the drive through of a different shop," Devero says. "Each step in this process was designed to remove all of the triggers of the entrenched routine. No more hunger. No more visual cue to go into the Dunkin Donuts. No more aroma or sight of donuts. After doing the new routine for a few weeks, he was as used to it as he had been to the prior one. And he began to feel better and lose weight–all of which reinforced the new routine.
"The trick is to do the work of identifying the entire process that supports a habit," she says. "Then, choose a new behavior and design and plan the entire process around that new habit. It takes planning–and a shift in being. My client had to declare to himself that he was the kind of person who ate healthily. He wasn’t 'trying' to do that–that was who is was. And the combination of shifting how he thought of himself and then having a new routine and plan made the difference. Anyone can succeed, but they likely won’t without exploring their entire behavioral chain, and replacing it with one that is desirable to them–plus, reinventing how they think of themselves."
To learn more about proven techniques for breaking bad habits, Tatler spoke to leading psychologists, behavioral specialists, and leadership coaches to assemble this step-by-step guide.
1. Make a list of what you want
Make two lists: what you want and what you don't want. "Once you have your list of desired goals, write down why you want to achieve them, and what will happen if you don't change your bad habits," says Lynell Ross, resource director of Test Prep Insight. "Be real with yourself. Being complacent and lying to yourself and reasons why it's hard to change. Post this list where you will see it daily. You can break bad habits if you know how what you're doing is hurting you. Be specific."
2. Figure out your feelings
"Identify the feelings that go with your bad habit," says meditation teacher and author Yocheved Golani. "What motivates you to behave that way—fear, anger, frustration, disappointment, or something else? Write those emotions down, grocery-list style. Ponder them until you gain insight into your emotions. Spend time identifying more constructive ways to respond to the situation(s) involved, and write those ideas down, too. Then behave in one or more of those constructive manners each and every time that the negative feelings rise within you. You'll be breaking past blocks and feeling relief, even pride, with the constructive changes that you make.
"By the way, if you respond with a sense of numbness to a problem, know that numbness is based on fear. Identify your fear, admit it aloud, and repeat the phrase several times. Your emotions will release and your mind will be able to grapple with the issues. Ask a trusted confidante to help you with this aspect of the habit-breaking project. It's difficult to manage alone."
3. Let go of self-loathing
"Let go of shame, and recognize you're not a bad person," says meditation teacher and life coach Jeremy Lipkowitz. "This is particularly important for those nasty habits you might be ashamed of, like emotional eating, bingeing on Netflix, or being addicted to things like porn, gambling, or shopping. The key here is understanding that shame, or thinking yourself to be 'bad' for having this habit, is not going to help you break the habit. In fact, the cycle of shame, isolation, and escape only exacerbates bad habits. If you can be compassionate toward yourself, understanding that it's not entirely your fault you have these bad habits. Hooked on Instagram? Yep, it was engineered to be addictive. Can't stop eating junk food? Same. Find it hard to exercise five days a week? We all find that hard. Understand you're not alone, it's not your fault, and you are not a bad person. That will set a good foundation for making choices from a place of genuine self-care, rather than self-loathing."
4. Track your habit
"Keep a log of each time you engage in the bad habit," says psychologist Paul Greene, the director of the Manhattan Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. "This will keep you accountable and help you find patterns in when and why the behavior happens."
5. Know your obstacles
"Breaking bad habits is easier when you know what is stopping you from doing the right thing," Ross says. "If you want to lose weight and know that eating added sugar is a problem for you, then clean out your kitchen of any candy, cookies, cakes, and other foods with added sugar. Find healthy foods such as fruits, nuts and make homemade items to help you change your habit of eating sweets. You can change your taste buds if you stop eating high sugar foods."
6. Don't put it off
"It can be tempting to wait until next week or next month to work on a bad habit," Greene says. "In reality, putting off change means strengthening the bad habit in the meantime."
7. Find the alternative
Decide what you will do instead," says time management coach and author Elizabeth Grace Saunders. "If you usually roll out of bed and then start work, think about exactly what kind of morning routine would be motivating for you to get up earlier."
8. Stay away from bad influencers
"Break your psychological connection with people who make you feel threatened, unhappy, or unworthy," Golani says. "Connect with your inner strengths, your inner worth—it's growing as you defeat the problem—and all the things that make you a good person, instead. Don't even look at people who want to damage your sense of self-worth. Focus on your good points, period. You'll be breaking a bad habit of reinforcing your sense of vulnerability and shame while bolstering your sense of self respect."
9. Remove bad stimuli from your environment
"Harness the power of Behavioral Architecture by removing bad stimuli from your environment," Lipkowitz says. "Recent research in the world of habit formation has shown that 'self-control' is not as important as what we might call 'stimulus control.' Let's say you have a donut problem. If you walk past a donut shop every day on your way to work, you're likely to cave. On the flipside, if you intentionally set your route to work to avoid seeing (and smelling) those tasty morsels, you're setting yourself up for success. It turns out, the old saying, 'Out of sight, out of mind' really does work. For example, remove your social media apps from the phone if you're trying to be less glued to your electronics."
10. Find an accountability partner
"You can use a habit tracking app, a friend, or coach to help keep you accountable to not falling into bad habits," Saunders says.
11. Take it one step at a time
"No matter which bad habit you want to break, take on the task in small, focused, specific, doable, and reasonable doses of effort," Golani says. "Purposely do things that have big, positive, emotional impacts. Be creative, be playful, think outside boxes, and have a sense of humor about all this. You'll be smiling and breathing more easily faster than you might have expected."
12. Create an if/then plan
"We often make poor decisions in the moment and the more decisions we make throughout the day, the more likely decision fatigue is to set in, causing us to make worse decisions," says time management and productivity coach Alexis Haselberger. "Sidestep this issue by making the decisions in advance. If you are trying to eat more healthily, decide 'if I need a snack, I'll eat a piece of fruit' or 'if I get the urge to grab candy from the office candy dish, I'll chew on a piece of gum instead.'"
13. Come up with a competing response
"A competing response is something that cannot occur at the same time as the habit you want to kick," says post-doctoral clinical psychology fellow Rachel Kutner. "For example, if you want to stop pulling hair while in bed, you can have a fidget toy in hand while you scroll through your phone. In this situation, your hands are both occupied in a competing response and cannot simultaneously engage in the hair pulling."
14. Use the delay tactic
"Postponing engaging in your bad habit can be almost as helpful as refraining altogether," Greene says. "Every time you delay, you're strengthening your ability to resist the habit."
15. Use app blockers
"If you struggle with self-restraint around certain apps and websites, use app blockers that limit which hours you can view websites like YouTube or that limit how many hours you spend on them," Saunders says.
16. Set up positive reinforcements
"Small wins are important, so I always ask my clients: 'How will you reward yourself for breaking the habit or making small progressions towards breaking it?'" says leadership coach Dominic Cottone, senior managing director of the leadership consulting group at Ferguson Partners. "Reinforcement and replacement strategies (finding healthier options to replace the habit with) are important."
17. Cultivate self-awareness and mindfulness
"We've all heard of mindfulness and the benefits for reducing stress," Lipkowitz says. "But did you know it also helps with breaking bad habits? Most of the time, our bad habits happen when we are just on auto-pilot (that's why they're habits, not decisions). If you want to get off autopilot, what you need to do is cultivate more present moment awareness. This is what allows you to be in control of your decisions. There's that wonderful quote summarizing the work of Viktor Frankl, 'Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space is your power to choose your response. In your response lies your growth and freedom.' The more mindful we become, the more space you have to break free from the compulsive bad habits and insert better ones. My tip: try practicing just two minutes of mindful breathing every day. Rather than focusing on length, just try to be consistent. This builds the habit of mindfulness and awareness."