We all have at least some bad habits. Whether we watch television, spend too much time on social media, or avoid exercise, we can all think of some entrenched behaviors that we would rather change.
However, in practice, it’s often hard to move past these habits. For example, you might kick one of them for a few days, and then, before you know it, you slip right back into your old ways. We want to help you change that.
First, we’ll look at the nature of habits and their formation. More importantly, we’ll then tackle the matter of how you change your habits.
We’ll offer tips you can use to break a bad habit starting today, and explore how long it takes to reliably establish a new habit.
Finally, we’ll talk about how to generally establish good habits in life, sharing all the best tricks and techniques to help you stick to habits that promote health and happiness.
What Is A Habit And How Do Habits Form?
The formation of habits is a subconscious process that involves a looping series of steps – cue, craving, response, and reward. Suppose, for example, that you have a habit of eating when you’re stressed.
First, in the cue stage, there is some kind of stressful trigger that tells your brain it’s time to kickstart a particular pattern of behavior.
Secondly, you experience a strong urge to do that thing – in other words, to eat something now that you’ve stressed.
Thirdly, in the response phase, you go ahead and fulfill that craving, by eating something.
Finally – and crucially – you hit the reward stage where you (temporarily) feel good because you’ve eaten something.
At this point, your brain gives you a big hit of dopamine – the “reward” chemical that makes you want to keep on coming back to the same behavior, again and again, even when you know it’s self-destructive.
Another important neurological point to note is that the decision-making part of the brain is inert when we’re in the throes of a habit.
Instead, we’re in a kind of “automatic” mode, where cues and cravings bypass our reasoning. However, habits don’t have to be bad – we can harness this cycle for our own good.
The Power Of Habits And How They Can Change Your Life
An estimated 45% of our time is spent doing habitual tasks. It stands to reason, then, that habits can completely transform your life.
When they’re healthy, they promote mental and physical well-being. And when they’re unhealthy, they do the opposite.
That means it’s absolutely vital to identify and analyze your own habits.
The good news is that even very small changes can trigger massive transformations in the long-term.
Any successful person you admire or look up to has simply cultivated a group of strong, positive, and constant habits.
With this in mind, let’s first consider how to scrap bad habits, then move on to discuss how to cultivate good ones.
How To Break Bad Habits Once And For All
If you want to figure out how to break habits, you need to use your knowledge of the aforementioned habit loop to your advantage. In other words, you need to figure out exactly what your cues, cravings, responses, and rewards are.
This allows you to make plans that undermine this cycle. In time, you can associate a trigger like stress or anxiety with a different craving, response, and reward altogether.
Breaking Bad Habits By Identifying Your Triggers
The very first thing you’ll want to do is figure out the specific triggers for your bad habits. One way to do this is to commit to logging your habits for a week.
Every time you catch yourself doing something you don’t really stand by, write it down. What were you thinking, feeling, and doing before you started doing this?
Quite quickly, you’ll begin to see patterns emerge. At this point, you can begin to remove these cues (or triggers) from your environment.
Let’s take an example. Imagine, your unwanted habit is scrolling through your social media feed, and that you’ve identified the following triggers: feeling bored, and not having a clear schedule for the day.
To respond to these triggers, make your environment more interesting. Add other things that engage you, that offer a clear alternative choice. Meanwhile, plan each day’s schedule the night before.
Breaking Bad Habits By Making Them Difficult
Psychology experts tell us that we are more likely to take the path of least resistance. In other words, generally speaking, we do what is easy, and avoid what is hard.
You can take advantage of this tendency with respect to bad habits, and make the habits harder to do. For example, in the social media case above, you could put your phone in a locked drawer, or uninstall certain apps, or put install a timer in your browser that limits access to certain sites.
There are straightforward ways to make the worst habits harder. Stress-eaters can simply refuse to buy some of their most tempting foods, or place them on the highest shelves.
Fingernail biters can cover their nails with false nails. And those who watch too much TV can take the batteries out of the remote. All of these actions make it tough to automatically slide into a habit, allowing your reasoning faculties to come back online.
How Many Days Does It Take To Break A Habit?
As you’ll be aware from previous attempts, you can’t break a habit overnight. In fact, sometimes it can feel like it takes forever. The research on this says slightly different things.
For example, plastic surgery studies indicate it takes around 21 days to adjust to the changes from a cosmetic procedure.
Meanwhile, researchers at University College London found the average habit took about 66 days to adopt.
In general, the consensus now is that it takes at least two months to really break an old habit.
So, if you’re still finding things tricky after a few weeks, don’t despair – you’re well on your way.
How Long Does It Take To Form A Habit?
We can except a similar timeframe to be true when trying to establish a brand new habit (such as an exercise routine, a meditation practice, or daily sessions honing a skill).
The aforementioned study saw results ranging from just 18 days to 254, so you can safely assume you’re likely to be somewhere in the middle.
In other words, if you start a new habit today, you will likely have securely established it in about 4-8 weeks.
How To Develop Good Habits In Life
As we’ve already discussed, you can create barriers to unhealthy habits but you will still encounter triggers fairly often. The real trick is to swap a bad habit for a good one.
With that in mind, let’s look at the foundational techniques you can use to establish healthy new habits that last.
Forming Habits By Building Systems, Not Goals.
Let’s be careful at differentiating between building goals and building systems, as the latter is what will bring you success. First, think about what it feels like to set a big goal.
It can be frightening, right? Some people find big goals inspiring and immediately start working toward them, but many of us are scared into procrastinating instead. We may tell ourselves that we’re not ready yet, or that we have too much on our plates.
In contrast, building systems starts with thinking about what a person would do if they had achieved your goals. How would they spend their time? What would their schedule look like?
Then, build a system around what you’ve deduced. Instead of obsessing about outcomes (e.g., “I want to be promoted”), you start to focus on processes (e.g., “I’m going to attend three professional development seminars this month”).
In addition, view yourself as you’d view the version of you who has achieved your goals. Tell yourself “I’m moving up the ladder at work”, not “I want to be promoted.”
In sum, if you build a system that makes you behave like a driven, professionally capable person, meeting your promotion goal almost takes care of itself.
Forming Habits By Making Them Obvious
The first step here is to make your current bad habits more obvious to yourself. A fantastic trick here is to make sure you write your habits down and name them.
For each item on the last, ask yourself if you want to keep it in your life. If you don’t, write a revised plan that brings a new habit into play, and write down the details.
For example, you might want to replace the habit of eating candy with the habit of eating more fruit and vegetables.
At what points in the day will you do this? What challenges will you face in trying to keep up this habit? Plan for them, and put those plans into practice.
Try to design your environment to draw attention to your new habits and make them obvious to you. For example, take the food you want to avoid out of sight, and put the food you want to eat in sight.
Just as important is the act of surrounding yourself with people who make your new, positive habit obvious. In our current example, this means spending time with health-conscious fit people who remind you why your new habit is so attractive to you.
Forming Habits By Making Them Easy
To make your habits easy, start small and straightforward. So, if you want to be able to run a marathon, start with a week in which you go for a power walk every second day.
And if you want to become a writer, don’t try to complete a novel over a weekend. Instead, challenge yourself to write 200 words a day this week, then 500 words a day next week.
The key point here is that real, lasting change doesn’t happen overnight.
It’s slow and gradual, and it establishes solid foundations that stop you from straying in the future.
Further, make sure you don’t get hung up on doing your habits the “right” way. In other words, you don’t need the very best tennis shoes, or to wait until you can afford the best Bluetooth headphones to soundtrack your run.
Any supportive, comfortable shoes are good enough, and no one ever failed to get fit because they were wearing old headphones.
In sum, making a habit easy is about practicing ever-increasing parts of the system you came up with when we were talking about systems and goals. It’s about showing up with a little time, effort, and determination each day.
Forming Habits By Changing Your Mindset
Finally, to establish and stick to a healthy new habit, you need to adapt your thinking. The good news is that these changes support not only your new habit but healthy self-esteem and success in all areas of life.
One of the most powerful things you can do in this area is to tell yourself “I don’t” rather than “I can’t” when you’re trying to reject a bad habit and replace it with a good one.
Research on this change proves that it actively helps you make healthier, better decisions. For example, one study of 120 participants compared those who said “I can’t” with those who said, “I won’t”.
So, say, the first group might repeat the sentence “I can’t eat candy” and the second would repeat the sentence “I won’t eat candy.”
When they were presented with candy, the “I can’t” group ate the chocolate over 60% of the time while the “I don’t” group ate it closer to 35% of the time.
Perhaps what’s going on here is that “can’t” makes something forbidden and exciting, while “I don’t” emphasizes that the habit change is a product of your own agency. It reflects how you truly want to live your life.