How To Break Your Bad Habits
An empowering formula to break your bad habits before they become harmful addictions
We all have bad habits. Some worse than others. If we don’t know how to control or break them they can develop into addictions.
Addiction can be defined as “a compulsive, chronic, physiological, or psychological need for a habit forming substance, behaviour, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects…”
Most people tend to think about substances like alcohol and drugs when we talk about addiction. However, as defined above, addiction is much broader than just a physiological need for mentioned substances.
Other common addictions include gambling, sex, and more recently online shopping, social media, and streaming services like Netflix. What they all have in common is they produce feelings of pleasure and/or euphoria. But not all. It is possible to become addicted to negative emotion such as anger, fear, worry, grief, and depression.
Additionally, the addiction really only exists to fill a void that probably developed before the addiction itself. Usually an emotion or lack thereof you didn’t know how to deal with.
One thing is for sure — addictions are complicated and we want to avoid them.
Therefore, I prefer to take a more simplistic view. To me, addictions are really just bad habits or predictive behavioural patterns developed over an extended period of time. The key word here being predictive because this allows you to see it clearly. And if you can recognise the pattern, you can break it.
Knowing that puts you in a position of power. It empowers you to change it — to change your life for the better.
As such, I have a simple yet effective 3-step formula that I use to overcome and fight my bad habits before they develop into a harmful addictions.
Step 1: Naming the habit
Recognising a pattern ought to be easy, as it happens again and again. However, often it can be incredibly difficult to see when you are right in the middle of it. Especially if you are in a place of denial which of course is common with addiction.
You have to be able to step aside and look at the situation objectively which requires a certain level of self-awareness and brutal honesty.
If you currently lack this self-awareness, all you need to do is get away from your familiar environment for a period slightly longer than what you would consider comfortable. Sooner than you expect, your habitual patterns will show up as you are unable to go about your day as you normally would.
Some of these will likely be insignificant such as your morning and evening routines, and your working schedule. For others, you will feel a more desperate longing (or perhaps a sense of freedom). This is where you want to develop an objective self-awareness and identify which habits are serving you and which are not.
Step 2: The why, the what, and the how
Once you have recognised unhelpful habits, it’s time to dig deeper. Why are they not serving you? What issues do they cause? How do they negatively affect your life?
Moreover, why do they even exist? Are they there to fill a void — loneliness, depression, anxiety, fear? If you don’t get to the bottom of why you have developed a certain habit, you won’t be able to break it — or if you do, it will undoubtedly come back. Exactly like when doctors fix symptoms of disease rather than the actual cause of the disease.
You may have to sit through an uncomfortable feeling for some time to learn why, but remember things are only uncomfortable because they are unfamiliar.
And once you have identified your habit as well as the circumstances that brought it to life, you will be able to deal with it and break the pattern.
Step 3: Break the pattern
It’s time for change. Time to do things differently. If you spend every weekend binging Netflix, try some exercise instead. If you are in the habit of checking your phone every 2 minutes, try going for a walk while leaving your phone at home. If you binge on food and snacks when you are bored, try having a hot bath or read a book.
Again, this is going to be uncomfortable and it’s going to be difficult. But if you want to break a bad habit, you have to face the uncomfortable head on.
You must be consistent, persistent, and patient. Exactly the same way the habit was formed, the only difference being deliberate action.
Of course, breaking habits isn’t a walk in the park. If it was, we wouldn’t have them. The formula may be simple, but by no means does it make it easy.
To illustrate just how the formula works in practice, here are some of my past and present ‘addictions’ and how I have attempted to deal with them.
Why, what, how: Lack of self-discipline and stamina
As we all know, smoking is not good for your health. In addition, it tastes horrible and when you first begin, your body rejects it by making you cough and splutter and you feel physically ill. So I refuse to believe that people start smoking because they enjoy it.
I certainly did not start smoking for the enjoyment. Unfortunately, I started early and only because I lacked the self-discipline as well as the stamina to stand up to peer pressure. I wanted to be part of the “cool” kids.
Breaking the pattern: Change the focus
At some point in my twenties I made a promise to myself that I wanted to quit smoking before my 30th birthday. About 10 months prior to my birthday, I got a very sore throat and a bad cough that made it impossible for me to actually inhale the smoke and it lasted about 2 weeks. During those 2 weeks, I read Allen Carr’s “Easy Way To Stop Smoking” and I never looked back.
I had tried to quit smoking many times before, but never successfully. However, this method worked for me for one specific reason. The focus was on the benefits of not smoking, rather than the downside of smoking and psychologically, that made a huge difference.
Habit: Constantly checking social media
Why, what, how: Personal insecurities
I have never been a fan of social media, I much prefer interacting with people face to face. Nevertheless, I joined Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter when they first came to life. Although Facebook initially allowed me to connect with long lost friends it quickly became just another tool to strengthen my personal insecurities. As did the other Social Media platforms.
These insecurities developed many years before social media was even a thing. But chasing likes and followers to feel loved is not necessary if you already love yourself exactly as you are. This is often the real underlying problem with Social Media addiction. And it was for me too.
Breaking the pattern: Learn to love yourself
The approach to breaking this habit was two-fold. I needed space and time for myself and with myself. This is difficult when social media platforms are constantly calling for your attention. Initially I turned off all notifications on my phone. This wasn’t as effective as I hoped so I deleted all my social media apps and only allowed myself to look at them once per day on a computer. This was hard in the beginning, but after a week or two I started to feel a sense of freedom.
Of course, that was really the easy part. Learning to love yourself (again), takes time, effort, and really hard work. For that I used positive affirmations and EFT tapping. Louise Hay is a great place to start with positive affirmations and if you type in EFT tapping into any search engine you will find countless examples.
Habit: Binging on food and snacks when bored
Why, what, how: Dependency issues
I have always found it hard to be on my own for too long. I get bored quickly (boredom is just another symptom of an underlying issue), and when I get bored I snack — even if I’m not hungry.
I have been with my husband for over 15 years and I recently realised I have never lived on my own, except for about 6 months after a break-up 17 years ago. This sometimes causes issues when I do find myself alone for extended periods.
Breaking the pattern: Spend time alone
Of course, I am not planning to leave my husband. However, as I write this I am away from my home and my husband and I have been for almost 3 months. I have been spending time with family, but I have also managed to spend time alone. Although I miss him terribly, this has been a very healthy time for me personally and I have learned a lot about myself.
In addition to spending time alone, I also have strict rules about food and snacks when I am in my own home. I never have unhealthy foods in the house because I know I will eat them if they are there.
Habit: Binging streaming services
Why, what, how: Fear of success and fear of not being good enough
I have a ton of ideas and projects I have started or want to start so binging Netflix is a complete waste of my time. Yet, from time to time I find myself glued to the tele without really watching anything specific.
These are my own projects. Projects I find interesting and want to complete, no one has asked me to do them. So using procrastination as an excuse is not going deep enough.
Rather, the real issue has more to do with the potential price of success and the fear that I won’t be good enough to complete them.
Breaking the pattern: Exercise and productivity
Whenever I feel the urge to turn on the TV, I immediately turn my attention to exercise. I’m a runner, so if I haven’t already been out that day I’ll get out my running gear. Or I will do some other exercises to help my body release some endorphins to make me feel better and kickstart my productivity.
Additionally, I have other rules in place to curb this habit; no TV until after the workday has finished; no TV until after dinner; if I have to watch TV, watch something of value (like a documentary or foreign cinema).
Why, what, how: Social anxiety and lack of self-belief
I was always a little bit awkward and shy when meeting new people. Mainly because I used to lack self-belief and felt less important than other people.
When I left Denmark and moved to London, I obviously started meeting a lot of new people and alcohol helped me deal with my insecurities and social anxiety. I would often find myself having a glass of wine or two before leaving my house if I knew I was meeting new people, just to take the edge off.
Needless to say, alcohol or any other addictive substance should not be used as a tool to overcome anything.
Breaking the pattern: Change the focus
I have previously written about my struggles with alcohol and you can read more about how I stopped for a year here.
Habit: Listening to depressing music
Why, what, how: Addiction to negative emotion
Addiction to negative emotion is a huge topic and I cannot cover all aspects of it here. However, I can explain one of the main things that kept me stuck in negative emotion during my early teens.
I listen to music every single day. I love it and wouldn’t want to exist without it. The problem is I was depressed as a young teenager and developed a love for emo music. I used to claim it helped me through some tough times — maybe it did — but if you’re no longer in a state of depression, the same music will not serve you.
If I choose to listen to that style of music, emotions such as anger and sadness start to come back and that is the last thing I want.
Breaking the pattern: Change the music
I am an open-minded person and enjoy many different styles of music. So it was relatively easy for me to delete my playlists that included too much depressing music. Instead I have created playlists specific to productivity, creativity, and happiness. This has made a huge difference to my mood on a day to day basis.
All addictions are there for a reason. If we ignore the underlying issues that cause them, we stay stuck in a pattern that may be harmful to us.
Of course, it may be hard and uncomfortable to break our habits, but do you really want to stay stuck with the alternative?
This is a chance to get real with yourself. To learn more about yourself and to help you break your habits for good, for a better life.
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your condition.