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How to break a bad habit

Use these methods and skills to hold yourself accountable and elevate your mental health and self-control while busting that naughty habit.
Published 26 Oct 2021
6 min read

Bad habits. We all have them. And if you say you don’t, you probably aren’t aware of what your little naughty patterns are! Whether you’re already planning your ‘new year, new me’ resolutions, or simply trying to stop your pre-lockdown bad habits from creeping in, this article is for you.

Let’s start with the basics. Habits can form in several ways and there isn’t much you can do to control that.

The three R’s are the main ways habits develop:

  1. Reminder: This is a cue or trigger that brings up the idea of your bad habit. It can be a smell, word or feeling that can spark the pattern to begin.
  2. Routine: This is a behaviour that follows an action trigger. We flush the toilet so the usual pattern is to wash your hands. It’s the same for not-so-good habits too.
  3. Reward: This is what makes the habit stay around. Feeling good or seeing a positive result reinforces the practice. This feeling of reward is common among smokers and nicotine.

The good news is the three R’s can also help you break these patterns. According to a slightly incorrect popular belief, there is a chance you can break this annoying little trick in about three weeks. Unfortunately more recent studies have shown it can take anywhere between 18 to 254 days.

Thankfully the average time to break a habit takes about 66 days (or just over two months). Don’t let that deter you! It’s good to know what you’re getting into and having realistic expectations will help you beat your habit.

Use these numbers as motivation to be one of those 18-day people, but don’t be dismayed if you need longer. 66 days is attainable and achievable. All you need to do is follow a few simple tricks that will help get you over the line.

So what can you do?

There are a few different things you can do to guide your journey to break that nagging habit. Not all of these will work so try and figure out which ones will be best for you! Remember, don’t get discouraged!

Identify your cues

The first step is to learn about what triggers your bad habit. Think of the three R’s and figure out what is reminding you, rewarding you, or is part of your usual routine.

Be aware of how you think, feel and move over a couple of days. Make a note of when and what the cues are that spark your nagging patterns. For some nail biters, it’s the feeling of anxiousness. The smell of cigarettes can be a cue for smokers. And for the sweet-tooths, it could be a tantalising dessert menu placed in your hands.

It’s okay to follow through on these habits while you’re identifying these cues — you haven’t even started the second step yet! The purpose of this step is to make yourself aware of your cues so you can learn from them.

Change your environment & routines

Once you know what your bad-habit triggers are, it’s time to make a change to your surroundings and your routine.

Changing your environment can be one of the hardest steps. You have to start making a conscious effort to influence the environment that sparks your habit so you can form new, better ones in the same circumstances. This change may come in many different ways.

If you’re a chronic ‘go to bed and stay on your phone for five hours’ sort of person, move your phone charger to the other side of the room, or place a book or journal by the bed to remove the temptation and fill your time differently. If you’re a $7.50 hipster coffee-addict, try some new home-brewed variety of non-caffeinated teas or switch up your walking route so that you don’t walk through the delicious waft of roasted beans.

If you’re a smoker, there are plenty of things to do. Replace the action with chewing gum to form a new habit. Take your work breaks out in the fresh air of the park, or practice some mindfulness when the jitters and anxiety come creeping in.

Changing your environment and figuring out how to replace your annoying habit will be different for everyone. So sit down, and think about it for a second. Ask some friends, write a few ideas and try them all out or do some googling. We’ve all been there before, so there will be some actions that will suit your needs.

Practice mindfulness and visualisation techniques

The mind is an impressively powerful computer, and sometimes it needs to be restarted or put on sleep to keep it running efficiently. That’s where mindfulness comes in handy.

There are so many different ways to practice mindfulness, but the main goal is to become aware of how you feel and think in that moment. Gaining insight into the emotions that influence how you respond to your habits will help you with every other step of beating your nagging patterns. 

Use this knowledge as a motivator and also as a chance to relax and breathe. Breaking a habit can be a long and gruelling process so taking time to acknowledge your journey and how difficult it can be will help spur you on. 

Use this mindfulness time to visualise the ‘new’ you. Studies show that visualising your wins really works! It sparks the neurons and chemical releases in your brain, so it begins to associate the visualisation imagery with real-life action. This creates new pathways so when you do succeed, your brain already knows what to do!

Set goals and reward yourself

To assist all the good things you’re doing with mindfulness and visualisation, you need to set yourself goals and reward yourself when you hit milestones. 

Goal setting has psychological links to satisfaction and accomplishment. Creating realistic goals will boost your confidence and endurance when you reach them. It’s similar to the power of visualisation. Reaching goals creates a chemical release in your amygdala and the frontal lobe that will keep you focused on the activity that made you feel accomplished, hence spurring you forward on your habit-busting journey.

The journey of breaking a habit is a marathon, not a sprint. A PsychCentral article details all the reasons rewarding yourself promotes self-control. Retraining your body is a draining process. Hence, you need rewards for when you reach your goals to reinforce those pathways and neural connections. This combo is different for everyone. Your goals can be as small as not turning down the sweet aisle at your weekly shop or saying no to going out on a Wednesday. But once you do these things, don’t be afraid to reward yourself for being good — just not with your bad habit! Pick something else you love and use that to reinforce all your hard work.

Be healthy in other ways

Throughout your 66 days, your mind will be focusing and putting all your willpower into breaking that habit. But it’s important to look after the rest of you!

Make sure you are eating nutritionally, sleeping regularly, exercising and taking part in your hobbies. A happy and healthy body will help you achieve your goals.

Some bonus tips:

Writing

It’s beneficial to have a notebook or note app handy to help you track your habit-busting journey. Use it to keep track of your cues, goals, and the inevitable slip-ups. You can even reflect on it after you’ve smashed that silly pattern!

Buddy up

Know someone else who might need to get rid of an annoying trick? Partner up and help motivate and keep each other accountable. Also feel free to talk about your plan with others who may be connected to your trigger. They’d be more than willing to help you out.

Practice makes perfect

Conquered that one little bad habit already? Awesome job! Use these newfound skills and drive to tackle a new one. Repeated reinforcement will make the next challenge much easier!

In summary

While it may not be 21 days, breaking a habit can still be an easy and quick process – if you stick to your guns! Use these methods and skills to hold yourself accountable and elevate your mental health and self-control, at the same time as busting that naughty habit.

Remember that everyone is different! Take the time to explore the methods that will work for you and don’t get discouraged if you aren’t an 18-day person. Most of us aren’t. So let’s get started — you’ve got this!

The Team
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