How to Break Bad Habits

A show of hands here. Chronic cardio buffs? Halloween candy freaks? Caffeine fiends? Stress addicts? French bread fanatics? Bad health habits come in all forms, we know. But the question of the day is this: how do we finally rid ourselves of those compulsive longings, those simultaneously desired and resented routines? Is it simply a matter of will power? Is it clever strategy? Permanent exile from the world where these pet practices and items can’t taunt us with their presence? We’re interested in what your tips (and those past/present vices) are, but here are some ideas to get the proverbial ball rolling – and that monkey off your back.

1. Dig up the who, what, when, where, why and how.


More than just a journalist’s framework, you can take advantage of some digging yourself. Sure, the “what” (the habit itself) probably seems pretty clear, but as you look to revise your routine, consider the context of your target habit. Does a certain friend always try to cut into/distract your gym time? When do you feel most vulnerable in the face of sweet snacks? Where is it hardest to turn down that cup of coffee? How does your family’s routine seem to sabotage your own best efforts and goals? Why do you think you keep coming back to the habit, be it anything from breakfast cereal to workout-less weekends to an occasional (gasp!) cigarette? What’s behind that habit anyway? What are you holding onto? Why does it have the sway over you that it does? Is it a stand-in or excuse for something else going on in your life/psyche?

2. Plan.


As you pinpoint the backdrop that keeps you hooked to those bad habits, take the opportunity to plan some strategies that you’ll rely on when faced with temptation. Maybe it’s an alternate entrée for the Wednesday lunch you have with friends. Perhaps it’s a thoughtful but casual way to decline after-work drinks or a good excuse to change your workout time to a more productive, less distracting time. Write (or record) a pep talk for yourself to dig out when you need it. Or, if it’s more your style, a kick-your-own-butt, what-are-you-thinking speech. What will you do or turn to when you find yourself turning toward instead of steering clear of the habitual path?

3. But don’t plan too much.

Live in the Moment

Sometimes it’s easy to put so much energy into planning to give up a habit that your efforts simply allow you to put off the actual leap itself. How many of us have been stuck circling in this pattern for more weeks/months/years than we’d care to admit? At some point, you have to bite the bullet and say that you’ll deal with the difficulties as they come. Decide today to not give into the habit, and then be willing to say the same tomorrow. That’s how it starts.

4. Toss the triggers.


The obvious point here is to get rid of any items whose sole purpose will be to tempt you away from your best intentions. (As in, bring any remaining Halloween treats to work the morning after, or just be really generous in the last part of the evening. Better yet, give out something that doesn’t lead anyone else down that Pied Piper path to begin with – more help on that this week.) If your triggers are less object-oriented and more contextual, toss the typical routines that encourage bad habits. Meet friends for a walk in the park instead of for dinner. Take up a fitness or dance class with your partner instead of spending Friday nights parked on the couch. Put the kids in charge of their own morning routine and get in a workout or meditation session instead. Taking on a long-held habit usually means taking charge of your life in a new way.

5. Spread the word.

Talk to Someone

For those people who are more socially motivated, letting the word out can give you added incentive to stay on track. No, it doesn’t mean you have to shout your intention from the rooftops. It’s more about the people you’re closer to. Letting a few close friends or family members know your intention can make the goal seem more real. Look at it as a supportive group helping you “stay true” in your pursuit. Your success is ultimately your effort and commitment, but it always helps knowing you have a crowd (or even close pal) cheering for you.

6. Pair up.

Couple Running in Snow

Do you have a friend or family member who’s also looking to give up a bad habit? Join forces. You’ll not only have some added support, you’ll also have the motivation of living up to your end of the bargain. When the going gets tough you can share strategies and humor to keep you both on course. One caution: be sure to not become dependent on that person’s participation. It’s ultimately your pursuit, whether the other person sticks with his/her choice or not.

7. A page a day.


Ever notice the exhaustive chronicles of weight loss, smoking cessation and the like on everything from MySpace to Flickr Commons? Sure, there’s the social element of announcing your intention and success, but we think there’s more to the project than that. Whether public or private, recording your pursuit (in all its flesh and blood humanity) can be therapeutic. Particularly if you’re a more introverted person, bringing your thoughts to the page in whatever form (journaling, doodling, extemporaneous collage…) can offer a sense of personal release and allow a space for you to be 100% candid, no holds barred. Chances are you’ll be able to look back on the collection with gratitude and likely a few good laughs.

8. Periodic incentive plan.


We approach the idea of “reward” cautiously because, like planning endeavors, rewards can sometimes act as divergent and ultimately derailing factors. What’s at the real root of breaking a bad habit, after all, but undertaking contemplation, cultivating discipline, framing a new routine or even outlook surrounding one’s health and daily practice? Rewards, while they can be a nice pick-me-up when you need them, don’t do much to bolster the real process. Our advice for incentives? Make them health-oriented. Design a “health indulgence” day, whatever that may look like for you.

9. If you falter, explore what went awry.

What Went Wrong?

Remember that “flesh and blood humanity” bit? We’ve all been there. There’s the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” (Then there’s the alternate ending – “you’re running about average”.) Instead of beating yourself up about it, take a day and then do the necessary post-mortem. What do you think inspired the lapse, whether it be a weak moment, an ill-considered decision, or a self-sabotaging act? What about your routine do you think you need to change this time around? Do you need some new strategies, a realignment of life priorities, or some deeper deliberation about what’s fueling the habit?

10. If you succeed, study what worked.

High Five with Dog

When it comes to health (or life), we don’t believe in resting on your laurels. Good health choices are ultimately about getting up every morning and choosing to do the “right” thing for your body. Every day requires a renewed commitment and a willingness to be present and accountable in the moment. But you have a lot to learn from your own past success. What did you tell yourself that made you get to the gym this weekend? How did you let go of the stress during the really bad day last week? What did you choose to do this morning when you wanted to go for your morning coffee and donut but didn’t? Knowing what you’ve done to resist temptation in the past can build up your “toolbox” of strategies and also reassure you in less confident moments that you have what it takes to kick the habit.

Now we want to invite your comments and additions. What have been your most difficult health habits to ditch? What approaches, tips, and mantras have worked for you? (And which ones haven’t?) Share your ideas, successes and questions with other readers. And thanks for your input.

pupski, -bast-, numstead, zen, lightsoutfilms, Ces’t June, M.V. Jantzen, paperbackwriter, mike_1630, dullhunk, paulieparker Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

10 Simple Steps to Help Motivate a Friend

Diet Change and Partner Dynamics

Making the Switch to Primal Living in 6 Easy Steps

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