How to Break a Bad Habit and Replace It With a Good One
Bad habits. We all have them. From smoking to biting our nails, plenty of people have simply embraced and leaned into their bad habits by just calling them “personality quirks.”
However, when you’re ready to break those habits, it might be difficult to really know where to start.
We here at PYM are no strangers to bad habits in daily life, and just like everyone, we wanted to learn the best ways for breaking bad habits and replacing them with healthier ones. We’d like to share what we’ve learned with you, in hopes that you can start to take control of your bad habits whenever you’re ready to.
Before We Start…
Before we get into the steps, there’s something important to keep in mind and be aware of. Digging into your bad habits can often trigger negative thoughts and self-judging. Any time you take a close look at some of the things that have shaped who you are as a person, there is the possibility to stumble onto things that you may have forgotten, both good and bad.
Habits, even bad habits, don’t always have to stem from a negative place. It’s just something that you’ve done repetitively enough times that it becomes second nature. Don’t place any judgement on yourself. Take things as they are, take the reality that is right in front of you, and don’t get caught up in the muck and mire of what-ifs and self-consciousness.
If you start to feel too overwhelmed with the process of correcting and replacing your bad habits, there is absolutely no shame in seeking help through friends, family, or therapy. Sometimes going through the process with others, especially a trained professional, really can make a world of difference, especially if you’re dealing with habits and triggers that are the result of a traumatic event.
Patience, patience, patience. Give yourself both the space and the understanding to work through your issues, and you’ll find a deeper sense of peace. Nothing worth having is easy, and changing a bad habit into a good one definitely falls under that saying.
Step One: Identify Your Bad Habit
While this may sound obvious, it’s a step that should absolutely not be skipped over. It’s easy to say that you want to stop stress eating or drinking soda, but that’s incredibly vague. What helps is taking your specific habit and breaking it down further into actionable steps. Once you can really get to the core of the issue, you can better develop the process that you need to take to change it into a more positive one.
If you’re not really sure what your bad habits are and you have people close to you that you love and trust to tell you the truth, just ask. Just make sure that you steel yourself for getting an actual answer. Often, people outside can see the situation a lot more clearly than you can, and they aren’t nearly as emotionally involved as you are, so they may not necessarily break the news to you softly. Be careful if you do decide to go this route, as it can be incredibly difficult to hear criticism from the people you care about. Make sure you only ask people you know will respond with love.
Be as specific as possible, down to every tiny detail. If you have multiple bad habits, it may be a good idea to write them all down and rank them. Which habits most affect your life? Which are costing you the most money? Which habits stress you out the most?
There are two schools of thought on how to approach bad habits after identifying them: you can either start with trying to work through some of your less difficult habits so that you develop the self confidence you’ll need to soldier on, or you can just jump right in and tackle the biggest bad habit on your list.
Step Two: Pay Attention To Your Triggers
Every bad habit is triggered by something. Whether that something is stress, being around people who are bad influences, or even just boredom, learning more about why you have developed that specific habit and what sets it into motion is invaluable.
This is another occasion in which writing things down can help you see whether or not you are successfully breaking your habit. If you journal your way through this often difficult process, you’ll be able to develop a sense of clarity about the situation while also giving yourself a piece of your own history to look back on to reflect on all your progress. Journaling, in general, is a great way to help maintain positive mental health. It’s far far more than just jotting down whatever comes to mind.
Step Three: Learn How To Deal With Your Triggers
Once you identify the triggers that may be causing you to continue your bad habit, you can develop a plan on how you can better avoid or neutralize them.
If your triggers are things that you can remove from your physical environment, you should make every attempt to do so. For example, if you want to try to eat healthier, get all of the junk food out of the house before trying to make the change. If you want social media out of your morning routine, construct a new routine that involves self-control and keeping your hands off your phone until you absolutely need to check emails, messages, or missed calls.
Set yourself up for success in the first place, and you’ll find habit changes to be a whole lot easier.
In learning how to deal with your triggers, it’s important to work on your ability to be mindful, too. Mindfulness can help you continue to live in the present, and release the control that your old habit patterns may have on you. It’s as simple as learning to pay attention to your breath and doing some breathing exercises, even during times of struggle and stress.
Practice makes perfect, so don’t expect that you’ll be an expert on mindfulness the first time. In fact, there really is no such thing as being “good” at mindfulness… you just learn how to accept what's going on around you, which, believe it or not, can be a powerful motivator toward new behaviors that are better for your health and well-being.
Step Four: Develop Your Substitute Habit
Now that you’ve started working on avoiding your triggers and trying to deal with them appropriately if they do come up, it’s time to start working on developing your substitute habit.
Breaking your bad habit is a nice goal, but isn’t always the most successful when done alone. Instead of creating an absence, turning a bad habit into a good (or, at least, better habit) is an ideal way to not feel like you’re “missing out.” It’s also far, far easier to replace a habit than it is to stop, which is often referred to as the
Habit Loop, or “Habit Replacement Loop.”
When you’re planning and developing replacement habit formation, pay close attention to the timing behind when it will be used. You don’t want a replacement habit that will kick in after the triggers associated with your bad habit will be in full effect -- you want something that would naturally occur before that. You also want something that will give you tangible positive feedback, so that you want to continue doing it over a long period of time. After all, if the healthy habits form but it isn’t something you want to do, it will be difficult to continue to apply to your life.
Step Five: Reward Yourself
No doubt about it, replacing a habit is hard work. There will be plenty of times where you wonder if it’s actually all worth it. Rewarding yourself for all of the work you’re putting into changing your habits is one of the best ways to make sure that they stick.
However, you have to be careful with developing positive reinforcement for any habit. If you use too much of a reward, you can actually accidentally create a new habit in the process, and it won’t necessarily be a good one.
Rewards should be mostly used during the times where you feel like you’re the most stressed out about the process, and you need a little bit of a pat on the back to make sure that you stick with it. You can even consider setting small goals that you can use to keep yourself motivated during the entire process. Anything that you can do to “trick” yourself into feeling like the journey is worth all of the struggle is a good thing. Just choose wisely. Snacking on ice cream to reward yourself for not eating sweets is just one example of counterproductivity that many people don’t even realize isn’t conducive to their goals -- it's not really a reward, it's a slip up, and while slip ups are okay and will be part of the process, this just isn't the way to go about it.
Bad habits can be tricky to break, but it is possible if you know where to start. Approaching your habits with patience and understanding, and replacing them with habits that are better for you is a way to honor everything that you’ve gone through while keeping an eye on future wellness.
With some dedication toward putting the hard work in to change your bad habits, you can shed the negative from your life and replace it with positive, healthier habits that support and further your life. You just need to believe in yourself.