10 Ways to Kick a Bad Habit to the Curb

10 Ways to Kick a Bad Habit to the Curb

Experts share their best techniques for changing bad behavior permanently.

By Leah Maxwell

Behind every good woman is at least one bad habit. And while what makes a particular behavior “bad” is in the eye of the beholder, there are two things that your bad habit has in common with my bad habit(s), and with everyone else’s bad habits: 1. We know they’re not the best way to live, and 2. We wish it weren’t so hard to make better choices. But why is it so hard, and what can we do to make it easier? We asked experts for their advice on how to change bad habits -- whatever that means for you -- and they shared these 10 tips to get you started.

1. Figure out why you’ve developed the bad habit in the first place. Lifestyle, business, and relationship coach June Saruwatari suggests asking yourself a series of questions to get to the root of the matter. Why is this defined as a bad habit? What purpose is this bad habit serving in your life? What void is it filling? Do you actually LOVE this bad habit? “If you examine it with a fine-tooth comb, you will unveil the many reasons why you might ... continue with that bad habit,” she says. Identifying the underlying issues as well as defining your relationship to the bad habit is a good first step toward changing the behavior.

2. Make an airtight commitment to change. “In order to break a bad habit, you have to really want it,” says therapist and author Margot Brown, who emphasizes that you need to be completely committed if you want to see real change. In short, she says it will not work if you give it lip service, so get ready to keep your promise to yourself.

3. Believe you can achieve. Another key to habit-breaking success is having confidence in your ability to reach your goal. If you are the type of person who self-sabotages your own efforts, you’ll need to be extra observant to make sure you don’t talk yourself into failing, says Brown. “When you get that old familiar feeling that things are not going to work out, you need to take a step back,” she explains. “Reinforce positive thoughts that you CAN do it, and that it’s just going to take some time.” Don’t make failure a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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4. Don’t give others a chance to sabotage you, either. Community support can be a valuable tool in changing bad behavior, but sometimes sharing your personal goals can backfire. “It’s very important in the early stages of deciding you really want to change to not announce [your intentions] to everyone,” says Brown. She warns that telling certain friends, family, or coworkers can set you up for failure. Seek support from those you’re certain can provide it, but skip sharing with snarky friends or naysaying relatives whose response might be something like, “Here she goes again!” Don’t give a Negative Nellie a front-row seat to your journey.

5. Make the bad habit impossible to continue. Some bad habits can be curbed simply by taking away the means to engage in them. See if you can replace your problem behavior with a good, incompatible behavior (for instance, swap eating in front of the TV for knitting in front of the TV). And be honest with yourself about how much control you actually have over your bad habit. If you can stop buying the cookies you want to stop eating, or put your smartphone in another room so you don’t check it at the dinner table, do those things! It sounds simple and, guess what – it is. If you’re not willing to do the obvious, go back to step 1 and figure out why you’re self-sabotaging rather than committing to the change you say you want.

6. Don’t overwhelm yourself by going cold turkey. In some cases, halting your habit too abruptly can be disastrous, so it’s good to be mindful when deciding whether to go cold turkey. “You have to beat bad habits by cutting them back little by little, a few days or weeks a time, in order to adjust to your new routine and mindset,” says Brown. There’s no shame in taking things slow if they’ll lead to greater long-term success. Don’t psych yourself out by taking on too much too soon.

7. Scare yourself straight. If your bad habit poses an actual threat to things as important as your health, your career, your finances, or your relationships (rather than, say, merely threatening the appearance of the fingernails you can’t stop biting), arm yourself with the knowledge -- the good, the bad, and especially the ugly -- as a way of underlining the importance of changing your behavior. Think about what you’d say to a dear friend in this situation and then say those things to yourself.


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8. Celebrate your small successes. Some bad habits can take a lot of time and effort to break, and in those cases it’s important to acknowledge your progress along the way. Judith Beck, PhD, president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in suburban Philadelphia, says, “Give yourself credit every time you engage in constructive behavior, e.g., ‘Good, I had one moderate portion of ice cream and stopped.’ This is important [for] building your confidence ... and you’re more likely to repeat behaviors you’re rewarded for.” If you only ever reward yourself for reaching larger goals, you might find it hard to stick with the plan, so give yourself props when props are due.

9. Motivate yourself with a big reward. Often, breaking a bad habit is a reward in and of itself, but that doesn’t mean an extra prize at the end of the journey doesn’t help too. Decide ahead of time how you’ll reward yourself (splurge on a massage?), and watch how well that keeps you on track, says Beck.

10. Get real about relapses. Nobody’s perfect, and relapses happen. Beck says if you fall back into the old habit, don’t gloss over it but take time to assess why it happened. Was there a practical problem that interfered? Do you need to do some problem solving in case that happens again? Did you have a sabotaging thought (like “I’m too tired” or “I don’t feel like it”)? What can you do to prevent the same thing from happening next time? If you slip up, don’t turn that into an excuse to quit but rather an excuse to renew your commitment and work even harder. You can do it!

What are your best tips for breaking a bad habit?

Leah Maxwell is a book editor, freelance writer, cereal addict, wife, and mom to two young boys. She has been blogging at A Girl and a Boy since 2003.

Image ©iStock.com/Tuned_In

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