Stopping a bad habit is usually much more difficult than starting a new habit, especially if it’s a bad habit you’ve had for a long time.
The reason bad habits get started in the first place is throughout our day we experience a wide range of feelings and sensations, which can unconsciously trigger an action to fulfill or solve such feeling—all without a second thought.
Once the best action is found to deal with that feeling, it becomes ingrained in us and we tend come back to it whenever we experience that feeling again. Typically these solutions are short term solutions that can provide instant gratification, but can harm us in the long run— physically and mentally.
Think of the following examples:
- Smoking cigarettes
- Long video game sessions
- Alcoholic drinks after each work night
- Picking up and checking your phone constantly
- Browsing Instagram constantly
- Buying a coffee and donut every morning
They provide instant gratification to solve some kind of feeling (the trigger). Typically, solutions that provide instant gratification have a long term consequences. But because that instant gratification is so fulfilling and rewarding, it makes it extremely difficult to give up that instant gratification and remove it from your routine.
Your current habits are not necessarily the best way to solve the problem you face, they are just the methods you learned to use. Once you associate a solution with the problem you need to solve, you keep coming back to it — an explanation for why habits are hard to break.
James Clear, Atomic Habits
Here are six tips from Atomic Habits that helped me be break my worse habits:
1. Write Down the Bad Habits You Want to Quit and Why
This will help make your promise to yourself more concrete, almost like a contract between your conscious and unconscious self.
Just as important, write down why you want to stop each one. Usually this turns into crafting a new desired identity.
For example: I don’t want to eat a donut for breakfast every morning. Why? Because I don’t want a sugar rush in the morning with a crash in the afternoon. I don’t want to eat all those calories and it will help me lose some weight. New identity: I live a healthy lifestyle.
The ultimate form of intrinsic motivation is when a habit becomes part of your identity. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity. True behavior change is identity change.
James Clear, Atomic Habits
Although this seems like you’re just playing a trick on yourself at first, once it becomes ingrained in you, it’s a powerful resistance to temptation.
2. Remove the Cues That Trigger Your Bad Habits
Although it may be difficult to pin down exactly what causes you to suddenly desire your bad habit, once you’re able to stop the cue (or limit it as much as possible), you’re much more likely to not desire and therefore do your bad habit.
Next time you have a desire to do the bad habit in question, think about why you want to do it. Did something you see caused it? Something you felt? Something in your environment?
For example, if you’re constantly picking up and checking your phone, maybe it was a notification that caused it? Once you’ve identified the cue, you can remove it as best you can. In this case, you can turn on do not disturb mode and stop the notifications from occurring.
3. Increase Friction Between You and Bad Habits
For extremely ingrained habits, sometimes removing the cue is not enough so you can go a step further by adding friction.
Not only can you turn off notifications, you can also put your phone in another room out of reach. Then if you felt the urge to pick it up, you’d have to get up from where you are and go get it, all the while remembering that you put it in that room for a purpose — a promise you made to yourself that you don’t want to break.
Other examples: throw out the alcohol you have in your home to stop drinking at home after work. Store your video game consoles in the closet so you’d have to take it out each time and set it up just to play. Delete Instagram from your phone so every time you want to check it you have to download the app again.
4. Replace a Bad Habit with a Good Habit
Believing the why, removing the cue, and increasing friction is likely to help you stop most of your habits. But there could still be unfulfilled feelings that leave you feeling empty or deprived.
If this is the case, you may be using too much willpower to stop your bad habits—and that can only last so long before you give in. Perhaps it’s best to find a different and better solution to solve that feeling, rather than trying to ignore it.
For example, replace the donut in the morning with a fruit smoothie. Replace the drink after work with a decaf latte. Replace the video games with a great book.
5. Record Your Progress in a Habit Tracker
Seeing your progress and how far you’ve come can also be a great long term source of motivation. With a good system for tracking your habits, you’ll be able to see the number of days (or weeks) in a row you refrained from a bad habit. As that number increases, you’ll want to break it less and less.
You can track habits using pen and paper, a Google Sheet, or an app. After trying a few of these methods, I settled on an app being the easiest to use and because it was the easiest and fastest way to track habits, it was the system I could actually stick to using every day.
The app I use is called Done. Check out my review.
6. Reward Yourself for Resisting Your Bad Habits
Finally, give yourself a reward for refraining from a bad habit. If you don’t have a donut in the morning for a week, treat yourself to a nice breakfast on Sunday mornings.
If you don’t drink at home after work for a week, reward yourself with a drink out on Saturday night. If you don’t play video games for a week, reward yourself with a long session just on Sundays.
Using these strategies, I was able to completely break, or significantly reduce, some bad habits of mine, and even replace some of them with positive habits.
What’s your best to tip to break a bad habit?
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