The “how to” on the how to break bad habits.
Our minds are habitual in how they think. And, thinking can influence behaviors when we are fused with our thoughts, which is one of the reasons that trying to break bad habits can be so tough—even when we desperately want to create change in our lives. It’s said that it takes 30 days, or longer, and can take up to 6 months to develop a new habit, but how about breaking an old one? Given the strong hold that habitual thinking and related engrained behavior has on all of us, I advice clients to stop focusing solely on stopping a certain undesired behavior and, instead, shift focus to creating a new behavior that is in alignment with what is important to them to replace the old habit with. Take for example someone who wants to lose weight, but has a love affair with potato chips. While potato chips have become his or her go-to in times of stress, hunger, happiness, etc., this same person has defined health, vitality and feeling good in his or her body as values that are important. Exercising daily and eating healthy foods help support these values, while indulging in potato chips—the dreaded habit—do not. And, while focusing on NOT eating potato chips, they seem to be EVERYWHERE. Going to the grocery store becomes a nightmare, and the temptation to walk down the forbidden aisle, grabbing a bag of chips and stuffing them into his or her mouth, begins to permeate the thinking. The proverbial potato chip aisle is hard to resist; I know. And so does anyone else who has ever tried to break bad habits.
The truth is that you can’t avoid the grocery store or blacklist chips from your life. But, you can identify the ways that being fused with your thoughts is not serving you, tap into your values and take mindful action to change your habits. Breaking bad habits won’t happen overnight—it’ll take at least 30 days as some research suggests—but it can be done. And, the following three tips can help you replace the behaviors that no longer serve you with habits for success.
Thank Your Mind
When you notice that your mind is thinking in a way that is not serving you and wants to engage in the bad habit, take a minute to thank your mind for being so efficient and then bring your thinking back to the habit that you want to create. For instance, and staying on the potato chip theme, say you’re about to walk past the potato chip aisle in the grocery store and your mind’s habitual thinking acts up. “Walk down that aisle,” the mind says. “Look at all those colorful bags of crunchy, salty chips. They’re irresistible. They’re so good!” Notice that your mind is running its efficient, engrained routine and thank it for doing so. Then bring yourself back to the habit you want to create, which, in this case, is eating healthier food. As you slow down, you can become aware of what your mind is telling you to do, which gives you the time, space and personal power to choose to engage in the old habit or choose to do something different.
Name The Story
When on the spot, about to engage in a bad habit, it can be extremely helpful to put a container around the problem or issue. One way to do this is to “name the story,” which you can do by giving the habit or your feelings about it a name. For example, when you’re standing in front of that aisle and your mind is howling for potato chips, name that feeling. Perhaps you call it Tormentor 2. Or, maybe you feel like the Michelin Man from the tire ads after eating too many chips and give the habit story that name. Really, it can be anything you want, although using humor can add some levity to your experience.
Naming the story adds something new to the relationship you have with the engrained behavior and, thus, changes your relationship to it. By interrupting and changing the routine thought pattern, you put a new layer on it, which is exactly what you want to do to shift an old habit into a new one. The old habit never really goes away, but by adding layers of new habits upon it, you can wear it out!
Take Committed Action
Now it’s time to make a choice. You’re either going down that potato chip aisle or you’re not. And, you don’t want to. So, thank your big, beautiful, consistent brain again; remember the story you just created about the potato chip aisle; and take a committed action that supports your values and identified goal. Perhaps you begin walking toward the section of the store where you know the healthy foods are. Walking past the potato chip aisle doesn’t make all the potato chips or your desire to eat them go away, but it does help you move toward what is important to you.
Give Fuel To What You Want
There’s a yumminess about being in alignment with your values and choosing to not succumb to the habits that you want to break—be they eating potato chips, smoking cigarettes, watching too much TV or continuing the act as a people pleaser. Shifting longstanding behavioral patterns can be hard, but the practice becomes easier with increased awareness and practice.
And, if you’re really struggling to affect change, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. We all have places and spaces in our lives in which we feel stuck. We all also have obstacles that we’ve overcome that are worthy of celebration. Regardless of where you are, it’s important to identify and then give fuel to what is important to you in your life.
What habit or behavior is holding you back from living the life you want? What is the life you want? What’s important to you right here, right now?
If you’re unsure, habit coaching is a great way for you to get clear on where you are right now and where you want to go. A professional life coach can also provide you with guidance, support, skills, tips, tools and strategies that are tailor-designed to work specifically for you.