Breaking Your Unhealthy Habits
Picture yourself walking into your favorite restaurant. Outside, a man and a woman chat about nothing particularly important while they take drags off of their cigarettes, faces scrunched and red from the cold air. You think to yourself, “Why must they smoke those disgusting cancer sticks? I’ll never understand. At least they have to take it outside now,” as you belly up to the bar and order your favorite cocktail after a particularly long day at the office. You pull out your cell phone and check your work email, even though you’ve had it up to *here* with everyone at work today. Next to you, a man picks the last lonely buffalo wing out of a forest of carrots and celery; he thoughtlessly tosses the bones into a now dozen-high pile and takes a deep gulp from his pint of beer.
Assuming you’re human, you have a bad habit or two. Or ten. Even when we’re painfully aware of how bad the habit is for us, it might not be enough to break ourselves of them. It’s no mystery to any smoker out there that smoking has been shown to cause cancer, lung disease, heart disease, the list goes on. But people continue to smoke, and new people start smoking every day.
Chances are, you’ve tried more than once to quit your bad habit. Bad habits, though, tend to stick. They become hardwired into our brains and simply deciding that you’re going to “quit” the habit usually results in a minor period of cessation, followed by a redoubling of the bad habit.
It’s important to understand how a habit works. Our brains process enormous amounts of information every second. They are able to filter out things that require more attention while automatically processing things that we have experienced countless times before. These automatic processes are what govern our habits. First, we experience some sort of stimuli that calls our brains’ automatic processes into action. Second, our brain filters the stimuli and recalls the customary course of action or behavior to take when faced with these particular stimuli. Finally, we experience the reward from this particular course of action.
In this sense, it’s understandable that our attempts to break bad habits with the cold-turkey approach fail. The stimuli that triggered our bad habits are likely still something you are experiencing, and your body feels an incredible urge to meet the stimuli with its customary response, the bad habit, in order to experience the reward. So we end up engaging in the bad habit again, plus we have the added “bonus” of feeling like a failure.
If you are planning on trying to break a bad habit to ring in the new year, there’s hope. Take the following steps to give yourself the best chance at stopping the habit for good:
Analyze your bad habit with the trigger-behavior-rewardÂ framework. While you have tried to stop the behavior in the past, a more complete understanding of the bad habit is necessary to give yourself a chance at success. Take a week or two and write down every time you engage in your bad habit. What was it that madeÂ your brain trigger you to engage in the bad habit behavior? Stress and boredom are very common triggers. Be brutally honest with yourself about your triggers; there may be some deep-seated root causes that need to be addressed in order to give yourself a fair shot at ceasing the bad habit.
Find a positive substitute for the bad habit. As mentioned earlier, you might not be able to avoid the triggers for your bad habit. Try replacing the bad habit with a positive substitute that comes with a similar reward as the bad habit. If work stress causes you to go home and overeat, head to the gym and get a workout in instead. The exercise will cause your body to release endorphins that will help curb the anxiety induced by the stress. While you will still be hungry, you are less likely to indulge in the fats and sweets that your body’s stress response craved. If you go to the bar to get drinks and socialize, try finding another rewarding social activity that doesn’t involve alcohol in order to replace the rewarding social aspect of going to the bar.
Find strength in numbers. Whatever your bad habit is, you are not alone. You might have a friend that is also experiencing the same bad habit. Verbalize your desire to change to them and hold each other accountable. If you don’t have a friend experiencing the same bad habit, you can probably find a local support group where you can commiserate with people going through the same experiences.
Do your best to eliminate triggers and make bad habitsÂ inconvenient. If you realize while doing your trigger-stress-reward journaling that certain people in your life are responsible for the stress triggers, it’s time to critically analyze your relationship with them. Examine if there are trigger situations that you can successfully avoid in the future. If walking past the donut shop on the way to work causes you to pick up a half-dozen, find a new route.
Prepare yourself for slip-ups. It’s unrealistic to believe that you will be immediately successful in breaking your bad habit. The important thing to remember is not to give up when you face hardship. If you break down and buy a pack of cigarettes, critically examine the trigger that caused the behavior. Make sure to forgive yourself, learn what you can from the situation, and keep trying to be the person you want to be.