Did you know that 80% of all new year’s resolutions fail by March every year? Yikes, seems pretty high, doesn’t it?
Why do so many resolutions fail? Because breaking bad habits is hard work. It requires both commitment and action.
But with the right reasons to break them—uncovering what gets in your way, from sticking to good habits and rewiring your habit loops—you can break bad habits and learn how to change to and keep good ones.
So, if you’re ready to learn more about how to break bad habits and get into the 20% club where your good habits can stick, let’s dive in.
1. Dig into the Real Reason to Break Your Bad Habits
When you create a goal or intention to stop a bad habit and replace it with a good one, what do you tell yourself is the reason behind the change? That you should do it or that you want to do it?
No one likes being told what to do, so if we create new habits out of feeling obligated, our chances of failure are pretty high. But if we genuinely want to break our bad habits for a good reason, then that good reason will motivate us to follow through more consistently.
Let’s look at an example:
“I should stop being so lazy and exercise more.”
Says who? Is someone telling you to stop being lazy, or do you want to? What will exercise do for you? How will it feel, physically and mentally? What could change in your life if you followed through on your commitment to exercise? Who else might benefit?
Once you have solid and compelling reasons to replace a bad habit with a good one, write in a way that gets you excited or at least has you feeling good about it.
For example, the statement above can become:
“I want to exercise three times a week as it will leave me feeling more energized, which will enable me to be a better leader and parent.”
Also, words like “should,” “try,” and “might” decrease your chances of follow-through. Instead, use words like “will” and “want to” to signal your brain that you’re committed to doing it.
2. Uncover Your Fear and Excuses
Once you have a strong motivator to change your bad habits, you need to uncover what fictional stories or beliefs you tell yourself that might be holding you back from making a change.
We are masters of excuses, especially when we want to justify not doing something.
“I don’t have time. I don’t have energy. My family needs me. Work is too busy right now.”
On the flip side, we also tell ourselves how good our bad habits feel.
“A few glasses of wine are the only way I can relax at the end of a busy day. Smoking relieves my stress. These cookies taste so delicious and comfort me when I’m sad.”
The thing is, if we tell ourselves these stories enough, they come true. If we don’t believe we have the time or energy to do something, we won’t find the time or energy to do it. If we think wine is the only way to feel relaxed, nothing else will work.
For example, the next time you find yourself saying you don’t have time to exercise, cook, or meditate, look at how much time you spend watching TV or on social media. Then, remind yourself that you do have time—you just need to reprioritize where you’re spending it.
Once you’ve identified these fictional stories and beliefs, flip them to tell yourself the opposite. Write the new thoughts and stories down and read them regularly until you believe they are true.
3. Transform Your Habit Loop
Even if we’re highly motivated and have good intentions, breaking bad habits is hard. Why? Because we like to choose what feels most pleasurable for us at that moment. If we enjoy a big glass of wine after a stressful day, we will pick that.
If we like binge-watching TV or scrolling social media when we’re bored, we’ll choose that. And if we dislike getting up in the morning, we’ll likely decide to press the snooze button until as late as possible. But once we can find good habits that also feel pleasurable to us, it becomes easier to break the bad habit loop and transform our lives.
- The cue, also known as the trigger, signals your brain to start a habit, consciously or unconsciously.
- The routine is the action inspired by the cue.
- The reward is what you get out of that action.
Once you’re aware of your cues, you can start to change the action and, thus, the reward.
Step 1: Identify Your Cues
What bad habits do you want to break, and what are the cues most associated with them? Stress, anxiety, exhaustion, boredom, loneliness, celebrations?
Perhaps your habit cycles are linked to a stressful day at work or when you argue with a family member, or when you’re bored or lonely from not having the social life you used to have. Or perhaps you really enjoy celebrating your wins.
Make a note of the triggers or emotions you feel right before acting on your bad habit. Then, every time you see this trigger happening, label it.
For example, “I’m feeling stressed from my bad day at work.” Or, “I’m feeling sad because I miss hanging out with my friends.”
Step 2: Replace the Bad Habit in Your Routine
What are all the things you enjoy doing that would be considered healthy? Maybe things like going for a walk, having a hot shower, listening to music, talking to a friend, doing a puzzle.
Make a list of all of these items and highlight your top ones. When you notice the cue you identified in step 1, try out some of the activities from this list. This way, you can naturally replace a bad habit in your routine.
Step 3: Reward Yourself For Practicing a Good Habit
Bad habits can make us feel great when we’re doing them, which is why they’re so hard to break. But later, we tend to feel guilt, remorse, or disappointment. Plus, they can negatively affect our sleep and mood and lead to health concerns like a chronic illness.
Good habits may not be as enjoyable when you’re doing them, but how do you feel later on or the next day after choosing a healthier habit? Did you get a better night’s sleep? Do you have more energy? Do you feel proud of yourself?
Once we start training our brains to enjoy the good habit’s reward over the bad, the easier it becomes to break our bad habit loops.
Moreover, you can come up with simple rewards to encourage yourself to stick to the good habit. For example, getting yourself a gift, or treating yourself to go for a movie etc.
4. Be on the Lookout for Self-Sabotage
There is a reason we can do so well with new habits for a little while but then find ourselves going back to our bad habits. Our brains don’t like change. They’re okay with it at first, but then they start to freak out a little bit, and we start to self-sabotage.
We may find ourselves feeling guilty for having good habits. We might get worried people will be jealous or won’t want to be around us if we’re healthier. Or we might have friends who are envious of our change might and entice us to fall off the wagon.
Sound familiar at all?
The chances of sabotage are pretty good, so the first thing to do here is to be aware of it happening. Then, as soon as you see it happening, identify it and tell it to take a hike.
5. Have an Accountability Partner
Even if you are a self-motivated person with great intentions, there will be days when going back to your old habits looks pretty enticing. These are the days you need an accountability partner—someone you can call to remind you why you’re doing the work to break your bad habits.
But be sure to pick someone who will push you, not the friend who will let you off the hook every time you don’t feel like doing something. And be sure to communicate your intentions, goals, and motivating factors with your partner. This will help them remind you why you’re doing the hard work to change and why it’s worth it.
Coaches and therapists are also great options for accountability partners if you’re willing to invest in yourself to make the change.
6. Tweak It Until It Works
Habit change takes time, but if you don’t enjoy your new habits, abandoning them will be enticing.
When replacing a bad habit with a good one, be sure you enjoy the good one more days than not. If you don’t, tweak it until you do.
No one says you have to stick to your good habit if you dislike it. Test other good practices until you find what works for you and motivates you to pick it over the bad.
7. Take Small, Manageable Steps
People don’t learn to ride a bike or swim overnight, and changing habits is no different. If we strive for too much change at once, the likelihood of failure increases.
Break down your new habits into small, manageable steps and once you’ve mastered one, move on to the next. Be sure to celebrate your wins along the way. Focusing on what is going well is a great motivator to keep going.
Trying to break bad habits is hard work. First, find a compelling reason to replace your bad habits with good. Second, identify the thoughts or beliefs holding you back from changing your habits. Third, find good habits that feel pleasurable to you so you can break the bad habit loop.
Just don’t forget to tweak your habits as you go to find what works for you and get an accountability partner—either a friend, family member, or coach to help support you on your journey.
You’ve got this!
Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com