How to break a bad habit

I’ve been writing a lot about creating good habits and doing the activities you’d like to do in your life. But I was recently asked, “How do you break a bad habit?” I’m glad you asked.

When it comes to breaking a bad habit, the point is not to have superhuman discipline or to bully yourself into avoiding some behavior. You need to look for ways to make the habit you’d like to discontinue more difficult or less desirable. For practical tips on how to do this, I’ll be drawing from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits.

1. Make it invisible

Reduce your exposure to the cues of the habit. Change your environment, so it doesn’t attract your attention to the behavior you’d like to avoid.

If you’d like to check your phone less often while working, hide your phone from view and perhaps even put it on a high shelf, in a drawer, or in a different room.

If you’d like to spend less time on social media, remove the app shortcuts from the home page of your device.

If you’d like to eat less junk food, don’t leave it on the table but, rather, put it in a drawer or high up on a shelf where you can’t see it.

2. Make it difficult

A related strategy is to not only make something invisible but to also make it difficult. You can increase the number of steps you need to make to actually do the behavior.

If you’d like to watch less TV, put the remote control in a difficult-to-reach spot, in the closet, or even in the basement. Or you could unplug the TV, so it makes it that much more difficult to turn it on. It’s surprising how well this works because, apparently, that tiny extra effort to plug in the TV is enough to interrupt the automatic behavior of turning on the TV, and people remember that they didn’t actually want to be watching TV.

Some people go as far as to put their TV in the basement, but that seems a little extreme to me. I also know of someone who wanted to drink less beer, so he put his beer in the garage. In this way, if he really wanted to have a beer, he could, so he didn’t feel deprived, but he avoided the issue of opening a beer without actively deciding he wanted it.

Bringing this into the work context, if you want to avoid spending time on unimportant tasks or distractions, you can use website blockers. They can block your email, messaging platforms, news sites, and social media for a duration of time, making it more difficult for you to get distracted.

3. Make it undesirable

A more advanced way to break a bad habit is to make it unattractive on unsatisfying in some way. This can be a bit more difficult, but it’s very effective.

Reframing

You can reframe your mindset by highlighting the benefits of avoiding the bad habit. Spending less time on social media means you will have more time for reading or for your family. Eating out less often means you’ll have more money for quality food to cook at home or for other things you want to buy.

The main point about reframing is to turn something that feels limiting (e.g., reducing time on social media) into something that feels enriching (e.g., increasing reading time). In that way, instead of feeling deprived and like you’re limiting yourself, you can appreciate that you’re actively shaping your life and choosing how you’d like to live.

Accountability & Consequences

An accountability partner can help you avoid an undesirable habit. You can find a buddy, someone who’d also like to make the same change, or you can find someone who’s willing to ask you, on a regular basis, how it’s going with the habit you’re trying to break and to remind you of your motivation.

Some people even sign a habit contract or otherwise create consequences for themselves if they engage in the undesired habit. One person who wanted to avoid sleeping in set an embarrassing tweet to be published automatically if he didn’t wake up in time to cancel it. Many people make contracts with their training coaches where they need to pay money if they eat junk food at a time that wasn’t agreed upon beforehand.

I also came across this strategy for healing heartache. A friend of mine underwent a difficult breakup, and he couldn’t get over his ex for a long time. He made an agreement with his best friend that every time he mentioned his ex’s name, he’d give his friend five euros. If he really wanted to talk about her, he could, but it was in his interest not to do it all the time.

To be honest, I find the approaches that include punishment a bit too strict. I prefer to be intentional about habit change instead of being scared into behaving correctly. However, it works well for some people, so it is key to know yourself and pick a strategy that will help you achieve your goal. And if you don’t know yet what works for you, well, give these strategies a try!

For me, the best way to avoid an undesirable habit is to combine environment design (make it invisible and difficult) and to reframe the old habit. This combines the practical strategies of changing my surroundings and changing my mindset, setting me up for the best possible behavior change.

What works for you when you try to change an undesirable habit? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Featured image credits: Photo by GEORGE DESIPRIS from Pexels

To improve an area of your life, track your habits

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have come across some blog posts telling you that the way to keep your New Year’s resolutions is to create habits (including my own). Let’s say you heed the message: what do you do?

Monitoring leads to awareness and thus improvement

Let’s start with the basics: If you don’t know how much (or how little) you’re engaging in an activity, you don’t know what you need to change. If you want to read more but you don’t know how much you’re currently reading, then it’s very difficult to influence the behavior effectively.

When you start tracking a behavior, you are often surprised in the beginning. I had the goal of reading more academic articles. When I started tracking this, I realized that in the month of November I only read one full article! A single one–and I am a scientist!

Excuses abound: I took vacation in November, then I had to catch up on work and on homework for my course, I was ill… But excuses are not the point. The question is: did it happen or not.

It is normal that some months the desired behavior will happen more than others. The goal is not to perfectly complete all your habits all the time. The point is to monitor how you’re doing and adjust as soon as you notice things aren’t going as you’d like them to.

Monitoring can help you know when you need to change your behavior.
Image credit: FOX (Pexels license)

Tracking allows you to flexibly adjust your actions

You might say, “What’s the point of tracking my habits then? I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, and I’ll probably turn out alright.” Yes, you probably will, but “alright” may not be what you wished for. If I hadn’t noticed that I only read one article in November, I wouldn’t have changed my behavior in December. Because I knew I was neglecting this area, I was able to compensate for it soon enough, reading three articles in December (even with Christmas, etc.).

If we neglect an area in our life for long enough, it will begin to suffer. For example, an employee’s work performance may begin to drop, a student may fall behind in class, or a relationship may deteriorate.

Fortunately, by simply bringing awareness to the different areas of our life, we can notice when something isn’t going well and adjust our actions in time.

Identify your main areas of life and the core habits

Start by identifying the main areas of your life. Tip: those are reflected in your priorities.

My main areas of life include: Well-being, Health, Partner, Family, Friends, Science, Writing, Learning, Finances, Home, Relaxing, and Purpose.

Then, identify the core habits that support each of those priorities or areas of life. These are the activities that really move you forward in a certain area of life. For example, my core habits for Health are the following:

And my core habits for Learning are the following:

Track your core habits

Once you’ve identified your core habits, you can begin to track them. You can do so on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I personally have one google sheet for daily habits, one for weekly habits, and one for monthly habits. It takes me about two minutes per day (in the evening) to look them over and note the habits I’ve completed.

I’ve actually printed out these google sheets and put them on my coffee table in the living room. These days, I’m experiencing a powerful pull to doing things on paper, so I’m doing this on paper as well. It feels nicer to me, and it’s softer on my eyes than looking at a monitor yet again.

If you prefer to do this on your phone or tablet, there is a myriad of apps available. I used to use HabitHub, and it was great. You can use these tools to geek out on monthly averages and graphs. I thought I’d love that, but in fact I didn’t care about it too much.

Now with my google sheets (on paper!), I calculate the weekly average (once a week) and the monthly average (once a month). At my Monthly Review, I enter the score for each area into a digital spreadsheet, just so it can be saved and easily accessible throughout the rest of the year and beyond. And I’m done.

Each week, I become aware of where I did well and where I didn’t do so well. I no longer have to vaguely answer the question, “Did I take care of my health this week?” but instead I can look at the specific habits I have identified as important for my health and see how I did.

This allows me to rapidly adjust my behavior in the desired direction. Thus, I can avoid more serious issues that I could have seen coming.

Resources about habit tracking and identifying main areas of life

I’ve written more about habits in several blog posts that you can find here.

I adopted this type of habit tracking divided into areas of life from Chris Guillebeau and his google sheet. I have adapted it to suit my needs, but the main inspiration came from there.

I was first introduced to this idea by Brendon Burchard and his book High Performance Habits (the audiobook is available to listen to for free as episodes in his podcast). 

For more ideas on habit change, I can recommend two great books:

Do you track any habits? Are there any habits you’d like to track, and have you tried it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

The practical guide to keeping your New Year’s resolutions

Have you set some New Year’s resolutions but are unsure of how to follow through? Make them into habits by following the practical steps below.

Champagne glasses, fireworks, smiling faces everywhere. The evening of December 31st can be a magical time when anything seems possible. Perhaps we even set some resolutions for the new year. At this celebratory time, they seem perfectly realistic and within reach.

Low-angle Photo of Fireworks

In the celebratory spirit of New Year’s Eve, everything seems possible.

But in order to keep our New Year’s resolutions, we need to make them into habits.

Image credit: Pexels (License)

Turn your New Year’s resolutions into habits

How do you follow through with your New Year’s resolutions? Habit formation, a big topic in behavior science, comes to the rescue. The best way to ensure an activity is done consistently is to create a habit.

To start a habit, create implementation intentions, which are simple but highly effective if-then planning statements:

When I finish eating lunch, then I will go for a 15-minute walk.

When I am eating breakfast, then I will read a book for 30 minutes.

This also works for specific time-dependent planning:

If it is Tuesday or Thursday at 17:00, then I will go to the gym and exercise.

Focus on one habit at a time

Importantly, don’t try to change too many things at once. In order to create lasting change, work on one habit at a time. Thus, pick one of your New Year’s resolutions and work on that first.

The rule of thumb is that you need to give yourself two weeks to practice a habit. If you stick to the habit 75% of the time during those two weeks, you can then add another habit.

Track your habits

You need to measure how consistently you’re doing a habit. In this way, you will be aware of your progress and you will also know when you’re ready to add another habit.

Create a simple chart where you record how often you complete your habit:

Make the habit very specific in order to remove any doubt about when you should do it. Every time you complete the activity, put a check mark. If you don’t do it, put a cross.

A chart filled out over two weeks could look like this:

In order to determine your performance, add the number of check marks (in this case, 11) and divide them by the number of days in two weeks (14).

In this case, the performance over the two weeks is 11/14 = 79%. Since that is above 75%, this person is ready to add another habit. If it were below 75%, this person would need to continue working on this habit for another two weeks.

Review your New Year’s resolutions (or habits)

Once you’ve established a habit (i.e., passed the 75% threshold), move on to your next New Year’s resolution and make a habit out of that. If you notice that you’re struggling with a habit you had established earlier, feel free to spend another two weeks on it.

Make sure you revisit your New Year’s resolutions once a month or so. You can have a simple list of resolutions/habits you’d like to keep and post it on your fridge door or save it on your phone. Alternatively, you can use an app such as Habit Hub to help keep track of your habits and monitor your progress.

Good luck! I hope these tips help you steer your New Year in the desired direction, so you can confidently keep any New Year’s resolution you choose. Let me know how it goes by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

This blog post first appeared on Donders Wonders.

3 strategies for forming new habits

The main strategies for habit formation are implementation intentions, habit stacking, and environment design.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear discusses the basics of habit formation as well some more advanced techniques. There are three main habit formation strategies he outlines.

1. Implementation intentions

Having an implementation intention refers to making a plan for when you will do a certain action.

“When situation X arises, I will perform action Y.”

For instance, “On Tuesdays at 15:00, I will go swimming for 1 hour.”

Or, “When I wake up, “I will meditate for 10 minutes.”

This is one of the most researched types of habit formation. Numerous studies show that people who have specific plans for when to do an action are much more likely to carry out that action than people who only have a vague intention to do so (thus, implementation intentions).

This also refers to the simple recommendation of putting the activity on your calendar. This is why fitness instructors, music teachers, and other types of coaches often say, “Make a date with yourself for when you will do the activity. And then keep the appointment.”

2. Habit stacking

Habit stacking is a similar but slightly different idea. The idea is to pair an activity you’d like to do with an activity you already do. For instance:

“When I get home from work, I will play the piano for 5 minutes.” You get home from work every workday, so it’s an easy trigger to get you to play the piano.

“While I brush my teeth, I will think about 3 things I’m grateful for today.” You brush your teeth anyway, so you might as well pair it with an activity you’d like to do, in this case incorporating gratitude into your life.

The key is that the trigger activity needs to be something that is already set in your routine, meaning that you do it on most days. And then the activity you pair with it (the one you’d like to add) needs to be something small and manageable. Playing the piano for 5 minutes is easy to fit into your routine; playing it for 1 hour is not.

3. Environment design

Very often we carry out certain actions because the environment triggers us and not because we choose to. This is often discussed in relation to healthy eating. If there is junk food in your house or in your office, you are more likely to eat it. If water is being sold in a cafeteria, people are more likely to buy it. If you put your guitar in an easy-to-see place, you are more likely to play it.

Try to design your environment as much as possible to fit the behaviors you’d like to engage in. If you’d like to eat more healthy foods, keep those types of foods in your house and throw away junk food. Or at least put healthy foods in visible and accessible places and place junk food in an out-of-reach drawer.

If you’d like to drink more water, place a glass or bottle of water in front of you. If you’d like to play the guitar more, put it in a prominent location in your living room. If you’d like to read more, place a book on your living room table or next to your bed.

Similarly, at work, if you’d like to avoid being distracted by your phone, put in a hard-to-reach drawer or on top of a high shelf. If you’d like to avoid being distracted by people walking by, turn your desk to face the window or the wall. If you’d like to drink more tea than coffee, place some nice teas on your desk.

Have you used one of these techniques to transform your habits? What works best for you: implementation intentions, habit stacking, or environment design? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Focus on habits instead of goals

To achieve long-lasting behavioral change, emphasize habits instead of goals.

I am currently reading the book Atomic Habits by James Clear, and I am greatly enjoying it. It covers habit formation and behavior change from the basics to more advanced techniques.

James begins by discussing focusing on goals vs. habits. After all, most of the time we focus on achieving goals because the goal is the important, motivating factor. For instance, if you’re trying to get a job as a computer programmer, what ultimately matters is whether you get the job or not.

Focusing on goals postpones our happiness

But with goals we have an either-or mentality: either we achieve the goal, or we don’t. We either succeed or fail. We don’t pay much attention to the progress we’ve made or to what smaller things we’ve achieved in the process. If you don’t get the computer programmer job, you may feel disappointed and not take into account how much you’ve learned about programming in the process.

Also, with a goal-focused mentality, happiness is postponed to the future. We think that when I get that job, then I will be happy. I am not and don’t need to try to be happy in the present moment. This is a huge problem because if we always put off our happiness until later, that moment of happiness will never come. Even when we get the job, there will be something else to do, e.g., renovate the house, before we can be happy.

This really struck me. As a goal-oriented, driven person, I have experienced this multiple times. While working hard on a goal, for instance on getting into university, I told myself that it didn’t matter how I felt at that time. As long as I got into university, everything would be okay and I would be happy. But then when I did get into university, that didn’t magically bring me happiness. I was quite confused because I had achieved my goal but still hadn’t gotten happiness.

With this in mind, James Clear proposes focusing on habits instead of goals. Emphasizing habits forces you to bring your attention to what you are doing today, tomorrow, or this week. Your focus is not on some faraway point in the future but rather it is very close to the present. Completing a habit can give you an immediate sense of satisfaction, so your happiness is not postponed until some vague point in time.

Habit change is identity change

What’s more, habit change is identity change. When you adopt a new habit, you become a person who does this new thing. If you choose to go swimming twice a week, you become somebody who swims. If you were focusing on a goal, e.g., swim freestyle for 1 km, you’re a wanna-be, somebody who hasn’t achieved anything yet. And the moment you achieve that goal, you set the next one, so you become another wanna-be, somebody who now wants to swim freestyle for 2 km.

Instead, if you focus on your new habit, your identity shifts immediately. Once you become “someone who swims,” your identity begins to drive your actions and choices. You go swimming because that’s what a swimmer does. Motivation begins to come from within and not from the outside (the external goal). Then it is much, much easier to sustain a habit because there is much less resistance, and the desire to maintain the activity comes from within yourself, from your sense of identity.

It’s important to remember that identity is not static. Generally, you want to change your behavior and achieve goals in order to become a better person. But focusing solely on goals is like trying to achieve something new and big while being the same, old person.

While when you adopt a new habit, you change your identity. Little by little, you become that “improved” person who swims or is a good computer programmer. And you don’t do so by achieving mind-blowing goals but by doing an activity repeatedly and consistently and getting better at it gradually over time.

Are you usually goal-oriented or habit-oriented? How do those two work for you? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.