We all have at least one—that bad habit we promise to someday overcome. Whether your bad habit affects your health and lifestyle, such as smoking, overeating or overspending, or simply annoys you or your loved ones, such as nail biting, swearing or knuckle-cracking, you can break the habit, says Eric Niemeyer, a psychologist at the North-Bay Center for Primary Care in Vacaville.
But it won’t be easy. Habits have a biological component that gets stronger the longer you practice the habit. The pleasure response that comes with that bite of chocolate is actually your brain releasing a chemical called dopamine. In time, this can result in cravings, and a habit that gets stronger and stronger.
When you’re ready for a change, your first step should be to think about your habits, and identify one you would like to change. Often we continue a bad habit because we get some sort of satisfaction or psychological boost from it. For example, that smoking break you take outside with your co-workers is also a time to relax and chat. Or, you may be fond of cracking out the credit card for a little “retail therapy” when you’re feeling down.
“The longer you have a habit, the harder it often will be to break, but it can be done,” Dr. Niemeyer says. “If you are committed to your goal, you will overcome your habit and leave it in your past.”
Tips to help you break that bad habit
once and for all:
Focus on just one habit. Give yourself the time it takes to overcome it. Make the habit conscious so you can identify what triggers the action. Often we fall into a bad habit simply by being on “autopilot.”
Make a plan. Identify the steps you can take to avoid your habit. Writing down your goal can give you a baseline to work from. You may decide to try a gradual reduction of your habit or find it easier to quit “cold turkey.”
Find a healthy alternative. Once you understand the reward you get from the habit, you can substitute another behavior that also gives you pleasure.
Visualize success. Imagine you are about to indulge in that old habit, and then stop yourself. In its place, think of throwing up your arms like you’ve successfully run a race.
Build your “self-control muscles.” The more you practice self-control, the stronger your resolve to overcome obstacles becomes. Over time, the ability to assert your self-control becomes natural and takes less effort.
Enlist the support of family and friends. When you share your goals you’ll find that most people are eager to help you succeed, and it also creates a level of accountability that many find helpful in following through on their plans.
Avoid temptation. The coffee house or donut shop may be on your regular route, but you can find a way to drive around it. Likewise, keep tempting food, cigarettes or alcohol out of your house.
Know the benefits of success. What will you achieve when you overcome your habit? It ranges from higher self-esteem to more money in the bank to a much healthier future.
Get a piggy bank. Drop in a fine every time you catch yourself acting out your bad habit. When you have conquered your habit, use the money to buy yourself a reward.