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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

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Last Updated on August 10, 2020

15 Simple Things You Can Do To Turn Your Life Around

15 Simple Things You Can Do To Turn Your Life Around

Life can be difficult. It can seem like nothing goes your way and the world is against you. The world can be a very cruel and lonely place. But there are things that you can do to begin turning your life around.

Whether you’re in a job you hate, struggling with a loss, or just not on the path you expected, only you hold the key to turning your life around. Here are 15 simple things you can do to turn your life around.

1. Read Daily

Reading lets you escape to a different place within your mind. It can be relaxing and calming. And it helps stimulate brain activity and keeps you sharp.

Reading daily can help you spend time away from the problems of the day and allow you to escape into a world of endless possibilities. Changing your perspective can help you turn around your life, and reading is a great place to start.

Here’re some recommendations: 20 All-Time Best Motivational Books to Inspire You

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2. Put Your Goals in Writing

When thoughts are banging around in our heads, they can easily slip away. Walk from one room to another and you forget what you were doing!

Make sure your goals are concrete and written down. This will help you stay accountable to yourself and is the first step in completing your goal. By writing it on a piece of paper, you must put in the thought of how you should word it, what exactly you want to accomplish, and will make you consider if it’s truly worth it.

3. Prune Your Relationships

Too often, relationships can be destructive. This is often looked at through the scope of romantic relationships, but also consider life-long friends, family, and acquaintances. Are the people you spend time with bringing you down? Are they helping you achieve your goals or hindering? It can be difficult, but pruning your relationships can be the quickest catalyst in turning your life around.

4. Make New Friends

Don’t underestimate how a new person or group of friends in your life can change your outlook. Be open to meeting new people, both at work and in your personal life.

5. Get Healthy

When you feel great, good things seem to come your way. Working out helps you feel better about yourself and can help change your outlook on life. Eating right can help you have the energy to do more. Getting healthy can improve your entire outlook on life and help turn your life around.

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6. Start Saving

For many, financial struggle can weigh heavy and be the cause of many problems. Without a change of job or career, changing your financial situation will take time and effort. Start saving with each paycheck to help build toward your future. Even if it’s a small amount each check, consistency in saving can help you change your path in the future.

7. Start a Business

Working for others can be tough. You may be underemployed, under-utilized, and under-appreciated. Starting a business can help you take control of your financial future.

Understand that you don’t have to quit your current job to start a business. Find something you love and have skills at and do it in your free time. If you’re in creative services, freelance. If you’re great at carpentry, build tables to sell. If you are a talented painter or crafty, start an Etsy store.

You may find that your side passion business can turn into more. Or, if you have the opportunity and skills, take the plunge and go all in. Working for yourself is challenging, but a great opportunity to change your life.

Here’re some tips for you: How to Start a Small Business with Little to No Money

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8. Find Opportunities to Help Others

Helping others can change your outlook and help turn your life around. Changing the way you think about the world can play a part. But helping others can also open up doors you never had available. Being a good person can help you get out of a funk and can be the catalyst for change.

9. Learn a New Skill

When you have more skills, additional opportunities will be presented. If you’re tired of your blue collar job, take classes to learn computer skills. If you’re struggling to move up in your company, find a skill that makes you more valuable. And if you want financial freedom, learn a skill that can help you change your life. Knowledge is power.

10. Stop Watching TV

Watching TV can keep you distracted and take up a lot of time. Cutting out the time you spend watching TV and replacing it with more productive activities can help you accomplish more and stay focused.

11. Listen to Inspirational Content

You can learn much about yourself from others. Find inspirational and educational content that matches your needs and give it a listen. You may find that the advice from others in similar situations can give you the boost you need to change your life.

12. Stop Complaining

Negative thoughts and talk can turn people against you and make your outlook grim. Stop complaining so much and make the best out of your situation.

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13. Find or Rekindle Your Passion

Doing what you love can change your entire outlook on life. When you’re doing things you hate, you can be more stressed and make life much harder than it needs to be. Find things you’re passionate about and rekindle the love for what you enjoyed in the past. Doing what you love can turn your life around and make each day more rewarding.

14. Take a Vacation (or Staycation)

Sometimes, hitting the reset button is all it takes to improve your situation. Taking a vacation, or staycation, is a great way to get away from the stress of the daily grind and recharge your battery. A vacation can give you the perspective you need to change your life.

15. Re-evaluate Your Attitude

How you view the world will often reflect in how you treat yourself. Re-evaluate your attitude and ensure that you’re doing all you can to make the most out of every situation. A change in how you view your situation can often be the push that helps you change your life for the better.

More Tips to Help You Change Your Life

Featured photo credit: Conner Ching via unsplash.com

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