Do you reach out for your phone and skim through your office emails first thing in the morning? Are you a natural singer under the shower? Do you leave the toilet seat up only to be yelled at by your wife every single time? Blame it all on the habit.
What Is A Habit?
A habit is a behavior that is performed with minimum thinking or cognitive effect. These are repetitive actions which we have performed over a period of time and have now become entrenched in our brains as neural pathways.1
If we analyze our daily behavior, we can see that most of it is habitual. Habits do not require much conscious effort.2 It helps us save time on performing daily activities without much thinking. And for this same reason, it is more difficult to change.3
Various Habits That Form Easily
Habits can be divided into three types4 depending on the nature of activities:
Motor Habits: These are habits related to our physical actions such as standing, sitting, running, walking, exercising, maintaining body postures, etc. Such activities are controlled by the muscular activities of the body.
Intellectual Habits: These habits are related to psychological processes requiring our intellectual abilities. Observation skills, accurate perception, logical thinking, reasoning ability, etc. are some examples.
Habits Of Character/Emotions: Certain habits are an expression of our character. For example, helping people in need, trusting people, being honest, a friendly manner, time management, cleanliness, tidiness, etc. Since these habits also have an essence of feeling and emotion, they are also called emotional habits.
How To Break A Bad Habit
Habits are hard to change. That’s a fact. So, even as you prepare to break a habit, be willing to cut yourself some slack and allow falls. Here are a few steps for you to try while trying to break a bad habit.
1. Identify The Function
We brush our teeth regularly to avoid going to the dentist. We check our email first thing at work in order to help us organize our day. Bad habits are no different. They too have a function. This routine that we fall back on helps us to get through our daily life without having to think too much about the next step. These habits sustain us without us having to give it a second thought. Identifying what prompts the habit is the first step to nipping it.
2. You Can’t Simply Ignore It
Trying to ignore a bad habit might sound like a good idea but the opposite is more likely to lead you to success. To break a bad habit, increase your awareness of what you are doing in the first place. Experts suggest that it helps a lot if you can understand the behavior and its cause before you try to change it.
3. Record It
Record every detail of your habit as and when you indulge in it. Note down how often you are doing it, what circumstances got you to do it, what you were thinking of when you did it, etc. This too will help us identify and understand the behavior we hope to change. Another perspective is that when you write something down on a paper or type it out on a computer, it becomes more real. Researchers have found that writing out a goal and keeping it handy to look at every day or as many times you need, can help you stay on track.
4. Change Your Passwords
Puzzled? It helps to change your passwords to commands that remind you of the change in the habit you are trying to achieve. For example, if you want to stop smoking, change your password to “quit smoking”. It is believed that every time you type out this instruction, you are reinforcing the need for change in your brain, making it slightly easier to achieve your goal.
5. Don’t Focus On What Not To Do
Like writing down something reinforces it in your mind, focusing on what you will do rather than what you will not do is a better way to get good results in breaking a habit. When you focus on not doing something, you are confusing the brain because the brain’s habit-learning system doesn’t really learn anything by “not doing”. A determined “I am going to eat only two meals a day” or “I will eat only one slice of pastry a week” will get far better results than “I will not eat junk food”.
6. Say It Out Loud
Sometimes, we reflexively fall back into the habit we are trying to break. More often than not, we tend to rationalize why we should engage in that bad habit “just once”. Experts suggest that when we go through these thoughts and justifications in the moments before engaging in the habit, say it aloud. It is likely that when we hear ourselves saying “I know this is bad, but one more time won’t hurt me”, the argument will not sound convincing even to us. And this might just be what we need to help strengthen our resolve.
7. Prep For An Obstacle Course
The next step in breaking a habit is to realize and prepare for all the obstacles you will face along the way. This will prepare you to identify the obstacles as they come and effectively dodge them. Most people bank heavily on their willpower and initial enthusiasm. This is a treacherous trend, feel experts, as too much positivity can make people take their obstacles lightly and fall under pressure. So, a little negative thinking is far better than too much positive thinking as it can keep you prepared for the worst.
8. Ideal Environment
In the race to beat the bad habit, we often forget about the environment that is packed with temptations and enticements leading to doom. A little too harsh, do you think? Imagine you are trying to cut down on sugary foods. But your fridge may have a leftover cake, or your colleagues may be in the habit of going out for a dessert break. Trying not to think of the cake in the fridge will only get you thinking more and more about it and make you depressed–maybe even depressed enough to give in and indulge. Going out with your colleagues and refusing to have dessert will only get your colleagues to insist you must. After all, what are friends for? The best way to overcome this is to set your environment to an ideal scene. Donate the leftover cake, skip the dessert outing with colleagues, or better still, tell them of your goal to stop them from tempting you to have it.
9. Find A Friend In Need
Getting a friend to share the same goal is probably one of the best things that will work for you. You can keep each other motivated and ensure both of you stay on track. And even if you fall, your friend can help you get on track again.
10. Cut Yourself Some Slack
Habits are hard to break and will take a lot of time and effort. You can be sure there will be many a slip, too. But don’t lose heart. A slip shows you what types of situations will make you fall for the temptation and how you can avoid them in the future.
How Long Does It Take To Break A Bad Habit?
Now, this is a crucial aspect everyone would like to know: How long does it take to break a bad habit? While there are some studies which say you can break a habit in a minimum of 21 days, more recent studies suggest an average of 66 days of staying on track to get rid of a bad habit. You might be interested to know that in the study, the actual number of days ranged from 18 to 254 days, indicating that it can take a very short or a very long time.5
Now that we know breaking a habit is possible and how to go about it, let’s just give it a shot.
|↑1, ↑4||Habit Formation: Basis, Types and Measures for Effective Habit Formation. Psychology Discussion.|
|↑2||Jager, Wander. “Breaking bad habits: a dynamical perspective on habit formation and change.” Human Decision-Making and Environmental Perception–Understanding and Assisting Human Decision-Making in Real Life Settings. Libor Amicorum for Charles Vlek, Groningen: University of Groningen (2003).|
|↑3||Neal, David T., Wendy Wood, and Jeffrey M. Quinn. “Habits—A repeat performance.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15, no. 4 (2006): 198-202.|
|↑5||How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real worldy PHILLIPPA LALLY*, CORNELIA H. M. VAN JAARSVELD, HENRY W. W. POTTS AND JANE WARDLE.|