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Published on March 4, 2020

How to Break a Bad Habit in 21 Days (Or Less)

How to Break a Bad Habit in 21 Days (Or Less)

Learning how to break a bad habit can be daunting as habits are often described with negative connotations:

“I’ve got so many bad habits.”

“I’ve picked up this bad habit where I’m always doing X.”

“I’ve noticed you have a habit of always doing Y.”

You rarely hear someone saying:

“I’ve got a really good habit that lets me do X.”

“I love that habit you have of always doing Y.”

Because the habits we’re aware of are often negative, we usually try to break them just by stopping them in one go, which is tough and not always the best solution.

All of the habits that have a positive impact on our lives tend to go unnoticed, which isn’t surprising since they often don’t present us with problems.

The trick for how to break a bad habit is to find an approach that works for you and the particular habit. Not all habits are created equally, and they can’t all be broken in the same way.

What Is a Habit?

A habit is a set of recurring tendencies that are often hard to give up and are usually performed subconsciously.

It’s essential to understand what a habit is before you start to try and break or change one. Luckily it’s straightforward, which helps when you need to recognize when you’re about to go into the habit loop. [1]

First, there is a trigger. This could be a location, a specific time of day, behaviour patterns of those around you, or just the emotional state you’re in.

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The trigger starts a routine, a routine you may not even know you’re following.

Finally, you get the reward or the result. The reward isn’t always the best word to use, certainly with negative habits, but this is what keeps you coming back to the habit over and over again.

Before you learn how to break a bad habit using the techniques described in this post, you should start by noting your triggers, routines, and rewards for each habit.

Once you know these three steps for each habit, you will have started to build a defense for fighting bad habits as you’ll recognise where you are in the habit loop.

How to Break a Bad Habit Quickly

When you’re ready to learn how to break a bad habit, the following tips can help.

1. Replace a Habit With a New One

Part of the habit is the routine that follows the initial trigger, so to reduce the impact of stopping a habitual behavior, you can replace it with another habit that has a more positive and healthy impact on your life.

Smoking is one of the most common habits people are looking to stop and a great example to use for this approach.

There are numerous things you could swap out for when you’re tempted to smoke. Some examples are:

  1. Chew a piece of gum
  2. Eat some fruit
  3. Get a drink
  4. Go for a walk
  5. Play with something in your hands

It depends on your situation, but for any habit replacement, the key is to distract yourself long enough that the temptation to perform the negative habit passes.

2. Celebrate the Small Successes

Breaking a habit can take time. It can depend on how many times per day or week you repeat the habit you want to break or how ingrained it is into your lifestyle.

Whether you can break a habit in 21 days or 21 weeks, you need to celebrate every day where you haven’t repeated the habit. If you can only manage two days before cracking, then celebrate those two days. Don’t expect to break every habit immediately. It takes time.

If you only managed two days on the first try, celebrate next time you make it to a week and so on.

Before you know it, you’ll look back and laugh at the fact you could only manage two days at the start!

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3. Change Your Identity

Habits are often hard to break as they’re typically based on changing how we act in everyday life or are linked to a healthy lifestyle change. These are both fine, but it is more difficult if our identity is fighting against these changes.

To make real significant changes in our lives, we have to start thinking about how we need to change our identity first.

For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, but you think of yourself as someone who always struggles with your weight (“It’s just who I am”), then you’re going to continue to struggle to lose weight. Try changing your thought to “I am capable of making positive changes” and see what happens.

One of the most common examples is a smoker saying something like, “I am a smoker trying to quit” or “I like being a smoker but I need to quit.”

It would be best if you decided on who you want to be in life; this is the first step of changing your identity. If you tell yourself you like being a smoker, it’s unlikely you will be successful in the change you’re seeking to make.

“I’m a non-smoker” or “I’m fit and healthy” are things you can say to yourself daily in your head, quietly to yourself and to others. You can slowly start to change how you identify with yourself.

You’ll back this up with small wins, a streak of a few days with no cigarettes or repeatedly going to the gym or eating better.

Changing your identity takes time, but it can be done.

4. Use Digital Tools to Your Advantage

Digital or just general cell phone use is one of the most well known habits that many of us are trying to cut down on.

Typically, it’s scrolling through social media without noticing how long we’ve been doing it, constantly getting distracted by notifications, or just picking up our cell phone to check it as a distraction from work or life in general.

However, digital tools can be used to help us break a habit, either through reminders to keep us on track or rewards when we’re changing or creating a new positive habit.

Keeping track of a newly formed habit in the form of a streak is a great way to keep you focused and motivated. There are plenty of streak apps out there which let you create a streak, set reminders, and receive mini visual rewards when you hit certain milestones.

Rather than cutting out social media completely, change the reward of a particular habit to a set time period to look at your social networks.

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By using social media on your terms rather than the other way around, it can become a positive addition to your life.

5. Use Visual Cues

One of the oldest and most effective ways for how to break a habit is through visual cues acting as reminders or rewards.

Placing visual reminders, cues, and trackers around your home gives you a cheap, easy, and effective way to keep your habits in the front of your mind. This could involve using a calendar on the fridge where you tick off every completed day since you’ve haven’t performed a negative habit, for example.

Something as simple as Post-It notes on the bedside table reminding you of your goal for that day can be a powerful mental cue to help you break a bad habit.

Visual cues are great as they become a habit in themselves. Taking the calendar on the fridge example, the trigger is seeing the calendar each morning. The routine is ticking off another day on the calendar, and then the reward is seeing the calendar filling up with ticks.

Simple but addictive!

6. Find a Habit-Crushing Partner

Breaking habits is hard, but finding support from a friend or partner can be incredibly helpful in keeping you focused on repeating your new habit or to stop you from repeating an old one.

Look at when your triggers typically happen and find a partner who will most likely be with you when these triggers occur. Have an open and honest discussion with them on what habit you’re trying to crush and explain how they can help.

Help from a partner could come in the following forms:

  1. Simply asking how you are doing with stopping your habit — this keeps the habit in the forefront so you don’t relapse.
  2. Helping you remove the triggers from the environment you share so the temptations are reduced.
  3. Sharing the new reward with you if you’re changing a habit rather than removing it.
  4. Finding a habit your both want to stop and doing it together.

7. Stack Your Habits

Stacking habits is a quick win when it comes to creating new positive habits.

We have thousands of tiny habits we do every day without even realizing it. This could be actions involved in brushing your teeth, the steps of making a cup of coffee when you first get up, putting the radio on when you go in the kitchen, etc.

As we already have thousands of habits we do every day, we can add new habits on top of them.

For example, if your goal is to learn 10 minutes of French each day, you do this after you’ve made your coffee each morning. If your goal is to practice visualization each day, you spend 3 minutes doing so when your alarm goes off each morning.

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It’s that simple: link old habits to new ones.

8. Visualize New Habits

Visualization can help with breaking habits. However, the important part isn’t visualizing the outcome but visualizing the process or the routines you need to create to achieve it.

A study from UCLA found exactly this by comparing students who visualized the process necessary to achieve their goal versus visualizing the actual achievement of the goal. They found that students who did the former enhanced studying techniques and improved grades. [2]

Practising visualization also helps to reduce anxiety around breaking a habit. In some cases, the habit you’re trying to break might cause you stress simply by thinking about it.

Visualizing a positive routine helps with this, even if you do it for only 2-3 minutes a day.

9. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and being aware of your thoughts and can, therefore, be a useful tool when learning how to break a bad habit.

By practicing mindfulness and becoming more aware of your triggers, you will increase the likelihood of success in breaking the habit. By recognizing the trigger before you go into the habit of the routine, you’ll be able to break the habit far quicker.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean you fight or block these thoughts. It simply allows you to engage with them in a more productive way.

The Bottom Line

Everyone is different, so try different approaches when it comes to breaking habits. If you fail, look at why, adapt, and try again, and don’t forget to celebrate what you have done well.

Remember that the basics of changing a habit can include these five steps:

  1. Identify the habit you want to break or change.
  2. Discover what is triggering this habit.
  3. Identify the routine that follows the trigger.
  4. Define the reward you are getting for following the routine.
  5. Pck an element to change depending on whether you want to break or change the habit.

To break a bad habit in 21 days, you need to replace something you do many times a day, and this can be a difficult but worthwhile process.

By staying mindful of what does and doesn’t work for you, you can begin to create the lifestyle you have always wanted.

More Tips on Breaking Bad Habits

Featured photo credit: NeONBRAND via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Ben Willmott

Productivity and Project Management blogger for at work and at home

8 Essential Project Management Skills for Productive Work How to Set OKRs to Keep Your Goals on Track Why You Can’t Focus And How To Fix It 5 Steps (And 4 Techniques) for Effective Problem Solving How to Break a Bad Habit in 21 Days (Or Less)

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Last Updated on October 29, 2020

How to Develop Mental Toughness and Stay Strong

How to Develop Mental Toughness and Stay Strong

Are you the kind of person who wants to achieve massive success in your life? Do you have the mental toughness to make that happen?

I think we can all agree that no matter your ambitions, achieving success can be difficult; and over time, the daily grind can take a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional energy.

Achievers and high performers from all walks of life face ups and downs along the path to success—they face failure, burnout, discouragement, fatigue, self-limiting beliefs, stress, and so much more.

How do some people continually strive towards their personal goals year after year while others give up on them? How do those people stay strong and persevere when there is so much stacked against them?

Studies now show that mental strength is a critical key to success. If you haven’t read Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, you should. In it, she shows that “the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a special blend of passion and persistence she calls ‘grit.’” In other words, mental toughness plays a significant role when it comes to achieving goals.

At its core, mental toughness is simply the ability to stick to something when the going gets tough. People with high levels of mental toughness can push beyond these obstacles and forge a path towards success, while those with lower levels of mental toughness may abandon their dreams.

The good news is that no matter who you are, what you’ve been told, or what you currently believe, you can develop the mental toughness you need to be successful.

1. Develop a Positive Mindset

If you’re going to increase your mental toughness and manage stress, the first thing you have to do is focus on building a strong, positive mindset in everyday life.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the average person has 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those, 95% of those thoughts repeat each day and, on average, 80% of repeated ideas are negative.[1]

That’s roughly 45,600 negative thoughts per day!

Carrying around these negative thoughts is like going on a hike in the mountains with a backpack full of rocks. The hike is hard enough on its own, but having extra junk weighing you down is a recipe for failure.

Sometimes, building mental toughness isn’t as much about building new strength as it is about saving your strength for the right tasks. Wouldn’t it be easier to dump the rocks out of the backpack instead of trying to get strong enough to carry the extra weight?

Let Go of Self-Limiting Beliefs

It’s pretty hard to be mentally tough when you’re constantly beating yourself up. Self-limiting beliefs are any beliefs that hold you back in some way. Here are some examples:

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“I’m not smart enough to…”

“I don’t have enough experience to…”

“I’ve tried that before, and it didn’t go well, so I must just be bad at…”

When we allow these self-limiting beliefs to flood our minds, negative self-talk runs rampant, and we crowd out our ability to think positively.

When you recognize a self-limiting belief cropping up in your mind, quickly silence it by telling yourself that it’s not true, and then back that up with some positive affirmations:

  • “I am smart enough; I may just need to do some more research first.”
  • “I may not have as much experience as someone else, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. I have enough experience to get started. I’ll figure the rest out on the way.”
  • “Just because I failed at this last time doesn’t mean I’m going to fail this time. My past does not dictate my future.”

Get Rid of the All-or-Nothing Thinking

Another form of negative thinking that could be preventing you from building mental toughness is all-or-nothing thinking.

All-or-nothing thinking is the concept of thinking in extremes. You are either a success or a failure. Your performance was great or awful. If you’re not perfect, then you’re a failure.

But this isn’t true!

If you’re trying to lose 30 pounds and only lost 28, isn’t that still better than not losing any weight at all? I’d say so!

If you allow all-or-nothing thinking to rule your mind, you’ll be on cloud nine when you succeed, but you’ll beat yourself up when you “fail.” Acknowledging the shades of gray in between will allow you to see success more often.

When you recognize an all-or-nothing thought, remember to look for the positive in the situation. What did you gain by trying? What would you have missed out on had you not tried? Could you do better if you were to try again?

Ditch the Dwelling

Self-limiting beliefs and all-or-nothing thinking can lead to a bad case of dwelling on the negative, which is bad news for mental health. If you want to build some mental toughness and keep your mind strong, you have to ditch the dwelling.

When we dwell on our misfortunes, we waste massive amounts of energy that we could be using to achieve our goals. When this happens, we’re more likely to quit altogether.

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That doesn’t mean you’re not mentally tough; it just means you’re misusing your energy.

The next time something bad happens, it’s important to allow yourself to feel the disappointment and frustration, but work on reducing the amount of time you dwell on the situation.

If you struggle with this, you can try the following:

  1. Call a friend or mentor and talk it through with them. Get some outside perspective on your situation.
  2. Time block your dwelling by allowing yourself to dwell for no more than one hour.
  3. Then, tell yourself to move on, that you’re human, and you’re allowed to make mistakes or experience setbacks.
  4. If all else fails, find a good way to distract yourself until you can calm down and reexamine things with a clear mind.

The faster you can focus on the positives and move past the problem, the quicker you can get back to achieving success in your life.

2. Connect With Your Purpose

One of the most critical elements to building mental toughness and keeping a strong and focused mind is having a strong “why” for all of your short and long-term goals.

If you set out to achieve a huge goal that you don’t have a “why” for, you’re going to find yourself distracted, discouraged, or disengaged as soon as you experience your first setback.

Think about the last time you were working on a goal or resolution, and things weren’t going well. Perhaps you thought you didn’t have enough willpower or discipline.

It’s more likely that you just didn’t have a strong enough why.

Simon Sinek has been spreading his message “Start with Why” across the globe.[2] In short, he says that:

“Your ‘why’ is the purpose, cause or belief that inspires you.”

One of the biggest drains on your mental energy is pursuing a goal or a task that you don’t have a why for. Often, we set goals because we like the idea of the goal, not the reality of the goal. Without connecting to our why, we can’t intrinsically motivate ourselves to achieve our most challenging goals.

You can learn more on identifying your purpose in this video:

Find Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is our innate desire to do something, and it comes when we work towards something that satisfies ourselves above all else—not our parents or our bosses or our teachers[3].

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Develop mental toughness with intrinsic motivation

    Let’s say you think you want to quit smoking because you know it’s bad for you, but you really enjoy smoking. If you don’t truly want to quit smoking, it’s going to be nearly impossible, regardless of your willpower or mental toughness.

    However, if you want to quit smoking because you just had a baby, and you don’t want your baby growing up around smoke, then that “why” is going to give you intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than sheer stubborn willpower, and it’s far easier to maintain over the long haul.

    If you’re trying to develop mental toughness, connecting a why to everything you want to achieve will reduce the effort and energy it will take to achieve those things.

    3. Find Strength in Unity

    The final aspect of developing mental toughness is embracing the idea that you’re not in this alone.

    Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft alone. Oprah didn’t build her network by herself. Steve Jobs didn’t invent the iPhone without a team. Michelle Obama didn’t implement the “Let’s Move” campaign on her own.

    Behind all of these successful people were countless other people who were offering support, mentorship, guidance, and encouragement.

    If you want to develop unmatched mental toughness, you need to understand that you don’t have to go it alone. Even the toughest Navy Seals have a team backing them up.

    Find a Mentor or Committee of Mentors

    The benefits of having a great mentor are far too many to list, but to boil it down to the basics, a mentor is someone who will help show you the path to success, discover your greatest strengths, spot and overcome your blind spots, and work through your weaknesses.

    If you’re struggling to deal with your internal negativity or with finding your purpose, talk it through with a mentor. Sometimes we lose the forest for the trees, and a mentor can help us take a step back and see the bigger picture.

    Here’s how to find the right mentor for yourself: How to Find a Mentor That Will Help You Succeed

    Recruit Some Cheerleaders

    If you want to stay strong, it never hurts to have a group of personal cheerleaders to help you successfully complete your goals. Unlike mentors who are going to jump in and help you address your problems, a group of cheerleaders will help keep your spirits up.

    Even if you have a strong why and a positive mindset, it’s nearly impossible to maintain a positive attitude 100% of the time. It doesn’t make you weak to need some help from time to time. Having a group of people cheering you on will make all the difference in the world.

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    As you work towards your goals, tell a few close friends about what you’re doing, and when things get tough, tell them about it. When they give you the pep talk you need, don’t resist their positivity or counter it with your self-limiting beliefs.

    Allow their optimism to refill your energy and use that energy to press on.

    Form an Accountability Group

    Cheerleaders are great, but sometimes we need someone to give us the kick we need to keep going. You might have a strong why for running a marathon or losing 30 pounds, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy; and trying to force yourself to follow through is a sure way to tax your mental energy.

    Why not save some of your mental energy by forming an accountability group?

    Find a person or a few people who have similar goals, or at the very least, the need for an accountability partner. Then, form an agreement within the group to push each other every day.

    4. Learn to Pick Yourself up After Setbacks

    Building a strong mindset and developing mental toughness isn’t easy! Anyone who’s ever achieved massive success knows that obstacles, setbacks, and failure are inevitable, and you’re no different.

    As you work on your goals, you’re going to face many ups and downs, but this doesn’t mean that you don’t have mental toughness, willpower, or discipline.

    When you find yourself in a low spot, instead of giving up right away, ask yourself these questions:

    • “Am I being too hard on myself?”
    • “Are negative thoughts distorting my view?”
    • “What’s the positive side of this setback/obstacle/failure?”
    • “Why was this goal important to me? What was my purpose?”
    • “Is this goal still important to me?”
    • “Who can I ask for help? Who can mentor me or hold me accountable?”

    Asking yourself these questions is a great way to check in on your mindset. When we get lost in negative thinking or lose connection to our purpose, it’s far too easy to become discouraged.

    This article provides some useful tips to help you get back on track: How to Deal with Failure and Pick Yourself Back Up

    Tying It All Together

    A crucial part of developing mental toughness is learning to recognize negative tendencies and taking action to correct them early on with healthy habits. Developing mental toughness is not about eliminating weakness, but learning how to deal with it and overcome it.

    No one is perfect, but when we focus on the right things, we can develop a mental toughness worthy of life’s biggest challenges.

    More on Developing Mental Strength

    Featured photo credit: Zulmaury Saavedra via unsplash.com

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