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

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.