​Tips for Breaking Bad Habits

Bad habits, or patterns of behavior, can vary from the somewhat insignificant (like squeezing a tube of toothpaste from the middle) to the dangerous and addictive (like binge drinking) and everything in between (wasting time on social media, biting your fingernails, procrastinating, and so on). Fortunately, bad habits—whether big or small—can be broken with effort and commitment.

 Here are some tips for breaking bad habits:

1. Focus on only one bad habit at a time.
Most of us have more than one bad habit. And it can be tempting to want to tackle all of them at once. Doing so, however, is likely to backfire. Trying to break multiple habits at once can stretch you—and your resources for help—too thin, which can cause you to become discouraged and stressed out and, thus, crush your resolve to break any habits at all. When you put all of your energy into changing one bad habit, you are better able to focus, remain level-headed, and accomplish your goal.

2. Identify the habit you’d like to break and its triggers.
Don’t simply tell yourself you are going to break a specific habit, write it down. Better yet, write it down and put it somewhere you can see it often to remind yourself of your goal. After you’ve identified that bad habit, take some time to think about what causes—or triggers—you to return to the bad behavior. Habits, at their heart, are patterns of behavior; and patterns can be broken by identifying how the pattern was created in the first place. This can be accomplished by answering a series of questions:

    Where are you when it happens?
    What time of day does it happen?
    What is your mood when it happens?
    Are you with others or alone? If you are with others, who are they?
    What else are you doing at the time? (Working, hanging out with friends, etc.)

3.  Figure out what to do about those triggers.
Sometimes, you can simply eliminate a trigger to help you on your path to breaking a bad habit. A lot of people, for example, find they eat too much sugar or drink too much soda simply because the sugar and soda are available. Getting those things out of the house—and thus out of sight and mind—will make it more difficult to give in to temptation. Other times, eliminating a trigger can be more difficult. If you’re trying to break the habit of spending hours a day surfing the internet, for example, but you also have a job that requires you to use a laptop and the internet on a regular basis, you can’t exactly throw out your laptop. In cases like this, it helps to have a plan in place for times that you do feel triggered.

This is why identifying the what, where, when, why, and how of a habit can be so helpful. If you discover, for example, that you most often waste time online after lunch or when you start to feel sluggish around 3pm every afternoon, make a plan that specifies exactly what you’ll do at those times instead.  Ask a coworker to join you every afternoon at 3 p.m. for a fifteen-minute break in which you walk around the block or climb stairs together or even meet in the breakroom for a coffee break together. Set a reminder on your phone that tells you to meditate at 1 p.m. instead of opening an app.

4. Identify larger patterns that impede the replacement plan.
If you find it is not enough to simply identify a trigger and eliminate or replace it, broaden your look at daily patterns to help you discover impediments. If, for example, you want to break the habit of eating out every night, look at what things are preventing you from staying in and eating a home-cooked meal. Do you leave dishes in the sink to pile up after breakfast and lunch and therefore not want to cook at home because you’d first have to clear the counters and clean the dishes in order to have a suitable environment for cooking dinner? Do you give in to tiredness and take a nap every afternoon because it’s so easy to climb into your unmade bed?

In these cases, it’s helpful to make advance plans that remove impediments. Do the dishes immediately after breakfast and lunch or clear the table of papers and piles every morning. You could even set the table after doing this so it’s ready for the dinnertime meal. Make your bed each morning so you remove the temptation of napping later in the afternoon.

5. Determine what will replace a bad habit.
Breaking a bad habit usually means one of two things: you’ll be denying yourself something that brings you pleasure (the sugar rush that comes from drinking a soda, for example) or you’ll be creating a time void where you used to be doing the thing you want to stop doing (watching TV, for example). Replacing the bad habit with a good habit or a healthy reward can make giving up an “evil pleasure” less painful.

If, for example, you’re giving up soda or your favorite junk food, find something you can replace those items with when you have a craving. Fill your fridge with seltzer water and buy a few concentrated flavorings so you can mix up a guilt-free fizzy drink when you want a soda. Have pre-cut fruits and vegetables on hand to eat when you are trying to give up junk food. Check out a few great books from the library to read instead of spending time online or in front of the TV.

6. Enlist a friend’s help for accountability.
Being accountable to another person makes you more likely to engage in replacement behavior and avoid the bad habit. Tell someone you trust about your intentions and ask them to hold you accountable. Enlist someone to work out with you if you’re trying to replace a time-wasting habit with a good habit. Ask a friend to attend support groups with you if you’re trying to stop a dangerous habit. Plan a fun activity with a friend to use as a reward for meeting your goals.

Simply telling friends and family members about your desire to break a bad habit can help you in the process because they will be more likely to encourage you and remove triggers they may have been unknowingly helping to implement. For example, a friend who knows you are trying to stop drinking will also know not to offer you a beer when you drop by.

7. Live a healthy lifestyle.
Eating well, working out, and getting enough sleep are proven ways to reduce stress and increase energy. As you work to break bad habits, don’t neglect good habits. Identifying and eliminating unnecessary stressors can also help improve your well-being and make you less likely to return to bad habits. Do you bite your nails when you’re stressed or anxious? Do you find that you’re most stressed and anxious when your schedule is filled with things to do?

Evaluate your to-do list and cut out the things that aren’t important. A busy mom, for example, might look at her to-do list and decide that volunteering three times a week with the PTA is taking away time she could be spending actually doing something with her child—and adding increased stress because it requires outside projects. She could reduce the number of days she volunteers and instead spend those afternoons at the park with her kids or use it to work out, which could make her feel rested and ready to engage when her kids get home from school each day. It’s really all about personally examining the patterns and habits in your life to determine what behaviors and activities lead to good and what lead to bad.    

8. Introduce positive affirmations.
Emotional health is just as important as physical health. Make a ritual of repeating positive affirmations twice a day (for five to ten minutes each) to remind you of your worth and your ability to succeed in breaking bad habits. Pair your affirmations with meditation and essential oils to increase their healing power and elevate your mood.

To help you accept yourself—Blend an equal ratio grapefruit, lemon, peppermint, and ginger and diffuse or inhale while repeating this affirmation: “I am willing to release the pattern in me that created these conditions. I am in the process of making positive changes.”

To break bad habits—Blend an equal ratio lavender and geranium in a roller bottle or glass vial. Apply a drop or two to wrists and inhale while repeating this affirmation: “I am a positive and happy person. I look at the big picture and have my mind pointed in the right direction. I can succeed at anything I try.”

To forgive yourself for mishaps—Blend an equal ratio Douglas fir, bergamot, juniper berry, myrrh, and thyme and diffuse while repeating this affirmation: “I release the past so I can step into the future. I forgive myself one day at a time.”

9. Forgive yourself and start again.
Don’t berate yourself when you slip back into a habit or make a mistake. Instead, recommit and move on. If you have a friend helping you be accountable, ask them to encourage you when you’ve made a mistake.

10. If necessary, seek professional help.
If you find yourself unable to break bad habits on your own or with the tips above, seek help from a professional. Trained counselors and psychologists can give you the extra tools you need to be successful and are also valuable allies and accountable parties on your path toward change.


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