How to Break Bad Habits

Breaking bad habits isn't about stopping, but substituting.

It's easy to think of habits falling into black and white categories -- exercising good, biting your
nails bad. But habits also sit on a continuum in our ability to exercise control over them: Some
are mild, like taking off your shoes and dumping in the middle of the living every night; others
moderate like eating dinner in front of the TV, or drinking too much when you go to a party;
and then those that are strong and addictive — like smoking, the nail-biting, watching porn.

Habits become hard to break to because they are deeply wired by constant repetition into our
brains. And when you add pleasure to them — like you have with drugs or porn, for example —
the pleasure centers of the midbrain get fired up as well, and continue to fire long after the
habits stop, creating the cravings that folks struggle with.

But habits are also patterns of behavior and it is the breaking of patterns that are the key to
breaking the habits themselves. Usually there is a clear trigger to start the pattern. Sometimes
the triggers are emotional — the wanting a drink or cigarette or nail-biting driven by stress.
Other times the trigger is more simply situational and environmental: You see the TV and couch
as soon as you hit the front door, and now your brain connects the dots, and eating dinner in
front of the TV on the couch is not far behind. More often it is a combination of both — the mix
of social anxiety and the party environment leads to your heavier drinking.

But these patterns are also usually wrapped in larger ones: This is where routines come to run
our lives. Here is where, as soon as you hit the front door after work, the dumping the shoes,
the grabbing a beer, the sitting in front of the TV with dinner flow together without much
thought, just as your morning work-break automatically leads to you and your friend Kate going
outside and chatting while you each have your mid-morning cigarette.

Overall these auto-pilot habit / routine behaviors are evolutionary-wise and practically a good
thing; They keep us from having to re-invent the wheel of our daily lives by making an infinite
numbers of decisions all day long, which in turn, provide us with more brain-space to think
about more important and creative things. The downside of these routinized patterns comes
when those patterns land more in the bad-column than the good.

So if you have habits you want to break, here are some steps to get you started:

Define the concrete behavior you want to change or develop
Getting more exercise or treating your boyfriend better may sound great but they give you little
to mentally or behaviorally grasp onto. You need to prime the habit-breaking process by
thinking in terms of specific, doable behaviors — like not dumping your shoes in the living room
but putting them in your closet; not eating in front of the TV but at the dining room table; going
for a half-hour run 5 days a week; sending your boyfriend a complimentary text once a day,
rather than sending him nothing or negative ones. Drill down on the concrete.

Identify the triggers
The refrigerator may be enough of a trigger to have you go for the beer once you hit the door,
just as seeing the junk food on the counter will when you get bored. Or it may be that spark of
social anxiety that cranks up the drinking when you think of an upcoming event with more than
3 people. By identifying your triggers, you have a way of pushing back and not having that autopilot kick in.

But some people have a difficult time doing this. If this is true for you, that you have a difficult
time knowing what emotionally triggers you, you can work backwards — notice, for
example, when you are craving a drink or biting your nails, and slow down and use your
awareness of these behaviors as signals to ask yourself: What emotionally is going on?

Deal with the triggers
Because we’re wanting to break patterns, you now want to do something about the triggers
themselves. Here you proactively get the junk food or beer out the house, or when you realize,
while driving home, that you are stressed, and you deliberately sit in the car and listen to music
that you like while sitting in the driveway, or do a few minutes of deep breathing to relax,
rather than automatically marching into the danger-zone of the kitchen.

Develop a substitute plan
Breaking habits isn’t about stopping but substituting. Here is where you come up with a plan for
managing the party without drinking — getting a mocktail and hanging close by your good
friend, rather than grabbing a drink and being stuck with a bunch of strangers. Or if you are
concerned about your binge-eating at night, plan to bring 2 cookies up to your bedroom at
10:00 and resolve not to go back downstairs for the rest of the evening to keep you from
finding yourself wandering around the kitchen all evening and veering towards kitchen. Or in
order to avoid the temptation of internet porn, plan to unplug your computer when you get
home and stay away from electronics, and instead settle in with that new book you got for your
birthday, or call your mom, all to avoid falling into your set routine.

The key here is mapping this out before that triggers have a chance to kick in.

Change the larger pattern
Here we are widening the context that surrounds the habit-pattern. Here you go to the gym
during your lunch-break because you know going after work is too hard when you are so tired.
Or you realize you don’t sit at the dining room table for dinner because it is so loaded down
with papers and such, and so you need to start by both keeping the table clear and setting the
table for dinner when before you leave for work.

By looking at and changing the larger pattern you are actually not only making it easier to tackle
the core habit, but are practicing putting your willpower in place on smaller, easier patternbreaking behaviors. This can add to your sense of empowerment.

Use prompts
These are reminders to help you break the pattern by creating positive triggers and alerts to
keep you on track: Putting your running shoes at the side of your bed so you see them first
thing in the morning, or putting an alert on your phone to leave for the gym, or check-in with
yourself and gauge your stress level on the way home before it gets too high and out of your

Get supports
Get a running buddy, or a party buddy, or someone you can call, or an online forum you can tap
into when those cravings start to kick in and you are struggling. Talk to our friend Kate about
going to get a quick cup of coffee together rather than standing outside with your cigarettes.
Go to AA meetings.

Support & reward yourself
At some point in your efforts to break a habit you reach a day or point where you go: Why am I
bothering to struggle with this? You are feeling discouraged, you feel you are emotionally
making your life seemingly harder, and there is little payoff.

This is normal, the low-point in the process, and you need to keep your eyes on the prize.
But you also need to make sure you build in a payoff. Here you deliberately pat yourself on the
back for having dinner at the table rather than the couch, even though you won’t immediately
feel better. You take the money would be spending on alcohol or drugs or cigarettes and save it
up to buy something else you’ve always wanted -- a new outfit, a high-end mini-vacation. Again,
you sink into having folks around you to cheer you on and help you realize that you are making
progress and on the right path.

Be persistent and patient
That’s the name of the game, of course: realizing that it will take time for the new brain
connects to kick in, for the old brain-firings to calm down, for new patterns to replace the old.
Don’t beat yourself up for slip-ups or use them as rationales for quitting. Take it one day at the

Consider getting professional help
If you’ve done the best you can and you are still struggling, consider seeking professional
support. This may be a doctor who can prescribe meds for the underlying anxiety
and depression, a therapist who cannot only help you unravel the source and driver for your
habits, but also create some steady support and accountability.
While all habits are not created equally, the overarching goal is the same, namely, you taking
more charge of your life, being proactive rather than reactive, deliberate rather than routinized.
Ready to take on the challenge?

chevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram