We don’t always do what’s best for us and for others. In some cases, we know it’s not healthy, but we do it anyway. The key here is in that awareness: once we know what we do, we can change it. Here’s how.
What a bad habit is
A habit is a behavioural pattern that you keep repeating in similar situations. It is usually the automatic response to a trigger: something happens (trigger) which makes you feel a certain way (emotion), which makes you respond a certain way (behaviour).
We are not born with habits. You learn them by copying the people around you from a very young age, consciously or unconsciously. In order to have their physical and mental well-being taken care of, infants adapt their behaviours to keep the ones that provide safety, which they need to be able to grow and become independent. These behaviours are not always constructive if the response to the environment is somewhat dysfunctional.
Take the example of a child who gets involved when her parents fight. If the parents keep involving the child (voluntarily or not, consciously or not), they reinforce a behaviour that will later make her get involved in other problematic relationships where she has no control. Take another example now: a teenager has friends who smoke but is left behind because he doesn’t smoke. He is more likely to start the habit of smoking to create and maintain his friendships.
Habits are learned, which also means they can be unlearned. It’s difficult because it is ingrained in you, but it is possible.
Make a list of your bad habits, and pick one
It will be challenging to change all your bad habits at once. I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but the chances of success when you go big are very, very low. It’s simply too overwhelming. It’s not a sprint, you are not trying to do this for just a few weeks.
The best way to stop bad habits is to first make a list so you can focus on one at a time.
How to make the list:
- What do you keep doing that makes you unhappy?
- What can’t you stop doing that isn’t serving you?
- What do you do that impacts (or could in the future) your health and well-being, or those of the people around you?
The key here is that it needs to be something you are genuinely not happy with and that is causing you an issue.
How to choose the habit to focus on:
- Look at your list and identify which one you are the most unhappy with
- Which habit is, in your opinion, the worst of all?
- If you were to improve your habits, which one would have the most positive impact on the others?
- Which habit are you the most motivated to work on at the moment?
Why do you have that habit?
We know we sound like a broken record talking about awareness as the first step for basically everything. The reality is that becoming aware of your bad habits isn’t just about knowing you’re doing something bad, it’s about understanding a few things:
- When it started: at what age did you start this behaviour?
- Why it started: what happened that made you start this bad habit?
- Why it continues: what is happening in your present or recent past that made you continue this habit?
Why does changing this habit matter to you?
Another very important thing to reflect on is your motivation to change your habit.
- Why is it important for you to stop it?
- What will you bring you in the short-term and in the long-term?
- How is it related to what you value the most in life?
Link what you are trying to do with the big picture (how it will impact your life and happiness), and with more specific goals that you can reach one at a time.
Who can help you?
Having a support system is crucial to increase your chances of success. People around you who are aware of your desire to stop a specific habit can help you in many ways:
- They can avoid tempting you (e.g. not asking you to go for a smoke if you’re trying to stop)
- They can help you be more mindful and aware (e.g. by giving you feedback on what you do well and what you could improve)
- They can motivate you when it becomes hard
- They can share their own experiences changing bad habits
- They might want to try to change the same habit at the same time
Ultimately only you will be able to create the change, but the emotional support you will receive from friends and relatives will make it easier and more sustainable.
What steps can you take?
Once you’ve narrowed down the habit to focus on, you’ve understood how it started, why it’s important you change it, and who can help, it’s now time to create an action plan. I always recommend visualising this plan with an image that speaks to you. Some of the most used metaphors are:
- A map with a starting point (where you are now) and a destination (stopping the habit permanently), with different “cities” or “stops” along the way that you need to reach one after the other,
- A colourful stairway where each step is a specific action you’ll take to bring you up,
- or a building where each floor represents a necessary stage before reaching the rooftop terrace.
Whether you use an image or not, it is your choice.
Regarding your action plan, think about incremental steps, even if you are an all-in-or-all-out type of person. What can you start doing from today? It can be a simple, small task or activity that will set you in the right direction.
I also recommend you use a tracker app (I personally use Habit Bull) and you start a journal (it can be a simple Word document) to write down what you do every day/week. It will allow you to see progress very quickly and reflect on how your habit change is going.
When to consult a professional
If you try to follow these steps on your own and you find yourself either giving up quickly or not achieving your goals after a couple of months, consider working with a professional to adjust your approach to a more customised one. If it’s health related, consult your GP or a specialist. If it’s about your mental health, a therapist will help you explore what is holding you back.
Whatever happens, keep in mind that you are more in control than you think. It takes time to build up habits and it takes even more time to break them, but you can do it.