Breaking habits is hard. You probably know this–especially if you’ve ever attempted to stop yourself from refreshing your Instagram feed non-stop (especially at the dinner table!), biting your nails, or grazing at night. Thankfully, just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task. Because habits take practise and repetition to form, the same is true when it comes to breaking them. To eliminate those pesky habits (forever), follow the 3 steps outlined below!
#1 – Identify the triggers for your bad habit
One of the main theories regarding the formation of habits, as popularized by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, is the idea of the 3Rs:
- Reminder – The context (i.e. cues or triggers) where you tend to engage in the behaviour. If you’re a smoker, for example, the cue might be seeing the lighter on your desk.
- Routine – The behaviour associated with the reminder. Spotting your lighter cues you to light one up.
- Reward – If the routine you take part in causes enjoyment or relieves distress (as is evident with smoking), the pleasurable release of dopamine in your brain makes you want to do it again.
Triggers are what leads you to repeatedly indulge in your bad habits. If you can avoid these triggers, you’ll be able to break your bad habit. So, spend a few days tracking your habit to see whether it follows any patterns. Then set out to remove those triggers. Throw away your lighter if you’re a smoker, for example.
#2 – Find a (good) substitute for your bad habit
Instead of trying to stop doing something, research highlights that you might have an easier time to start doing something else instead. According to a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, smokers who tried to retrain their thoughts about smoking wound up thinking about it more. Also, those who suppressed their thoughts about eating chocolate in a 2008 study published in Appetite ended up consuming significantly more chocolate than those who didn’t.
Say you want to stop reaching for doughnuts when you're hungry at work. If you simply try to avoid getting doughnuts, you might fall back into the habit when you can't resist hunger. Or when a colleague buys it during lunch (they smell so delicious!) But if you bring in a packet of dried fruits and nuts to snack on during the day, you'll likely feel satisfied and won't see the need to indulge in doughnuts.
#3 – Be patient and don’t be discouraged by the occasional slips
You shouldn’t expect to break your bad habits overnight–be patient with the process. Try not to get upset or frustrated with yourself, especially when you slip up. And more importantly, do not use that slip as ‘proof’ that you can never change, and end up quitting trying to break your bad habit. Instead, try to figure out why you slipped. Maybe you identified the wrong trigger. Consider whether changing your approach might help you stay more on track.
At the end of the day, breaking a bad habit requires a whole lot of mindfulness. You need to identify your triggers, find a suitable (and enjoyable) replacement for your bad habit, and understand the reasons behind the occasional slip-ups. Need some help with mindfulness? The Daily Routine Journal could be all you’re looking for. Check out how others have used it to take charge of their lives on our review page here.