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The Secret to Breaking Bad Habits

by Scot Chadwick

Well, you did it again. You said you would never fall back into the familiar behavior you now despise. But here you are. What can you do to break your bad habit?

What Is a Habit Anyway?

A habit is something you do repeatedly to fulfill some desire. Many practices save you time and energy, and they can spare you from grief. For example, before you leave your desk, you might protect your work by saving your open files and locking your computer. Or you might brush your teeth as part of your morning routine.

But a habit can also become undesirable, costly, or otherwise troublesome to you or those around you. For example, you might immediately check your phone whenever you hear a notification alarm even if you are talking face-to-face with someone. Or you might frequently visit websites with harmful content.

Get to the Roots of Your Bad Habit

As a mature person, you know that you are responsible for your choices and actions. Though your habits often operate automatically, you are still the one carrying out the behavior. But you will likely be frustrated if you try to change a habit through willpower alone.

You will likely be frustrated if you try to change a habit through willpower alone.

There is a smarter way to conquer your automatic behavior. You can reinstate your decision-making to short-circuit your bad habits. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • What is your habit? Describe the behavior.
  • What is undesirable about your habit? What do you or others find offensive?
  • What need does your action attempt to meet? How could you meet that need differently?
  • What does your habit hinder you from attaining?
  • When and where do you perform your habit? Do you do it at a set time of day, in a specific social group, while you have a certain state of mind, or at a particular location?
  • Why do you want to change?
  • What do you want to do instead?
  • What could you do differently?
  • Are you committed to improving?

Questions like these can help you clarify your bad habit, build your resolve to change, and begin to develop a plan to overcome it. If you have trouble answering any of these questions, you might ask your spouse, children, parents, or other people who know you best. Another perspective can help define the real issues at stake.

Gain Help Through Accountability

If you’re serious about breaking your bad habit, you should seek accountability in that area. Besides providing another viewpoint, an accountability partner can also reinforce your commitment to change. These positive relationships can give you a support structure as you change your life for the better. They can also help you maintain momentum when progress becomes difficult.

Ask your accountability partner to remind you of your goal and why you are seeking it.

State your goal to select individuals and then share with them your successes and failures as you move forward. Once you have clarified your bad habit and have resolved on a new path, it becomes hard to justify your choices and actions to a trusted partner. Besides, you would hate letting someone down because of your poor decisions and actions.

Find people who will encourage you to improve and want to see you succeed. You might gain support through a community of others who also wish to change this habit. You could use an online accountability software like Accountable2You to share device usage reports with your partners. You might also send a brief progress report of when you conquered your bad habit, or when you succumbed to your old ways again.

Ask your accountability partner to remind you of your goal and why you are seeking it. Invite them to ask questions of you, evaluate your answers, and challenge you to persevere. Disclosing your choices and actions can help you realize the change you desperately desire.

How to Break a Bad Habit

Once you have clarified your bad habit and gathered some supporters around you, now is the time for action. Disrupt your mechanical behavior through deliberate choices.

In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear identifies four laws for breaking a bad habit.* Consider these laws and an example for each:

  1. Make it invisible. Reduce exposure. Remove the cues of your bad habits from your environment.” Suppose your habit is spending too much time on your cell phone during work hours. You can make this habit invisible by silencing your phone and putting it in a desk drawer while you are working.
  2. Make it unattractive. Reframe your mind-set. Highlight the benefits of avoiding your bad habits.” Maybe you want to stop reading a specific website or learning about a particular term. Using Accountable2You on your device, you can make it unattractive by setting a keyword trigger to notify your accountability partner.
  3. Make it difficult. Increase friction. Increase the number of steps between you and your bad habits. Restrict your future choices to the ones that benefit you.” What if you want to spend less time on social media? You could log out of social media apps or even uninstall the apps from your phone.
  4. Make it unsatisfying. Get an accountability partner. Ask someone to watch your behavior. Make the costs of your bad habits public and painful.” If your bad habit is looking at objectionable content online, you can authorize your accountability partner to enforce a predetermined consequence.

Conclusion: There Is Hope!

Yes, you can break your bad habits! Learn from your past mistakes and get to the heart of your thinking, desiring, and acting. Resolve on what you will change going forward. Benefit from positive relationships with those who will inspire you to conquer your undesirable behavior. Retrain yourself to move forward into a better way of living. You can do it!

* Adapted from James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (New York: Avery, 2018), 213.

Originally published on September 16, 2019

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