Do you feel like you’re stuck in a cycle of unhealthy behaviours? Are you tired of being held back by bad habits? In this article, we’ll present the strategies that you can use to break free, start living a healthier and more productive life, and boost your personal and professional well-being.
The term “bad habits” can seem innocuous. It may evoke thoughts of nail-biting, social media overuse, or skimping on sleep. Annoying but relatively harmless, right? Wrong. Negative habits can be incredibly harmful physically and mentally, not just to us but to the people around us. They can derail your personal life and career. These self-destructive acts can include substance abuse and addictions that can be ruinous to health and relationships, or patterns of behaviour such as uncontrolled spending and procrastination.
Eradicating bad habits is difficult. We may have the odd friend who managed to quit drinking cold turkey and has kept himself “clean” for the past 20 years. But for the most part, changing ingrained patterns of behaviour is an uphill climb.
In fact, breaking bad habits is a transformative journey that requires self-awareness, loads of determination, and even strategic planning. Ingrained over time, these habits can exert a powerful hold on our daily lives. However, the path to change is possible and it is paved with insights from psychology, neuroscience, and the experiences of countless individuals who have successfully turned over a new leaf.
Strategies for breaking bad habits
The process of building a habit, whether good or bad, is the same. Our brain’s reward system reacts in a similar way whether we’re trying to build a habit around exercising or lighting up a cigarette. (Read our article on How Good Habits Help You Achieve Success to understand the science behind the formation of habits.)
Let’s be clear: serious addictions will require professional help – involving healthcare professionals, counsellors, and medications – to eliminate them. But there is always something we can do by ourselves. So whether it’s your first or fifth attempt at killing off a particular habit you’re not proud of, here are some steps suggested by experts.
Identify the habit
Make a list of behaviours that you would like to change. You may want to seek feedback from others who can provide valuable insights into your habits and behaviours, some of which you may not be aware of. Next, prioritise. Tackle only one habit at a time. You may feel motivated to do everything at once but it’s very likely you will soon feel overwhelmed and give up.
In your list, include some information about each habit, such as what triggers it and how long you’ve had the habit. In general, the longer you’ve lived with a certain pattern of behaviour, the more difficult it will be to get rid of it.
Create a plan
What is your ultimate aim? How do you intend to get there? For some, it may mean setting smaller goals, such as cutting down the number of cigarettes over the weeks or pushing back to an earlier bedtime by 15 minutes every week. Set realistic goals and try not to take on more than you can handle. You can also set a start date (or quit date, as the case may be) that is significant to you, such as your child’s birthday.
Find a reason to change
Clearly articulate why you want to break this specific habit and the resulting benefits it will have. The more personal and important the reason, the more motivated you will be and less likely to give in to temptation. We know of a 40-year-old man who decided that he did not want to expose his children to tobacco and the various harmful substances in cigarettes. He had been a smoker for almost two decades but stopped cold turkey the day his wife announced that she was pregnant. His daughters are now in their early teens and he has not touched a cigarette since.
Prepare to get uncomfortable
Let’s get real. Understand that with any lifestyle change, there will be discomfort. Whether your goal is to build six-pack abs, control an explosive temper or cut down social media dependency, uprooting entrenched patterns of behaviour will not be easy. Furthermore, when we feel tired or stressed, we tend to revert to our old habits. Be ready for those circumstances and tell yourself that the discomfort you feel now is worth the long-term benefits.
If you have done some homework on what your internal or external triggers are, now it’s time to remove them. Clear out all the alcohol in your home; while you’re at it, pack away your favourite drinking glasses too. Delete shopping apps from your phone, don’t allow shopping catalogues or magazines into your home. If your environment cannot be changed, then take steps to avoid your triggers.
Take a different route to avoid the junk food vending machine at your workplace. Avoid (for a time) people who smoke or say no when they head out for a puff.
Make it difficult
That is to say, make it difficult to perform the bad habit that you want to eradicate. Turn the TV around so it faces the wall, then get someone to hide the TV remote control. Have a trusted person change the passwords to your social media accounts so you can’t log in, or hand your credit cards over to that person so you’re unable to shop. Another powerful way to hold a stick over yourself is to put your money where your mouth is. Behavioural studies have shown that when the stakes are sufficiently high, people will follow through.
Check out www.stickk.com, where you make a commitment to do something – it can be anything – and back it up by giving them your credit card details. If you don’t hit your target, say, study two chapters a day or stop nail biting, the system will transfer a specified sum of your money to an organisation that you detest or are extremely opposed to.
When you feel the urge, don’t give in. Instead, plan for distractions or alternative activities. You could take a walk (which would be a bonus if it removes you from the source of temptation), make a phone call to a friend, drink water, perform some squats or take a cold shower.
Keep busy and turn your attention elsewhere until the urge passes.
Let your family and friends know your intention of kicking the habit. Ask them for encouragement, and support and to hold you accountable. Inform friends to not invite you out for drinks and family members to not bring home any alcohol. You might even want to partner up or challenge friends and family members to break a bad habit together. Striving toward a goal with like-minded people is more motivating and effective than doing it alone.
Realise that you may fail
It is important to visualize success and not make excuses, but be aware that you may slip up. Humans are creatures of habit, after all, and your bad habits may still have some power over you. Instead of beating yourself up over it, review your actions and past attempts at quitting. Figure out what caused a relapse and which strategies worked better. It may take many attempts to master a bad habit, but setbacks can be a learning experience if you use them to discover what works for you. So don’t be too harsh on yourself, think of the gains you’ve already made and persevere!
There was a successful young professional, let’s call him Dan, who was very promising in his field. He had garnered a few awards and was occasionally invited to give talks and media interviews. He also liked to smoke, drink to excess, and sometimes dabbled in recreational drugs. Trouble started when, after a few nights of heavy drinking, he sent inappropriate text messages to clients. While no laws were broken and no real harm was done, it was nonetheless unprofessional behaviour. His reputation took a hit once word got out and he was suspended from his duties for a time.
Dan realised it was time to get clean and rid himself of substances that impaired his judgment. He decided to tackle smoking first; in his own words, “I can fight only one demon at a time.” Then he picked the first day of the month to quit, threw out his packs of cigarettes, and told all his buddies that he was quitting.
He told us that one of the first improvements he noticed, within just days, was that his breathing became easier. His persistent cough became worse as his lungs adapted, but he knew it was all part of the process and he persevered. By week six, the coughing had almost disappeared. Thankfully, he didn’t have unbearable cravings and, last we checked, he was managing fine. Dan said that once he had smoking under control, he was going to cut down on the drink.
Being able to master one bad habit also helped Dan regain his confidence professionally. Slowly, clients started coming back to him. Business improved as word of mouth about his services spread. Dan realised that his bad habits and the stresses from his high-flying life had brought him low, and he was determined not to let it happen again.
Begin the journey to break your bad habits
Don’t be captive to your bad habits any longer. They can be hard to break but with time, effort, and perseverance, it can be done. Whenever you get discouraged, think about the personal and professional growth that you will gain from conquering your bad habits. If you would like a coach and qualified psychologist to walk with you on your journey, we are happy to help.
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