Have you ever tried to break a bad habit? If you have, you know exactly how hard it can be. Life would be so much easier if we could just stop our bad habits, but unfortunately just stopping is way easier said than done and it doesn’t lead to a sustainable behavioral change.
The science of habit formation and behavioral change has come a long way. We have a much better idea of how our brains work and we can use this information to help us overcome our bad habits.
Take a moment to think about ALL of those little things you do on a daily basis with very little conscious thought or effort. When your alarm goes off in the morning, you roll over and turn it off, check your phone notifications, make your bed, brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed, cook and eat breakfast, make your lunch, grab your keys, drive to work, and buy a coffee all before 8a. These activities become habits. We do them every day over and over until they become ingrained in our routine and we don’t even need to think about them. If we had to consciously think about every single action, we would be completely exhausted. These daily habits help us conserve our energy for more challenging tasks.
Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t differentiate between good and bad habits. All of our habits (both good and bad) are ingrained in our brain, ready to go on cue. When we think about our habits, we can think about them as 3 components: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward. Let’s say we have a habit of checking our phone first thing when we wake up. The trigger is waking up (most often to your alarm). The behavior is checking your phone. The reward is the good feeling we get when your notifications light up. For all of our habits, there will always be a trigger that prompts us to perform the behavior and then some sort of payoff or reward at the end.
The more we repeat this process of responding to a trigger, performing a behavior, and receiving a reward, the more we will continue with that habit. When you’re trying to break a bad habit, you have to remember that you’ve spent weeks, months, or years with this behavior that has become embedded in your programming.
In order to break a bad habit, we need to disrupt the loop! The first step is to become aware of the behavior and more importantly what is triggering that behavior. When you notice your bad habit, stop and ask yourself what triggered you to do it.
The next step is to make a choice to change. You have to take responsibility for your actions. In this step, it can be really helpful to reflect on WHY you want to break this habit. Think about the benefits if you do change your habit and the consequences if you don’t.
The next step is to make sure you’re not being exposed to the trigger. If your bad habit is eating cookies while watching TV at night, you can remove the chocolate from your house or you can do another activity at night other than watching TV. You won’t always be able to completely eliminate the trigger, but there are ways that you can reduce your exposure.
The next step is to replace the behavior. We are wired to do things that make us feel good. If our bad habit is resulting in a reward that brings good feelings, it can really override our willpower to change when we’re exposed to the trigger. In this case, we can try replacing the behavior with something else that will provide us with a similar reward.
You also want to get support. Having a network to support and hold you accountable can definitely help keep you on track. Tell a friend about your habit. Surround yourself with people who participate in the behaviors you want in your life.
Make sure to monitor and track your behaviors. Keeping a log of the days you complete your new habit can provide a visual reinforcement that you’re putting in the work. We use a habit tracker in our nutrition challenges. It’s a great daily reminder to stay on track and help you build the healthy habit into your lifestyle.
We’ve all heard the saying “old habits die hard.” While it can take time to break old habits, it can also take time to create new ones. Practice your new habit consistently until it becomes part of your everyday life. We’re looking for sustainable changes, behaviors that can free up your energy to feel good and live your life without the consequences of bad habits.
If you need help breaking bad habits and building healthy habits into your lifestyle, please reach out! I’d be happy to help work through these steps with you.