Eliminating Habits that are holding you back
Whatever your ‘bad’ habits, we all have some. It could be smoking, over or under eating or scrolling social media into the late hours. Now for some you might not even consider these bad habits. So how do you know if something is a ‘bad habit’? If it’s consuming excessive time or energy, is destructive to you or others around you or is preventing you from achieving your goals then you’ve probably identified a ‘bad habit’.
How do habits work?
All habits proceed through four stages in the same order;
- Cue or Triggers
- Response or Action
You wake up in the morning (cue), you want coffee (craving), you turn on the coffee maker (response / action), and you are rewarded with a lovely cup of coffee.
Why is it so hard to break bad habits
While you, or society, might consider these ‘bad habits’ there is a reason you keep doing them. Logic would dictate that if you know something is bad for you, why can’t you just stop? The reason is that you are getting something out of them.
There is no one size fits all when it comes to why we do these behaviours and how we can break them but there are definitely tips that can help along the way.
The first step is to identify the ‘bad’ habits, and build the awareness so that you can recognise them in the moment.
Working with clients I often hear that one of their goals is to improve their health. For some women this means improving their eating habits and for others exercising more. My first question is what are your habits today around food and exercise? Often they do so many of these tasks on autopilot that in the moment they can’t actually answer this question. Or, if they do it is not the full story. Bringing awareness allows you to get a better understanding of where you are starting from.
The next step is to recognise the cues or triggers for your ‘bad’ habits? Stress? Boredom? Tiredness? Once you have identified the trigger this allows up to interrupt the feedback loop.
The next time you find yourself triggered to engage in a ‘bad’ habit stop for a moment, and get curious. Where are you and what are you doing that has triggered you? What are your emotions in the moment?
Have a plan of action
It’s easy to say you want to break a bad habit but you need to know what you are going to do when your cue or trigger happens. This is often referred to as an ‘if-then’ plan. This goes hand in hand with the ‘implementation intentions’ first introduced by Peter Gollwitzer, Psychology professor at NYU.
- Identify the situation that triggers you? Stress? Boredom? Tiredness?
- Specify a different response that you will take. Maybe your past response to stress is to eat chocolate, but now you will go for a walk
- Combine if then – so if I get stressed by the situation I am going to take a walk instead of eating chocolate.
Change the language you use;
When working on making changes in our lives using words such as I can’t or I’m not allowed are not setting you up for success. These words lack power and your brain will register this. If you think about it these are very childish phrases. You’re a grown woman and you’re not allowed? Says who? Only you can decide this.
If you change these words to powerful choices there will be a significant positive impact on your psychology surrounding these habits. Try using words such as; I do, I choose to, I am, I am going to, I want to. See how using these words will make a different to the mindset you have around the challenges you will face.
As I continue to work with more women it is scary the number of times they refer to themselves as lazy. These are highly successful women who use this term to describe themselves or their actions, after working a 12 hour day, rushing home, making dinner and doing whatever other tasks they are responsible for. Why on earth would such accomplished women use this term to describe themselves? Could it have something to do with the incredible high standards we hold ourselves to? How about instead of calling yourself lazy you acknowledge that you prioritised what needed to happen today.
Making it a little more painful makes it easier to eliminate. If like me as a child you used to bite your nails, do you remember that horrible nail varnish they would put on your nails? If you bit your nails the taste was so disgusting it was meant to help you stop the habit. This is the same idea. As adults,you have heard about things such as swear jars to try and break a swearing habit (i have no plans to give this up anytime soon). What negative consequences could you implement?
Stop judging & beating yourself up;
The ‘screw it’ (or ‘feck it’ approach as I call it) makes you feel even worse. Have you ever decided you’re giving up a bad habit e.g. smoking. You’re starting Monday and you do great. On Tuesday you have a cigarette. You immediately go into self judgement mode. I’m not good enough; l’ll never have the willpower to quit, this is just too hard etc. This self judgement then leads to you saying ‘feck it’ and giving up. What might happen if you decide to show some self compassion? Yes, quitting smoking is hard (I know from personal experience but that’s a story for another day). How would it feel to give yourself credit for the fact that you didn’t smoke for 1 full day? How would it feel to just say YES I had a cigarette but now I am choosing to not have a cigarette.
Unless you are wonder woman it is unlikely that you will break your bad habits overnight. However, these strategies can help you achieve this over time. We all have good and bad days, and just because a habit rears it’s ugly head one day does not mean you cannot chose to make a different choice tomorrow, or even later today. Patience & perseverance are key to consistent progress.
Reduce the need for decision making
Decision making can be hard and energy sapping. Why do you think President Obama only had 2 ties or Steve Jobs wore the same clothes every day? They didn’t want to waste any of their precious energy on decisions that had little impact on their lives. They wanted all their energy to go to those decisions they viewed as important.
So the best way to help you make eliminate or create habits is by taking the decision making out of the equation. Just do it (#Nike). If you want to start going to the gym you schedule it like any other appointment and you make it happen.
I used to waste so much energy each day on deciding to the gym and then on what workout I would do. After trial and error (and even more errors) I found what works best for me. I now have specific exercise days. Monday is always Squat day (with some flexibility based on schedules). This means not only do I not need to decide about going to the gym, but I don’t have to waste any energy thinking about what exercises I am going to do when I get there.
Resisting Temptation…..creating distractions
Some research has shown that we spend up to 25% of our lives struggling to resist some kind of temptation. So it’s not surprising that our success in creating positive habits can often depend on resisting temptation….chocolate anyone? Resisting temptation is key to eliminating ‘bad’ habits.
When we talk about distractions we often think about them as a bad thing but when it comes to resisting temptation distractions could be your salvation. How can you use distraction to help you?
Tempted to eat when you sit down on the couch after dinner, use the if/then tool in conjunction with distractions, and go for a walk. Cravings are often short term events lasting up to 15 minutes but after this time they significantly reduce. Distractions can also help to reduce the stress of trying to resist temptation but you need to use the right type of distractions. The distraction should be fun and absorbing rather than stressful or anxiety creating. So think a walk in nature or a comedy on Netflix rather than scrolling social media.
Moral Licensing Loophole
Even if you haven’t heard of the moral licensing loophole chances are you have been using it in your life. This refers to when we treat ourselves to something something ‘bad’ after doing something ‘good’.
So you’re decided you want to lose weight so you eat you salad, do a great workout and then decide you deserve a treat. There is nothing inherently wrong with having a treat but if the treat is totally counter productive to the goal you are trying to achieve this is self sabotage.
You can find ways to treat yourself that are aligned to your values and your goal. How about a lovely hot bath or a massage? Find a treat that is meaningful to you, keeps you on track towards your goal and generates momentum in your actions.
Life Altering Events
Life altering events can be great times to change habits…moving house or changing job. If you recognise that habits are created by certain cues and triggers these will be removed or at least changed in the new environment. Starting afresh in one area of our life can change our perspective on life in general and make it easier to build positive habits and eliminate negative ones.
One of the keys to eliminating ‘bad’ habits is tracking. The practise of monitoring the small things you do every single day helps you progress towards your goals. We often underestimate the power of small changes over the course of a year. Remember, habits are so important because they are ultimately responsible for any change we make in our lives.
Personally, I have used the way of life app for years to track the habits I want to maintain and the new ones I want to implement. It is also helpful to tracking your success in eliminating the ‘bad’ habits.