Do you have a habit you’d rather not have?

I bet you do!

We all do. We’re human.

I have a ton – I eat too many sweets, I work too late in the day, I spend too much time on screens, I don’t move as much during the day as I should, I check social media far too often, etc….

So what should we do about these? First of all….

What is a bad habit?

I would argue that a lot of the habits we have are neutral. Let’s take, for example, driving somewhere you go all the time (work, kids’ school, kids’ activities, etc.). You drive that route by habit. If you’re not thinking about it, you’re taking the route you always do. Even the way you get into the car physically is a habit.

We all have great habits! Maybe we move every day, or we start our day with a glass of water, or we do a mindfulness routine, or we have a healthy breakfast. It doesn’t matter who you are, I guarantee you have some healthy habits.

But what makes a habit bad? There isn’t one set answer, but a good way to tell is if you have a habit that is absolutely not serving you, or is a bit self-destructive, or is hurting people around you. If you have a habit that is causing you to feel terrible, or be sad, or exacerbate stress, it might be time to examine how to break that habit.

Why do we have bad habits?

Mostly it’s to escape stress or boredom.

Sometimes our habits are used as significant coping mechanisms. If you have a habit that is helping you manage extreme stress or anxiety or anger or frustration, or any other emotions, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to break the habit without addressing those underlying emotions. It IS possible to do that on your own, but I do highly recommend gathering some other support, like a psychologist or psychotherapist.

But by and large, bad habits come from us wanting to do something different that distracts us from our current reality.

My top 4 tips to breaking a bad habit

  1. Make the habit more difficult to do. If your habit is eating a certain type of food you don’t want to eat, don’t buy that food. If your habit is hitting snooze on your alarm 3 or 4 times, move your clock or phone across the room so you have to get out of bed to turn it off.  
  2. Emphasize the benefits of avoiding your bad habits. Write this out like a journal entry, and be sure to acknowledge the emotions you’ll experience around successfully breaking the habits (like pride and excitement) but also the emotions you’ll experience trying to break the habit (frustration, annoyance, etc.).
  3. Use a habit-buddy to make yourself accountable! If you need to answer to someone, chances are you are less likely to engage in a behaviour.
  4. Use a reward system. If you are trying to quit smoking, for example, for every day you don’t smoke, give yourself a certain number of points (this is entirely arbitrary, and something you can make up yourself). Once you’ve earned 1 day/1 week/1 month of points (again, up to you), you get to cash it in for a reward (a new shirt, new news, vacation, etc.).

What if those don’t work?

The real way to break a bad habit is to move it out of the automatic part of your brain, into the conscious part of your brain. And it can be very difficult to do that when we do those activities without thinking. If the tips above don’t help you break a habit, here’s something else you can try.

Try to bring awareness to the time right after you’ve initiated your habit. Let’s say you have a habit of checking Instagram regularly, but it’s distracting you and not really serving you. When you catch yourself scrolling through Instagram, the first thing is to bring awareness to it. What you want to do immediately is a good habit. Follow it right away with something you want to incorporate into your life. Maybe you go for a walk or do 10 squats or grab a glass of water.

By triggering the positive habit to happen immediately after the negative one, you can actually rewire your brain. This rewiring helps you bring the habit you’re trying to break to the conscious part of your brain, which is exactly where you want it! There’s no rule that you can never check Instagram. But you want to do it consciously and be present for the process, rather than scrolling mindlessly.

Where to start?

Like always, the place to start if you want to change ANY habit at all (either adding in a good one or removing a bad one) is awareness. We can’t change anything we aren’t aware of. If you want to change your social media habits, use an app on your phone to track when/how often/how long you’re using social media.

If you want to change habits around snacking, you’ll need to be aware of when you’re eating, when, and why.

If you want to quit smoking, you’ll need to be aware of when you smoke, anything that triggers your craving for a cigarette, any habits that are connected to smoking, etc.

Awareness is always half the battle!

Let me know if you need any support with breaking habits, or building good habits to get you sleeping better tonight.

Elizabeth Brothers Health