Breaking Bad Habits

There is a saying “good habits are hard to develop but easy to live with, bad habits are easy to develop but are hard to live with”.  We all have habits that we could live without, but we continue with the bad habit because breaking a habit can be challenging, especially if you don’t approach the issue with a plan and understand the root of the problem.  Here are some examples of habits you might want to change: Smoking, eating too much, eating processed foods, not exercising, drinking coffee or other beverages with caffeine in them, eating too much sugar or fat, drinking alcohol, procrastinating, etc. 

Understanding bad habits.

If there is a bad habit you would like to change then it’s important to understand how and why bad habits are developed. There are usually 3 components to a bad habit;

  • Trigger: The stimulus that starts the habit
  • Routine: The doing of the habit and behaviour itself
  • Reward: Temporary stress relief to feel better

For example;

  • Trigger: You had a long day at work
  • Routine: Eat a chocolate bar
  • Reward: You temporary get stress relief and feel better

Every time you repeat the behaviour pattern it becomes reinforced in your brain until it eventually becomes automatic and becomes a habit.  Now that you understand how bad habits operate and formed let’s look at some strategies to help you break the bad habit for good.

Steps to breaking a bad habit.

  1. Awareness: You must become aware of your habits. What is this habit exactly? How is this bad habit or group of bad habits affecting you? How is this habit affecting others? What are benefits and cost of having the bad habit and not having the bad habit?
  1. Identify your trigger in detail; To help you do this ask yourself these questions when you are doing your bad habit;
    • Where am I? 
    • What time is it? 
    • How do I feel? 
    • Who else is around me? 
    • What did I just do that set off my craving?

Once you identify the details of your trigger, you then have to work on minimising your trigger exposure, for example this might mean walking a different way, find a healthier snack, not associating with people that reinforce the bad habit etc.

  1. Develop an action plan; Be specific about your goal and put a realistic time frame of when you want to achieve your goals. You can also break your goal into stages, so you don’t just stop the bad habit ‘cold turkey’.  Then make a commitment to achieving your goal within the set timeframe.
  1. Write a list of substitute behaviours; Specify a different response to the trigger, ideally this should be a good habit. For example;
  • If you overeat, find healthy alternatives
  • If you procrastinate, prioritise by doing the hard tasks first.
  • If you associate with negative people who impact your mood, develop a new social group of positive people
  • If you have a smoking craving, do some exercise
  1. Seek support; Get support from others, especially other people who have already made changes in their life, read about people who have been successful in breaking bad habits.
  1. Persevere and don’t give up; Breaking a bad habit can be hard especially in the initial stages, but it will get easier once you have replaced your bad habit with another habit that is more beneficial to your wellbeing. When you are having thoughts of giving up and when you say to yourself giving up the bad habit is too difficult, try visualising the rewards for following through and the costs of not following through on breaking the bad habits.

By following these steps (especially persevering) you should be able to break that bad habit.  You might also find this Tedtalk by Judson Brewer helpful to further understand a bad habit and how to break it https://youtu.be/-moW9jvvMr4.

It is important to note the difference between a bad habit and an addiction to alcohol, drugs etc where these steps may not be enough, and you may require additional professional help and support.

Written by

Kimberley Aguet