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How to Break a Bad Habit (and Replace It With a Good One)

How to Break a Bad Habit (and Replace It With a Good One)
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Bad habits interrupt your life and prevent you from accomplishing your goals. They jeopardize your health — both mentally and physically. And they waste your time and energy.  So why do we still do them? And most importantly, is there anything you can do about it?

I’ve previously written about the science of how habits start, so now let’s focus on the practice of making changes in the real world. How can you delete your bad behaviors and stick to good ones instead? I certainly don’t have all of the answers, but keep reading and I’ll share what I’ve learned about how to break a bad habit.

What causes bad habits?

Most of your bad habits are caused by two things…Stress and boredom. Most of the time, bad habits are simply a way of dealing with stress and boredom. Everything from biting your nails to overspending on a shopping spree to drinking every weekend to wasting time on the internet can be a simple response to stress and boredom.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can teach yourself new and healthy ways to deal with stress and boredom, which you can then substitute in place of your bad habits. Of course, sometimes the stress or boredom that is on the surface is actually caused by deeper issues. These issues can be tough to think about, but if you’re serious about making changes then you have to be honest with yourself.

Are there certain beliefs or reasons that are behind the bad habit? Is there something deeper — a fear, an event, or a limiting belief — that is causing you to hold on to something that is bad for you? Recognizing the causes of your bad habits is crucial to overcoming them.

You don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it.

All of the habits that you have right now — good or bad — are in your life for a reason. In some way, these behaviors provide a benefit to you, even if they are bad for you in other ways.

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Sometimes the benefit is biological like it is with smoking or drugs. Sometimes it’s emotional like it is when you stay in a relationship that is bad for you. And in many cases, your bad habit is a simple way to cope with stress. For example, biting your nails, pulling your hair, tapping your foot, or clenching your jaw.

These “benefits” or reasons extend to smaller bad habits as well.

For example, opening your email inbox as soon as you turn on your computer might make you feel connected. At the same time looking at all of those emails destroys your productivity, divides your attention, and overwhelms you with stress. But, it prevents you from feeling like you’re “missing out” … and so you do it again. Because bad habits provide some type of benefit in your life, it’s very difficult to simply eliminate them. (This is why simplistic advice like “just stop doing it” rarely works.)

Instead, you need to replace a bad habit with a new habit that provides a similar benefit. For example, if you smoke when you get stressed, then it’s a bad plan to “just stop smoking” when that happens. Instead, you should come up with a different way to deal with stress and insert that new behavior instead of having a cigarette.

In other words, bad habits address certain needs in your life. And for that reason, it’s better to replace your bad habits with a healthier behavior that addresses that same need. If you expect yourself to simply cut out bad habits without replacing them, then you’ll have certain needs that will be unmet and it’s going to be hard to stick to a routine of “just don’t do it” for very long.

How to break a bad habit

Here are some additional ideas for breaking your bad habits and thinking about the process in a new way.

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1. Choose a substitute for your bad habit. You need to have a plan ahead of time for how you will respond when you face the stress or boredom that prompts your bad habit. What are you going to do when you get the urge to smoke? (Example: breathing exercises instead.) What are you going to do when Facebook is calling to you to procrastinate? (Example: write one sentence for work.) Whatever it is and whatever you’re dealing with, you need to have a plan for what you will do instead of your bad habit.

2. Cut out as many triggers as possible. 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.

Right now, your environment makes your bad habit easier and good habits harder. Change your environment and you can change the outcome.

3. Join forces with somebody. How often do you try to diet in private? Or maybe you “quit smoking” … but you kept it to yourself? (That way no one will see you fail, right?) Instead, pair up with someone and quit together. The two of you can hold each other accountable and celebrate your victories together. Knowing that someone else expects you to be better is a powerful motivator.

4. Surround yourself with people who live the way you want to live. You don’t need to ditch your old friends, but don’t underestimate the power of finding some new ones.

5. Visualize yourself succeeding. See yourself throwing away the cigarettes or buying healthy food or waking up early. Whatever the bad habit is that you are looking to break, visualize yourself crushing it, smiling, and enjoying your success. See yourself building a new identity.

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6. You don’t need to be someone else, you just need to return to the old you. So often we think that to break our bad habits, we need to become an entirely new person. The truth is that you already have it in you to be someone without your bad habits. In fact, it’s very unlikely that you had these bad habits all of your life. You don’t need to quit smoking, you just need to return to being a non–smoker. You don’t need to transform into a healthy person, you just need to return to being healthy. Even if it was years ago, you have already lived without this bad habit, which means you can most definitely do it again.

7. Use the word “but” to overcome negative self–talk. One thing about battling bad habits is that it’s easy to judge yourself for not acting better. Every time you slip up or make a mistake, it’s easy to tell yourself how much you suck. Whenever that happens, finish the sentence with “but”…

  • “I’m fat and out of shape, but I could be in shape a few months from now.”
  • “I’m stupid and nobody respects me, but I’m working to develop a valuable skill.”
  • “I’m a failure, but everybody fails sometimes.”

8. Plan for failure. We all slip up every now and then. So rather than beating yourself up over a mistake, plan for it. We all get off track, what separates top performers from everyone else is that they get back on track very quickly. For a handful of strategies that can help you bounce back when you make a mistake,read this article.

Where to go from here

If you’re looking for the first step to breaking your bad habits, I’d suggest starting with awareness. It’s easy to get caught up in how you feel about your bad habits. You can make yourself feel guilty or spend your time dreaming about how you wish things were … but these thoughts take you away from what’s actually happening.

Instead, it’s awareness that will show you how to actually make change.

  • When does your bad habit actually happen?
  • How many times do you do it each day?
  • Where are you?
  • Who are you with?
  • What triggers the behavior and causes it to start?

Simply tracking these issues will make you more aware of the behavior and give you dozens of ideas for stopping it.

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Here’s a simple way to start: just track how many times per day your bad habit happens. Put a piece of paper in your pocket and a pen. Each time your bad habit happens, mark it down on your paper. At the end of the day, count up all of the tally marks and see what your total is.

In the beginning your goal isn’t to judge yourself or feel guilty about doing something unhealthy or unproductive. The only goal is to be aware of when it happens and how often it happens. Wrap your head around the problem by being aware of it. Then, you can start to implement the ideas in this article and break your bad habit.

Breaking bad habits takes time and effort, but mostly it takes perseverance. Most people who end up breaking their bad habits try and fail multiple times before they make it work. You might not have success right away, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have it at all.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.
Shoutouts:
1. Hat tip to Leo Babauta for originally talking about stress and boredom driving bad habits.
2. Hat tip to Scott Young for sharing the great idea about using the word “but” to overcome negative self–talk.

Featured photo credit: Mike Hoff via flickr.com

More by this author

James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on July 12, 2021

100 Incredible Life Hacks That Make Life So Much Easier

100 Incredible Life Hacks That Make Life So Much Easier
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Want to learn some quick and easy life hacks that are easy to do, low cost and saves you time?

By tweaking little things in your daily life, it can make your life much more convenient!

Here’re 100 of the most practical life hacks so you can just pick up any of them right away!

83 tie a small piece of bright colored fabric

    84 write random letter

      85 use a rubberband

        86 dorm smell bad

          87 lean your phone on your sunglassess

            89 how to waterproof your shoes

              90 take a picture of the name card

                91 iron inside out

                  92 old newspaper

                    93 tumble try shoes

                      keep a card like this

                        SONY DSC

                          94 soap bar

                            95 make a hole

                              96 drop the battery

                                97 use a coozie

                                  98 when taking a picture

                                    use a clean dust pan

                                      try a pants hanger

                                        use your cellphone light

                                          use a spring from an old pen

                                            quick and easy iphone speaker

                                              user binder clips

                                                wrap a wet paper towel around your beverage

                                                  put pancake mix in a ketchup bottle

                                                    clean out an old lotion bottle for your beach

                                                      use a muffin tin to serve condiments at a bbq

                                                        doritos are great for kindling

                                                          use nail polish to identify different keys

                                                            use a hanging shoe rack to store cleaning supplies

                                                              freeze grapes to chill white wine without

                                                                use paper clips to organize your cables

                                                                  almost finished your jar of nutella

                                                                    sick of having a box full of tangled

                                                                      unroll the rim to increase the capacity

                                                                        cut open toilet paper rolls and use as a cuff

                                                                          remove the stem from strawberries

                                                                            turn an old bottle into a simple little cord holder

                                                                              for iced coffee and iced cappuccino, use frozen coffee cubes

                                                                                how to fold a fitted bed sheet

                                                                                  tired of snoozing past your alarm

                                                                                    place a rubber band around an open paint can to wipe your brush on

                                                                                      ut a wooden spoon across a boiling pot

                                                                                        use bread clips to save flip-flops

                                                                                          take pictures of friends holding items

                                                                                            how i always know which headphone is the left one

                                                                                              put a stocking over the end of a vacuum

                                                                                                How to make sure you drink enough water

                                                                                                  user a can opener to open blister

                                                                                                    good sandwich guide

                                                                                                      turn your muffin pans upside down

                                                                                                        50 pounds of groceries and living on the 5th floor

                                                                                                          the right way to make a blt

                                                                                                            add one teaspoon of baking soda

                                                                                                              38

                                                                                                                hair straighteners equals to collar irons

                                                                                                                  stack your clothes vertically to see them all

                                                                                                                    the right way to make cookies in the summer

                                                                                                                      how to clean a blender

                                                                                                                        the right way to eat a popsicle

                                                                                                                          use bread clips to label and organize power cords

                                                                                                                            to get the built up residue off of your shower head

                                                                                                                              user a hair clip to orgainize long wires

                                                                                                                                a frozen saturated sponge in a bag

                                                                                                                                  rub stuck zipper teeth with a graphite pencil

                                                                                                                                    use a soda pop tab

                                                                                                                                      50

                                                                                                                                        51 How to multiply large numbers in your head.

                                                                                                                                          52 How to open a bottle if you dont have a corkscrew.

                                                                                                                                            rub a walnut on damaged wooden furniture

                                                                                                                                              kids fall out of bed

                                                                                                                                                use toothpaste to clear up hazy car

                                                                                                                                                  58

                                                                                                                                                    59 keep pizza out while driving home

                                                                                                                                                      60 put your straw through the tab to keep it from rising

                                                                                                                                                        hold oreos with a fork so your fingers

                                                                                                                                                          Never lose your remotes again

                                                                                                                                                            hiding your emergency money

                                                                                                                                                              use a bread tab to hold your spot on a roll

                                                                                                                                                                if you are at a hotel and run out of chargers

                                                                                                                                                                  keep a square of cardboard in a ziplock bag

                                                                                                                                                                    If you need to pee or smoke at a bar

                                                                                                                                                                      drill holes in the bottom of your garbage

                                                                                                                                                                        use an accented letter as your passcode

                                                                                                                                                                          use a squeeze ketchup bottle top with your shopvac

                                                                                                                                                                            do something unusual when locking the door

                                                                                                                                                                              when heating leftovers space out a circle in the middle

                                                                                                                                                                                dont burn yourself in those hard to reach candles

                                                                                                                                                                                  put a small amount of water in a glass when you microwave your pizza

                                                                                                                                                                                    75 use a piece of paper to organize

                                                                                                                                                                                      use half a pool noodle

                                                                                                                                                                                        pencil case to store cables

                                                                                                                                                                                          78 clothespin to hold nail

                                                                                                                                                                                            79 make blts

                                                                                                                                                                                              80 take a picture of your fridge

                                                                                                                                                                                                81 fill plastic water bottles

                                                                                                                                                                                                  82 right ways to eat chips

                                                                                                                                                                                                    99 if your plug keeps failing

                                                                                                                                                                                                      100 put the banana on the wire

                                                                                                                                                                                                        88 before you throw away a post it

                                                                                                                                                                                                          Source: Reddit LifeProTips

                                                                                                                                                                                                          There you go, 100 awesome life hacks that you can try right now to make your life a lot easier!

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                                                                                                                                                                                                          30 Brilliant Camping Hacks I Wish I Knew Earlier

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