Habits form when we perform behaviors without thinking. If you automatically flip on the light switch when entering a room, you have a habit. Because it’s so automatic, we wrestle with our bad habits. Fortunately, psychologists have developed several skills to help us drop our old habits and build better ones. If you struggle with habits like procrastination, nail-biting or swearing, these tips can seamlessly erase those bad behaviors. From habit tracking to goal setting to jumping back after relapsing, we’ve gathered all the tricks. Learn how to transform your habits and forget that you even had a bad habit.
Recognize The Bad Habit And Convince Yourself That You Can Change
Psychology emphasizes the importance of recognizing a need for change before committing to it. To break a bad habit, we must accept that the habit needs changing. You can motivate yourself by earnestly talking to close friends and family about your habit.
Once you’ve decided on the need for change, tell yourself that you can change. Repeating inspiring mantras such as “I am capable of breaking this habit” or “I am strong enough to change” can inspire you to embark upon the habit-breaking path.
Write A Pros And Cons List About Your Bad Habit
Psychologists use this technique to prevent patients from resorting to habits when their emotions are high. The pros and cons list has four quadrants: pros of doing the habit; cons of doing the habit; pros of not doing the habit; cons of not doing the habit.
Say your bad habit is eating sweets. A pro of eating sweets is that it provides instant relief. A con of eating sweets that it’s unhealthy. A pro of not eating sweets is that you feel more confident and healthier. A con of not eating sweets is that you have to do something else.
Discover What Triggers Your Bad Habit
Psychologists have determined how habits work–cue, action, and reward. The cue is a sight or sensation that tells us to perform the action. For example, if you walk by a McDonald’s on your way to work, the sight and smell of the burgers are your cue to eat lunch there.
Since habits are so ingrained in our lives, we often don’t notice the cue that prompts us to act on them. If you identify the cue of your bad habit, you can avoid that cue. For instance, walking a different route to work will prevent you from ordering McDonald’s.
Keep The Cue Out Of Sight
When we come across our cues every day, it’s easier for us to slip back into the bad habit. “Out of sight, out of mind” does work wonders here. If we don’t see the cue, we don’t think about it as much, and we won’t feel as tempted.
The same strategy can work reversed. You can place cues for positive habits in your line of sight. If you want to eat healthier, you can keep your fruits in a fruit bowl instead of in the fridge.
Make The Bad Habit Harder To Perform
Stanford psychologist B.J. Fogg said about sticking to habits, “Don’t focus your motivation on doing Behavior X. Instead, focus on making Behavior X easier to do.” For bad habits, we can do the opposite–we make them harder to do.
Smoking becomes a lot more difficult if we don’t own any cigarettes. Playing video games becomes harder when the console is inside the closet. We’d rather do something else than fumble with the cords and install it. Redesign your space so that your bad habits are hard to even start doing.
Alter Your Environment
In one study, scientists discovered that students who transferred schools were more likely to change their habits. This is because locations can be a stimulus to force us back into old habits. Though most of us can’t afford to up and move out, we can alter our environments in other ways.
For instance, if you want to spend less time on social media, you can log out of all your accounts. Or, you can keep your phone in a drawer of your work desk, and not on top of it.
Swap Out An Unhealthy Habit With A Healthy One
A lot of us might feel empty or antsy if we don’t do something when we usually perform our bad habits. The best way to conquer bad habits isn’t not doing it, but doing something else instead. That way, we earn an extra reward for forming a new, healthier habit.
Instead of eating dessert, you can brew a cup of sweet tea, or eat some fruit. Instead of picking at your skin, you can mess with a fidget cube.
Create Reasonable Goals
“I need to lose 30 lbs, so I’m going to run a marathon for the first time next month!” That goal might inspire us, but it isn’t reasonable. If you set a goal too strenuous to achieve, you’ll set yourself up for failure and lower your self-confidence.
When breaking habits, be honest with yourself. Break down big goals into small steps. Losing 30 lbs in two months is extreme, but cutting out Frappuccinos from your day is more comfortable and reasonable. These goals build your self-confidence every time you reach them, so you’re more likely to break the habit.
Set A Goal Date
In a 2013 study, psychologists discovered that people who wrote down their goal were more likely to reach it. When planning short-time and long-term goals, set dates by which you can monitor your progress. Visualizing that date approaching will motivate you to take action.
For instance, you may desire to lose weight in time for your wedding. Or, you may wish to improve your wardrobe for the warmer seasons. View these goals as markers for your habit-breaking. You may not have thoroughly destroyed the habit, but when these dates arrive, you can look back and realize your progress.
Make Small Changes And Increase Changes Slowly
If you wake up around 8:00 am each morning, waking up at 5:00 am one day may seem like too much of a jump. We’re less likely to follow through with habits that are too tasking. Instead, create tiny changes in your habits, and increase them over time.
If you wake up at 8:00 am, get up at 7:30 for a week. Then 7:00, 6:30, 6:00, 5:30 and finally 5:00. You can adjust to getting up early over time, and the gradual transition will make you more likely to stick with it.
Claim Your New Identity
We can mold our actions into an identity that we claim. In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, students were divided into groups of resisting chocolate by saying “I can’t” versus “I don’t.” The “I don’t” group resisted 64% of the time, whereas the “I can’t” group resisted 29% of the time.
Nir Eyal of Psychology Today calls this approach “progressive extremism.” Assuming the identity of someone who broke the habit makes it easier for us to not cave into the habit. This also works when you say “I’m not a smoker” versus “I’m trying to quit.”
Track Your Progress
Habit-trackers have recently risen in popularity, most likely because they work. In a 2015 study published by the American Psychology Association, researchers found that monitoring your progress increases the likelihood of succeeding in your goal.
You can track your progress through an app or calendar. For instance, if you succeed in avoiding your habit, you can circle the date in your planner. Seeing several weeks of habit-breaking in a row will encourage you tocontinue the streak.
The reason we even engage in bad habits is due to the rewards. After the cue and the action, we receive a bonus that makes us want to repeat that habit. Whatever new habit you want to replace an old practice with, make sure that it gives you some satisfaction.
You might eat plain chicken breast instead of Arby’s, but the bland meal won’t encourage you to keep eating healthy. Eat a healthy meal that’s both tasty and filling. Find new recipes that you enjoy making and eating, so you receive a reward from your efforts.
Don’t Feel Discouraged By Your Mistakes
Forgiving ourselves for our slip-ups is easier said than done. But in reality, we all make mistakes. Habits root themselves so deep into our brains that they’re difficult to avoid. If you slip up, know your error does not “prove” you cannot change.
You can remedy the feeling of failure by affording yourself a slip-up day. Make sure your unhealthy habit does not repeat for more than one day. We can bounce back easier after one bad day than after three bad days in a row.
Fine Yourself For Every Mishap
Along with rewarding ourselves for good habits, we can punish ourselves for bad habits. These punishments make the habit less appealing to us. We stop ourselves before giving into the habit because we don’t want to pay the fine.
A swear jar represents this concept well. But you can implement fines not related to money. For example, every time you catch yourself chewing on your hair, you must do five push-ups. Of course, these fines work better if you have another person keeping you accountable.
Review When You Relapse
Falling back into your habit can be a learning experience. Since setbacks are normal and expected, you can use them as a means to understand how to prevent your habit in the future.
Perhaps you can write down answers to why, when, where and how. Why did it happen? When? Where did you give in to the habit? How did you feel before, during and after you engaged in the habit? Then in the future, you can prevent yourself from encountering that situation again.
Remind Yourself In Tempting Situations
Let’s say you want to lower your drinking, but your brother’s bachelor party includes bar hopping. How do you cling to your resolution while surrounded by temptation? A quick method is to set up reminders for your future self.
You can set alarms that will remind you of your goal while you’re out. Or, you can ask your habit buddy to control what you drink. Even in tempting situations, we can make the habit as difficult for ourselves as possible.
Recruit A Team Member
To keep yourself accountable, you can recruit a friend or family member to join you in the habit-breaking. Essentially, we can peer pressure ourselves into actually breaking the habit.
Your habit buddy can join you in performing a new habit that replaces your undesired one. Or, they can text you every couple of days to see how you’re doing. Even if they don’t break that habit with you, they can check in on you to ensure your progress.
Employ The If-Then Plan
A psychologist in the 90’s found a way to change habits through implementation intention, also known as an “if-then plan.” The if-then plan identifies your cues and then outlines what you will do should you encounter that cue.
For instance, say you want to cut down on overspending. Your if-then plan could include, “If I go to the grocery store, then I will only buy what is on the list.” Or, “If I want to buy something online, then I will wait at least three days to see if I still want it.”
Redefine How You See Your Bad Habit
We fall into bad habits because they satisfy us in some way. When we perform the habit, we can justify it by arguing that it calms us or improves our lives in some way, even if we know that to be false.
If you pay attention to the thoughts that surround your bad habit, you can redefine them. Should you catch yourself thinking that biting your nails calms you, you can follow the idea with “biting my nails hurts.” Dislike the habit, and you’ll do it less often.