Over the past few months, you’ve probably picked up a few habits you might not be thrilled with right now. Maybe your new normal has you staring mindlessly at the fridge looking for something snacky (and packing on a few extra pounds). Putting your workouts off ‘til the gym reopens. Or managing your stress with another drink, another bag of chips, or another hour of scrolling through your social media feed.
A lot of my clients have noticed that the bad habits they used to have are resurfacing too. Which is totally normal given the circumstances.
There are two factors typically associated with starting a bad habit. Stress and boredom. If you’ve been self-isolating for the past four months, I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.
In a study from the University of Buffalo, researchers looked at the coping strategies of children ages 8-12 when placed under stress. Each participant was asked to complete a speech stressor on one day and read magazines the next. After each of the activities, they were given a free-choice period with access to food, screen time, or play time. Researchers found that the kids were more apt to choose an unhealthy behavior like snacking or watching TV than they were to go outside and play.1
Other research highlights the detrimental effects of boredom on bad habits, including one study where participants were asked to complete a high-boredom task and a low-boredom task. Results showed that the higher-boredom task increased their desire for less healthy foods as a way to distance themselves from the experience of boredom itself.2
Of course, sometimes there are deeper issues at work. It could be a fear or limiting belief that’s causing you to create and hold onto a habit that’s not in your best interest.
Why Habits are Hard to Break
If it feels like your bad habits are nearly impossible to break, you’re not alone. And there are three important reasons for this.
They’re wired in your brain. When you repeat a behavior enough times, it actually changes your neural pathways.3 And those pathways get stronger each time you repeat that behaviour. Basically, your habits rewire your brain.
They provide a benefit. On the surface, it might be hard to see what benefit snacking mindlessly or laying on the couch has. But upon deeper examination, those habits prevent you from feeling something you don’t want to feel (stress, panic, boredom, etc.).
They’re part of a pattern. Are you triggered to eat when you walk into the kitchen? Or pour a drink once you’ve shut your laptop for the day? Often times, your habits are part of a bigger pattern that may be associated with emotional or environmental factors.
Break Your Bad Habits for Good
It’s helpful to understand how bad habits get started and why they’re so hard to break. But it’s not enough. You’ve also got to know and put into practice the strategies that allow you to finally stop the habits that continuously interfere with your goals.
Strategy 1: Acknowledge it.
It’s hard to change something if you don’t realize what that somethingis. Be aware of the times you spend procrastinating, grabbing a “healthy” protein bar instead of making lunch, pressing the snooze button, or any negative behaviour you want to change.
ACTION STEP: Write down when and where your habit typically takes place, and what triggers it to start.
STRATEGY 2: Make it more difficult.
I once had a client who couldn’t stop binging on nuts. The simple answer to that is to stop buying them! According to James Clear, one of the leading authorities on habit building (and habit breaking), you’re less likely to complete a bad habit if it’s more challenging to do. So, if you always sleep in, put your alarm in the other room. If the TV takes up too much of your time, hide the remote. If you can’t stop eating nuts, get them out of the house.
ACTION STEP: Brainstorm 1-2 ways you can make your current bad habit harder to do.
STRATEGY 3: Reframe your situation.
Reframing is a strategy I use all the time with my health coaching clients. Say you want to exercise more and getting up early is the only way to squeeze it in. Changing your mindset from I have to wake up early to work out to I get to wake up early can be a total game changer when it comes to breaking bad habits. Same goes for ditching your quick toast-for-breakfast routine for a more leisurely meal of eggs and bacon. Try saying, I get to enjoy an epic protein forward breakfast instead.
ACTION STEP: Jot down a habit you want to break, using the I get to strategy to reframe it.
STRATEGY 4: Hold yourself accountable (or work with an accountability partner).
There’s a big difference between people who say they want to change their bad habits and those who actually do. When you hold yourself accountable for your actions, you’re telling yourself that you’re worth it — that this change is important enough for you to make it a priority. I’ve been working with an accountability partner to help me break my habit of mashing the snooze button. Because my partner and I have the same goal, we help each other stay accountable.
ACTION STEP: Get clear on what habit you want to break, the reasons you want to break it, and how you’ll hold yourself accountable.
STRATEGY 5: Replace it with a good habit.
Knowing that stress and boredom are the two biggest elements for starting (and continuing) a bad habit, it’s crucial to have a good habit in place for when those two feelings come on. Say, for example, you’ve got the habit of dealing with work stress by mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. What if you went for a quick walk around the block or did a short breathing exercise? By replacing the habit you want to break with one that gives you the same, or similar benefit, you’re more likely to stick with it.
ACTION STEP: Notice the emotion that triggers your bad habit. Then, think of a positive behaviour to do instead to alleviate that feeling.
How to break bad habits (recap)
Make it more difficult
Reframe your situation
Hold yourself accountable
Replace it with a good habit
What bad habits are you trying to break? What strategies have you used that worked — or didn’t work? Tell me about your experience in the comments below.
Erin Power is an NBHWC board-certified health coach and the Coaching and Curriculum Director for Primal Health Coach Institute. She’s also the co-host of Health Coach Radio, the podcast by health coaches, for health coaches. Erin lives outside of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, on a hobby farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.