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

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.

How to get yourself to do what you intended to do

When you make specific plans about when you’ll complete a desired activity, you’re much more likely to do it. But it’s one thing to plan it and another thing to actually complete it. How do you make sure you follow through with your plans?

Implementation intentions are examples of simple, explicit planning: “If situation X arises, then I will do Y.” I explained this in more detail here (point 1).

Specific plans are great, but how do you make sure you actually do them?

  • Put them on your calendar: Make an event on your calendar. When the time comes, do the activity. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it only works if you check your calendar and follow what it says.
  • Set reminders: You can add a reminder to your calendar event. Or you can add a separate reminder. Or you can create a note (e.g., in Google Keep) with a reminder. Alternatively, you can put post-it notes around the house or on your computer monitor. The problem with reminders is that they’re easy to ignore.
  • Set an alarm: An alarm is something you actually have to turn off. It requires an action from your side, or otherwise it will continue making noise. Alarms are more effective than reminders because even if you choose to ignore its message, you still have to physically do something such as press the ‘off’ button.
  • Name your intent clearly: When the alarm goes off to tell you to go to bed, for instance, you need to say out loud what you are going to do now:

“I am getting ready to go to bed. I will read for 15 minutes in bed.”

Or, alternatively, if you choose not to follow the intent of the alarm:

“I am staying here and continuing to look at social media.”

If you change your mind sometimes, that’s okay, but then state that clearly:

“I am staying here for 5 more minutes in order to finish my conversation with my brother. In five minutes, I will get up and get ready for bed.”

This may seem silly, but clearly naming what you are doing and what you are going to do incites action.

  • Track the time you spend on certain tasks: Monitor how long different activities take you. Once you have a realistic idea of how much time you spend on what, you can make purposeful, informed choices about what you do more of and what you do less of.
  • Set practical obstacles that prevent you from doing other (unwanted) things: For example, if you’re trying to limit your time on social media, install an app that limits the amount of time you can spend on those sites/apps.
  • Make it easy to follow through with your intentions: If you’d like to go to the gym, lay out your gym clothes from the day before. If you’re trying to have a healthy meal, make your food beforehand.

You can use one of these tips or combine several to make sure you follow through with your implementation intentions. For instance, now I’m reading before bed every night. I’m using several of these strategies: it’s on my calendar; I have an alarm on my phone to tell me to get into bed; I state my intent clearly; and I’ve put my kindle on my night stand, so it’s easy for me to read. Also, before I started this, I tracked the time I spent reading books for pleasure and was disappointed to see that I wasn’t making a lot of time for that. Now, I’m making some changes, and I’m quickly seeing the amount of time spent reading increase.

How do you make sure you complete the things you’d like to do? Or are there any activities you particularly struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, 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.