Ways To Free Yourself From Bad Habits

by Toria Sheffield
Young black woman feeling stressed and anxious. Closeup of teeth biting fingernails for anxiety.
Diego Cervo / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

While it's important to embrace ourselves and to remember that no one is ever perfect, we can also sometimes actively participate in cycles or routines that aren't necessarily best for us in the long run, and it's why learning how to break our own bad habits can truly improve our overall quality of life.

Bad habits can be as small as biting our fingernails or constantly being late for things, or as big as getting into emotionally unhealthy relationships or spending more money than we can responsibly afford. And no matter how big or how small, they often result in us feeling bad about ourselves and our resolve.

I've personally definitely made commitments and resolutions to myself in an attempt to break with negative behaviors that I ultimately did not follow through with, and the effect of feeling like I had "failed" was sometimes even more harmful than the actual thing I was trying to change (cue thoughts of: Why am I so weak-willed? Or: Why can't I accomplish what I've seen others do?)

If this is sounding relatable, and you have bad habits of your own that you've tried and failed to master, here are seven hacks that should seriously help change any negative patterns or behaviors you find yourself continually going back to:

1. Identify Your Triggers

On his website, life coach and behavioral expert James Clear said the first step to changing a bad habit is identifying what causes you to do it, or your "triggers," and noted that for most people, habits are brought on by stress or boredom. He recommended limiting your specific triggers as much as you can. "If you smoke when you drink, then don’t go to the bar. If you eat cookies when they are in the house, then throw them all away. If the first thing you do when you sit on the couch is pick up the TV remote, then hide the remote in a closet in a different room. Make it easier on yourself to break bad habits by avoiding the things that cause them," he wrote.

2. Don't Eliminate; Replace

Clear also noted that, in general, we never truly eliminate something unhealthy from our lives, but rather replace it with something better for us. For example, replace your stress-eating habit with gum or herbal tea, or instead of biting your nails as you watch TV, keep something close by to occupy your hands, like a stress ball. These things will likely fulfill the same need without the negative consequences.

3. Set Reasonable Goals

In a piece for Psychology Today, professor of psychology Susan Krauss Whitbourne stressed the importance of setting reasonable goals for yourself when attempting to change a habitual behavior. "Your bad habits have taken years to establish themselves. You're not going to throw them off in an instant," she wrote. "Decide on a realistic schedule that will work for you based on goals that you believe you can meet." For example, if you want to change a sedentary lifestyle, you don't necessarily need to run out and join an expensive gym. Start by walking around the block every morning, or say you'll exercise every Tuesday and Thursday as opposed to five times a week.

4. Don't Be Discouraged By Slip-Ups

Krauss also noted the importance of not being discouraged by the inevitable slip-up and setbacks that will arise when attempting to change something you've probably been doing for years. "Even the people most dedicated and determined to change will suffer an occasional relapse. If you use that slip as 'proof' that you can never change, you will in fact not be able to change. Instead, try to figure out why you slipped," she wrote.

5. Have A Contingency Plan In Place

In another piece for Psychology Today, psychologist Jeremy Dean says, “People consistently overestimate their ability to control themselves. This overconfidence can lead people to assume they'll be able to control themselves in situations in which, it turns out, they can't.” The key, he said, is having a contingency plan in place for those times when your control will be tested. Keep gum on hand in case you're tempted by a cigarette, or always have a healthy snack in your desk drawer in the event you'll stress eat. We can't always control the situation, but we can actively do things to help us get through without resorting to harmful old patterns.

6. Tell Yourself You Don't Really Want To Be Doing It

At the American Psychological Association's 122nd Annual Convention, Wendy Wood, psychology professor at the University of Southern California, said to always remind yourself that the bad habit is not your true want or intention. Your true intention is to limit the destructive or negative behavior in your life, and just reminding yourself of this can sometimes give you the added extra resolve needed to abstain. Try it the next time you catch yourself about to fall back into old habits.

7. Repetition Is Key

Wood also stressed that repetition is extremely important in creating new and healthy habits; in fact she said research suggests that it takes 18 to 254 days to reestablish a new pattern of behavior. So don't expect overnight results or feel like a failure if you don't break a pattern in the first week or aren't completely "cured" after a month of conscious effort. It takes time!

The phrase "old habits die hard" exists for a reason; breaking habits is really, really difficult, and almost all of us struggle with it on some level. The good news is there are definite tips and tricks to help us actualize permanent change — we just have to know how to approach it and have a healthy dose of patience.

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