5 Best Ways to Eliminate Bad Habits for Good
(and when It’s Best to Use Each of Them)
There are quite many methods to get rid of bad habits. Which one is best depends on your individual circumstances and inclinations.
1. Quit Cold Turkey.
You simply stop indulging your habit, not even from ‘one day’ but from ‘right now.’ You say to yourself: “Stop!” “No more!” or “This ends now!”
And you never go back to your bad habit.
BTW, such ‘interruption phrases’ serve well in breaking the bad habit’s loop (see #2 below).
Well, that’s the theory. It’s not so easy to get rid of a habit. It’s ingrained in your brain. When its trigger will repeat, the old behavior ignites. That’s the greatest weakness of this method.
Often, when an old pattern recurs, when you slip just one time, you make a big fuss out of it. You feel that you wasted all the time of abstinence. You are so crushed with self-disappointment that when an old habit reappears once, you entirely slip into old ways.
But there is a power in such approach as well. If you quit cold turkey and persevere in your resolve even for a few days, you prove to yourself that you are capable of change.
Three tips that make this approach work better:
1. Make it your identity
Identify yourself with breaking your bad habit; tell yourself: I am a person who doesn’t…. [insert your destructible behavior]. Telling yourself may be a weak strategy, especially if you feel that you are affirming the falsehood. If you habitually went postal a few times a day for years, saying “I am a person who doesn’t get angry,” may sound like a fairytale.
In that case modify the statement:
“I want to be a person who doesn’t get angry.”
“I’m becoming a person who doesn’t get angry.”
2. “Just today”
Tell yourself that you abstain from your bad behavior only for today. The prospect of quitting a bad habit that is a part of your life for years or decades may be overwhelming. You have succumbed to this behavior for so long, that you don’t feel you have the power to break it.
But you can imagine the abstinence for one day. The next day you also focus on surviving only this day. And so on. In a few days you start building a streak, and then additional motivation kicks in, making the transition easier.
3. The ritual of destruction
You enforce and confirm your resolution by some dramatic (or simply meaningful to you) act.
If you quit alcohol, you may break all the bottles in your house. If you stop lying, you may confess something terrible about you to your friend. If you quit watching TV, you may destroy your TV set.
When is it best?
This method, surprisingly, works well in breaking addictions.
When you feel enslaved to a harmful behavior, when you know it’s destructive for you, for your close ones and for your future, it’s easier to tap into powerful motivation. It gives you the right impulse to say “Stop!” “No more!” or “This ends now!” and really mean that.
On my first year at the university, a gaming addiction was putting my future at risk. Long hours spent on playing a computer game consumed my time that I could spend on my studies or cultivating relationships. It also undermined my self-discipline, self-control and self-confidence in the effect.
One day I got sick of this. I asked my friend who gamed with me, to kill my character in the game. He killed it several times, and I lost all the experience and items I had been collecting for months.
I got back to this game one more time, several months later, but my addiction was never so strong again.
2. Change Your Habit Loop.
In his book, “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg dedicated a lot of space to the concept of a habit loop. Quite recently, in the last two decades or so, scientists discovered that habits are stored in the brain in a different fashion than more standard memories. In short, the habit consists of a cue, routine and endpoint (called by Duhigg a reward).
Usually, some emotion triggers a behavior that ends when this emotional urge is being satisfied.
There are twofold repercussions of those findings:
First, your habits are hardcoded in your brain. It means they are impossible to remove. Once formed, they stay with you forever. This is the reason that alcoholics or drug addicts lapse into their addictions, sometimes even after decades of ‘clean’ living. An old trigger released an old behavior.
Second, there is really no such thing as getting rid of the old habit. You can remove it only through lobotomy. But you can ‘overwrite’ it with a new routine. The most efficient (and gruesome) method involves reprogramming the behavior.
For example, if you reach for alcohol whenever you feel anxious about the future, you use the same feeling (anxiety) to start a new behavior (e.g. prayer).
Why is it gruesome? Well, to make a new behavior truly a habit, you need to make it stronger than the old habit. There are other factors, like the amount of attention you dedicate to a new behavior, but generally it comes down to the number of repetitions. So, if you drank twice a week for a decade, because of anxiety, you will need to pray 3 times a week for about 7 years.
The good news is that when new behavior solidifies, you will never, ever come back to the old routine.
Another thing is that you need to zoom in on and identify with surgical precision what your exact triggers, routines and endpoints are. I recommend a short guide on Charles Duhigg’s page about rebuilding your habits.
When is it best?
This method is very universal. It is the most efficient in case of ‘bodily’ habits- nail-biting, facial expressions, ‘involuntarily’ gestures, or even unwanted speech patterns.
However, it may be used in replacing any kind of bad habit with a new one.
3. Use the Small Steps Approach.
This method tries to combine the best elements of the two instanced above.
You don’t agree for your addiction/ bad habit, but you also freely admit you are not able to quit it cold turkey.
You need to analyze your behavior and find your triggers.
And then you gradually limit your bad habit. You indulge in sweets less. You smoke less cigarettes. You restrict the number of gossip parties.
With each passing week you try to reach another milestone and, finally, you arrive at the point when you stop your wrong behavior altogether.
However, this method combines also the pitfalls of methods #1 and #2.
Theoretically, you should be less prone to discouragement when you fail. You assumed some amount of failure anyway, right? But it hurts nonetheless.
You also need to analyze your habit loop quite deeply, but you don’t rebuild it as thoroughly as with #2. So, it means the same amount of effort for fewer results.
When is it best?
This method works great when you have some measurable activity to get rid of. Alcoholics rarely count the number of their shots, and it’s hard for them to say, “OK, this week I’ll have two shots of vodka every day, but the next week it will be only two bottles of beer a day.”
Smokers, on the other hand, can almost always provide their daily amount of cigarettes. It’s easy for them to limit their intake by 10% a week. It’s also easier for them to comprehend their ability to get rid of the nasty habit. Quitting cold turkey doesn’t seem doable, the craving is too strong. But smoking two cigarettes a day less? That seems not too hard.
This is how my wife quit smoking. She didn’t smoke much, less than half a pack a day. She gradually allowed herself fewer and fewer cigarettes a day and, finally, she stopped it altogether.
If you can quantify your bad habit, it’s more convenient to use this method.
4. Track to Reinforce Your Determination.
This is not a method of breaking a bad habit per se, but it’s helpful in absolutely every instance of getting rid of a habit.
What gets measured gets managed. — William Thomson
In the case of Small Steps Approach, it’s quite obvious. If you are about to restrict yourself by a few cigarettes, you need to track their number, don’t you?
When you dabble with your habit loop, it’s also a great idea to keep track of what’s working and what’s not. In the bare minimum, tracking comes down to checking if you didn’t engage in your bad habit that day.
But you can use tracking even with quitting cold turkey, and it reveals the most powerful benefit of this tool. When you quit your bad habit, you start to count days without your addiction. And you build a streak that motivates you to keep going.
When you are clean for one day and you haven’t been in years, that’s a bliss. The second day added to a chain feels like an event worth celebration. Then comes the first week, first month, 100 days in a row, the first year. Those milestones give you a sense of accomplishment despite the fact that you actually did nothing. That was the whole objective of the exercise, wasn’t it?
What is more, tracking works the same way in building your good habits. It focuses your attention on what’s important and provides motivation to keep going.
It also provides priceless data points, helping you to identify dangerous spots and your pitfalls. At the beginning, it’s useful for identifying your triggers; later, it’s useful for monitoring if you successfully implemented a new routine or how often you avoid or reframe triggers of your negative behaviors.
When is it best?
It’s best to track your habits every single time. Whether you break the bad habit or build a positive one, you should pay close attention to your progress.
5. Focus on Good Habits.
This method kills your bad habits by starvation. I had some great successes with it.
You see, getting rid of a bad habit focuses your attention on the negative aspects of your life. It feels restrictive instead of liberating. You watch yourself all the time and deny yourself “pleasures.”
Yes, you know that in the long term it’s better to avoid cigarettes, vodka, drugs, masturbation, sweets, biting your nails till your fingers look like a bloody pulp, binge eating or exploding with anger.
But those bad behaviors are a part of you. They were your relieving mechanisms that helped you to cope with stress, anxiety or low self-esteem. Without them, your life seems even less bearable.
Thus, instead on focusing on what you no longer can do, it’s better to focus on new activities that contribute positively to your life. You funnel all your energy into improving your life, instead of avoiding what is wrong with it.
In August or September 2012, I spent 24 hours playing a single game in Civilization IV. I played more games and wasted more time, of course. At that time, I had more or less the same obligations as of today: being a husband and a father of three, full-time employee and a church community member.
At the end of September, I finally decided to put myself together and — no, not to get rid of playing computer games — improve my life. I wanted so many better things in my life — a sense it has a meaning, better relationships, more money, better health, more significance, deeper spirituality and so on.
I started a massive personal development program. I occupied myself for hours every day in reading, listening, doing some exercises recommended in the materials I consumed and starting new habits. In November 2012, I played Civilization IV for less than 4 hours. I have never played it more since then.
I simply had no time, energy and attention for gaming, as well as for watching TV, reading fiction and everything else which didn’t contribute to my project of turning my life around. At the beginning of November, I finished my personal mission statement and I got really serious.
My bad habits died by starvation.
Well, they still lurk in the depths of my brain, and when I lower my guard, they attack.
But I rarely lower my guard. I’m too busy living my new life.
When is it best?
When your enthusiasm and dedication for your good habits is higher than disgust over your bad habits, this is the way to go.
One piece of advice: make sure you are dedicated for life. It would be regrettable to discover after two decades that your jogging habit is no longer enjoyable and you go back to watching soap operas, wouldn’t it?
My life motto is “progress is my duty.” Bad habits have a fat chance of creeping back into my life when I’m engaged into improving myself up till my last day.