Bad habits prevent us from reaching where we want to be. How many of us have failed our new year goals just because we lacked the discipline to follow through? We all have bad habits that we want to get rid of. Some drink too much coffee or eat too much chocolate daily. Others fear they are damaging their health because they often stay up too late. Some can’t manage to concentrate on the task at hand and end up wasting time.
If you want success in life, finding a way to get rid of bad habits and cultivate productive habits is a must. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Many times, people embark on a 1-month journey to change their habit. They manage to maintain it for a while, then things fall back to where they have been. Getting rid of bad habits once and for all requires a scientific approach. This article will discuss that approach with you.
Why Is It So Hard to Get Rid of a Bad Habit
Without our knowing, a bad habit is so addictive to us because it provides us with what we lack. There are three conditions for a bad habit to form:
-A stimulus: Something that triggers a bad habit.
-The action itself that we perform whenever we encounter the trigger.
-The reward: The perceived benefit associated with performing the action.
For example, when a person gets home from an exhausting day, they grab a chocolate tablet, eat it while watching their favorite TV show and feel much better. The reward is the better feeling you get from eating the chocolate. Soon, you’ll associate eating chocolate with feeling better and before you know it, the action becomes habitual. Habitual actions become a routine that is very hard to break. Once an action becomes a routine, you will do it without thinking. For example, every second we inhale and exhale without realizing it, or when you perceive danger, you instinctively run away.
Habits are so hard to break because they have become part of our automatic response system. It’s like going on a route for the first time versus going on it for the 100th time. The first time you’ll find yourself clearing branches and bushes to make your way through. The 100th time? You probably can run to the end with your eyes blindfolded.
Your Habits Control Your Life
Imagine setting up high goals for the coming year. You are at the beginning of the year and feel super excited about it. You believe the world is your oyster and you can conquer all. Imagine how nice it would be to achieve all your goals.
Then, a few days go by and the initial enthusiasm fades. You are faced with real challenges in keeping up with your daily plan towards the goals. For example, if you set out to work on your novel 1,000 words a day, you find it hard to keep it up because some days you are just lazy or can’t find the inspiration to write anything.
If you set a goal to quit smoking, you may find yourself craving for tobacco to the point that you convince yourself to have just one cigarette today, because you are not feeling great. Tomorrow you will go back to being tobacco-free again. One cigarette doesn’t matter that much, right? Well, your mind will keep rationalizing your action to justify it. Don’t fall for it. It won’t do you any good except sabotaging your future. Some examples of rationalization include:
- You decide to not take a class in coding because you are afraid that you will never be good at it but you tell yourself that you don’t have free time to do it.
- You postpone starting on that dream novel of yours for fear of it never gets published. You tell yourself that you’ll do it when you have free time and don’t have to work a day job. That probably will not happen.
- You stay in a job that you hate because you are afraid of the job search process (which may involve a lot of time spent on applications and interviews and getting rejections). You rationalize your decision by believing that if you stick it out long enough, things will change and you’ll probably get a promotion or a bigger salary.
- You stay in an unhealthy loveless relationship for fear of being alone. However, your mind tells you that you need to stay with your partner because you can’t support yourself being alone, or your partner will change, or you won’t be able to find a new partner after that.
As you can see, rationalizing will sabotage your future even though you will feel good at the moment. People who rationalize are just fooling themselves. When you decide to stray away from your discipline and have that one cigarette, or postpone doing a task till tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow), your mind avoids guilt by finding excuses. That’s why it’s so hard to get rid of bad habits for most people. At the beginning, they have their strong will to guide them. After some time, their will gets weaker and rationalization takes control.
How to Get Rid of Your Bad Habit
The key to being able to successfully break a bad habit starts with good observation. Start taking note whenever you are in a situation that provokes the bad habit you want to get rid of. Once you’ve identified the trigger and the perceived reward, it becomes easier to break yourself of the habit.
Can’t vs Don’t
A research published by the Journal of Consumer Research found out that changing one word in what you tell yourself can make a huge difference in your chance of success. The experiment instructed one group to use the words “I can’t” and the other to use “I don’t” when mentioning their unhealthy food choices. For example, if you have a problem with eating too much chocolate, you can either tell yourself: “I don’t eat chocolate” or “I can’t eat chocolate.”
These people were then offered either a chocolate bar or a healthy granola bar at the end of the study. They have the volition to choose either one of the two. Surprisingly, 64% of the people who used the “I don’t” words picked the granola bar over the chocolate. On the other hand, people who used “I can’t” opted for the chocolate bar most of the time, only 39% chose the granola bar.
Why does this happen?
The researchers believe that by using “I don’t”, the person felt more empowered to carry out his action than by using “I can’t”. After all, CAN and CAN’T imply that we are obliged to not do something because somebody or something forbids us to. As soon as that limitation is removed, we might just as well do the action.
The next time you speak about your habits or self-talk to yourself, watch your language. If you find yourself using CAN’T too often, change it immediately and practice being mindful of what word you use when talking about your habits, work, goals, preferences. It may make a big difference in your life.
Change of Environment
The environment we live in has a direct impact on our health, behavior, and state of mind. Imagine having to work in a noisy environment where your colleagues talk loudly on the phone next to you. Will your productivity be affected?
Is your home a safe, secure and organized place? In “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”, the author talks about the life-changing experience people have after they tidy up their home. Two things that appear to have nothing to do with one another are in fact interrelated. Would you be happy that you could potentially solve major problems in your life by tidying up your house? Many people would be. If you would love to know about the method, I suggest you read the book. You’ll see that many of the items you keep in the house can be thrown away without affecting your routine. Keeping unused stuff in the house will not only cluster it but also cluster your mind.
Your bad habit may have something to do with the environment you are living in. If your fridge is filled with soda and soft drinks most of the time, it will be hard to stop your addiction to soft drinks. Likewise, if you are trying to get rid of tobacco but a tobacco pack is always within your reach, that’s going to be a difficult endeavor.
If you want to stop smoking, remove tobacco from your environment. If you don’t want to binge eat chocolate, don’t stock it up. If you want to go to bed early, form the habit of going to bed at a determined time and don’t play with your phone while you are still awake. At first, it may feel like a waste of time staying in bed with your eyes wide open and not doing anything. However, after some time, your body’s biological clock will alter itself to adapt to the new schedule.
Beware of the Trigger
If you tend to go on a shopping spree when feeling stressed, put most of your salary in a savings account and get rid of all credit cards. Leave only a modest amount for monthly expenses.
If you tend to switch on the TV and binge watch one program after another for hours every night, hide the remote somewhere that’s not easy to reach when you sit down on the sofa.
If you smoke when you are bored, throw away the cigarettes or never keep them within reach.
Being aware of the triggers can help you gradually turn an unconscious behavior into a conscious one. For example, whenever feeling stressed, you remember that stress can trigger a need to smoke in you. Now, you have a choice: Whether to do it, or not.
Replace Bad Habits with Good Ones
Eliminating a bad habit is tough. When you decide not to follow your mind’s automatic response and refuse to smoke, suddenly there’s a void to fill. That’s why it’s important to replace a bad habit with a good one to make it work. Your bad habits may harm you, but they do serve your needs. For example, a person who constantly browses social media at bedtime may do it to fulfill their need of being connected. A person who smokes does so to cope with stress.
If you stop smoking without replacing it with a healthy habit that yields a similar benefit, you’ll soon find yourself going back to the old habit because the underlying need still goes unfulfilled. Finding a good, healthy habit to replace the old one is key to successfully breaking bad habits.
One Step at a Time
You can’t go from smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day to none at all in 24 hours and expect to stay away from tobacco for the rest of your life. As much as we’d like it to be true, old habits don’t die easily. Even if you succeed in not smoking for a week or one month, it’s highly probable that you will go back to smoking after some time if you cut yourself off tobacco suddenly.
Doing it one step at a time is a much healthier way to get rid of a habit permanently. Instead of smoking 2 packs a day, reduce it to one and a half for one week, then one for the following week, and so on. Your body will have time to adjust to the reduced dose of the stimulating substance.
Another example is for people who want to go to bed early. If normally you only sleep at around 2-3am, forcing your body to fall asleep at 10pm will be a tough task. Instead of creating more resistance to your effort, make it easier by breaking up the end goal into multiple milestones. For example, by reducing your bedtime 15 minutes at a time, you’ll have a higher chance of success since your body’s biological clock will adapt better.
Breaking a bad habit requires not just determination but also a sound approach. By learning how habits are formed and being aware of your triggers, you can develop a plan to gradually replace the unwanted habit with a healthy one. Don’t let bad habits prevent you from achieving what you want in life. Start with a plan today and be persistent. You’ll be surprised at what you can achieve!