How to beat a bad habit in seven steps

By Dr Bruce Wells

Do you often smoke while browsing social media? The key to breaking a habit is identifying the trigger, and replacing the bad habit with a good one. Photo / Getty
Do you often smoke while browsing social media? The key to breaking a habit is identifying the trigger, and replacing the bad habit with a good one. Photo / Getty

Eating junk food. Hoarding stuff we don't need. Chewing our finger nails. Spending too much time on Facebook. Being consistently late for engagements. Drinking too much alcohol. Compulsive lying.

They are all bad habits and every day, if we are not careful, they will jeopardise our health, relationships, productivity, and happiness.

The secret to getting rid of these unwanted habits is to replace them with healthier, more beneficial ones. However, you must make a commitment to change as the latest research shows that it takes around two months for new habits to become automatic.

With this in mind, the following seven strategies will help you kick your unhelpful bad habits and replace them with healthier habits.

1. Identify the triggers for the bad habit

First, you need to identify when and why you perform your particular bad habit. Where are you when you smoke? Who are you with? What are you doing? What emotional state are you in? What needs is your bad habit fulfilling?

The more honest you are with yourself about the nature of your habit, the more likely you will change your behaviour. Keep a log book of your bad habit, the triggers, and the pros and cons of the behaviour.

2. Replace your bad habit with a good habit

This is the key strategy - you don't focus on eliminating a bad habit, you focus on replacing it with a good habit.

Once you know the need that your bad habit is fulfilling, you can substitute your bad habit for a good habit that fulfils the same need.

If giving up smoking, substitute the positive reinforcement of nicotine with the positive reinforcement of the endorphins that are released during jogging.

If giving up the attention-seeking benefits of gossiping, practise praising others instead. If you want to relieve the stress associated with biting your fingernails, squeeze a stress ball instead.

Nail biting is a common habit, but it can be overcome by establishing a good habit in its place. Photo / Getty
Nail biting is a common habit, but it can be overcome by establishing a good habit in its place. Photo / Getty

3. Use the new good habit at every opportunity

Use your new habit as often as possible to begin ingraining it as an automatic behaviour. Frequent small successes will make it easier and easier to maintain the habit.

If you're returning to running after a year-long lay-off, run for five minutes every day. If you've decided to eat healthier foods, eat two pieces of fruit each day.

If you want to read more regularly, read at least one page of a book each day. Remind yourself constantly of the benefits of the new habit.

4. Link new habits to other established good habits

One of the most effective ways of making new habits stick is by making use of your current daily routines. Established habits can be used to remind you that it's time to act on your new good habit.

For instance, instead of the vague "I will get fitter," you could say, "When I come home and change my clothes (established habit) I'll go for a 15 minute walk (new habit)."

5. Replace bad triggers with good triggers

When we are bored or stressed we default to our previous unwanted habits so anticipate this by restructuring your environment. After removing the triggers associated with your bad habit create an environment that encourages you to use your new habit.

Replace unwanted chocolate in the cupboard with wanted dried fruit. Avoid unnecessary internet surfing by closing all web pages when writing a report on your computer.

Stop compulsive-shopping by leaving your credit cards at home. Eliminate binge drinking with your friends by agreeing to meet them for a gym session or a movie.

6. Expect relapses

Research shows that 92 per cent of people have failed to maintain new habits. Faltering is a normal part of the process when starting a new habit.

Don't let an overemphasis on perfection excuse you from sticking to your goal. The key is to have a response strategy ready that you can implement every time you make a mistake.

For example, if you get home too late for your usual 40 minute run maintain the new habit by settling for a five-minute walk. If you slip up and eat a hamburger, avoid dessert.

7. Hold yourself acountable

Take full responsibility for all your results - both good and bad - and avoid making any excuses for any relapses. Acknowledging responsibility empowers you to take control of your own life and your behaviours.

Maximise your accountability by keeping a visual record of your new habit on a calendar stuck to your fridge, informing friends of your goal via social media, or using HabitForge or Rootein to track your progress.

Dr Bruce Wells is a happiness expert and a professional speaker. He is the author of Happiness Anywhere Anytime. For more information visit www.drbruce.com.au

- news.com.au

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