How to Break an Unhealthy Habit: 5 Steps to Overcoming Bad Habits

Most unhealthy habits are formed because of stress or boredom, so it’s no surprise that the global pandemic caused many of us to develop unhealthy habits. Our unhealthy habits help us cope with these factors and often, they involve the release of a chemical called dopamine (our brain’s reward system). This is key: our habits, no matter how unhealthy, give us some benefit in addressing our needs, or else we would never have created the habit.

Scrolling through your phone into the early hours of the morning isn’t the greatest activity for your sleep quality, for example, but it offers the benefit of helping you feel connected to others. For this reason, you need to replace unhealthy habits with healthy habits that provide a similar benefit.

We’ll walk you through how to do that, and other useful tips for breaking an unhealthy habit. Follow our advice, and you’ll be on a better pathway toward reaching your goals.

1. Identify Your Triggers

Every habit has a trigger, or prompt, that tells you to do that action. We aren’t always aware of what our triggers are, so take the time to identify them. These questions may help:

  • Do you do your habit at a certain time of day?
  • How many times per day do you do your habit?
  • Where are you when you do it?
  • Who are you with?
  • What are you feeling right before you do it?

Use these questions to help you identify what prompts you to engage in your habit. For instance, if you frequently snack on cookies at home, does this only happen when you get stressful news? Or maybe your trigger is simply seeing the cookie jar when you walk by your kitchen. Whatever the case, document all of your triggers somewhere, and then proceed to the next step.

2. Change Your Environment

Your next step is to remove as many triggers as possible by changing your environment. In our previous example, if stress is your trigger, think about ways you can reduce or remove stress in your life (see our article on how to reduce work stress). If your trigger is seeing the cookie jar, put it somewhere out of sight or better yet, work toward not keeping cookies in the house at all.

Adjust your environment to reduce triggers; this way you won’t experience as many prompts to engage in unhealthy habits. Get your family or whoever you live with on board as well so they can better support your environment adjustments.

In some cases, you won’t be able to remove a trigger, and that’s okay. Whether you’re able to remove all of your triggers or not, the remaining steps will still help you move forward.

3. Select a Replacement Healthy Habit

Science shows that it’s much harder to simply stop doing something than it is to replace that action. Remember how we talked about unhealthy habits providing us a benefit? It’s time to set up a substitute habit that provides the same or similar benefit. Here are a few examples to get you thinking:

  • Replace smoking with deep breathing exercises
  • Replace snacking on a cookie with a healthier alternative, like dark chocolate or fruit
  • Replace watching hours of TV with a hobby like reading, painting, building, etc.

When you’ve chosen your substitute habit, set it up as follows:

The reward here is important, according to science. After all, your replacement habit may not initially provide an equal benefit to the unhealthy habit it’s replacing. In that case, a little boost in the form of celebration helps cement in your brain that this new habit is something it wants to keep doing. A reward could be as simple as a self-pat on the back (this truly works, as strange as it sounds), a cup of tea, or another small win. What type of celebration you choose is up to you!

4. Practice Visualization

So far, we’ve talked about the mechanics of forming habits, but another key element in habit-forming is motivation. It’s best to capture a clear idea of what’s motivating you to quit your unhealthy habits, as you can refer back to that over and over again if you’re feeling discouraged.

Visualization is a great tool for identifying internal motivators. To try it, start by closing your eyes and envisioning a future you, one year from now. This future you has successfully stopped whatever unhealthy habit it is you’re trying to overcome. What is that future you like? What qualities do they have that you currently don’t? What are they able to do that you can’t do? What would they say to you if they were in the same room as you?

Call on this image of future you when you’re feeling unmotivated. It will help you stay on track to becoming the person you want to be.

5. Stay Away from Black and White Thinking

As your final step, rethink how you approach the idea of failure. It’s very common for people to have black and white thinking on their goals: for example, I either exercise four times this week or I failed. The reality is there’s a gray area worthy of recognition: perhaps you exercised three times this week, which is still much better than no exercise at all. This shouldn’t be considered a failure, but rather something to be rewarded.

Life isn’t usually all-or-nothing, and you shouldn’t approach goal-setting or habit-forming that way either. Be kind to yourself, and celebrate the small wins along the way.

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