How to Break Bad Habits

Stop smoking, eat right, get fit — use these tips to get started
woman starting exercise with stretching yoga

People know they want to change — know they need to change — but they resist, even to their own detriment, says psychologist Scott Bea, PsyD. 

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“We are comfort-craving critters and that leads us to some compulsive bad habits,” he says.

Despite this, with some planning, effort and focus, we can change our habits. It’s worth it with all the potential benefits, including longevity, a model for future behavioral changes and enhanced self-esteem.

“Self-belief — belief in one’s own effectiveness and ability to chart one’s course — puts wind in our sails for just about every endeavor we encounter,” he says.

But how long does it take to break a bad habit and how can you build good and bad ones? Whether you want to quit smoking, eat better or take on some other habit-breaking or habit-making, Dr. Bea offers seven simple ways to break bad habits:

1. Prepare for discomfort

Whether your goal is weight loss, better nutrition, improved physical fitness or another lifestyle change, some of the best ways to break bad habits is to prepare yourself to feel uncomfortable. 

“As humans, we resist discomfort,” says Dr. Bea.

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“We wait for willpower or a feeling to come over us. In reality, it is an unwillingness to accept that something will be uncomfortable that keeps us from where we have to go.”

2. Create a game plan

To start a new habit (or to change a bad one): Include a start date and the ways you’ll change the behavior and track your progress as well as challenges. You also want to watch your self-talk. 

“We can easily tell ourselves, ‘Life is tough right now; I’ll start at another time.’ You have to watch that you don’t seduce yourself away from change,” he says.

3. Set realistic goals

People often take on more than they can handle. They promise to use a treadmill every day, but instead of starting off slow, they run for 30 minutes the very first time. Not only can this result in physical injury, but it can lead them to immediately stop using the treadmill. Rather than making monumental effort, it’s important to adopt incremental goals.

4. Establish incentives

Incentives can motivate yourself to do uncomfortable things. You can create symbolic rewards, such as throwing dollars into a cookie jar, for every day you engage in a positive behavior. 

“It’s also a great way to get back into a good habit if you stumble along the way – and makes it more likely you’ll continue in the right direction,” says Dr. Bea.

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5. Maintain your goals

Carry an index card with you listing the benefits of a behavioral change for those times when your emotions challenge you. The good a change will do should be immediate, like lower blood pressure, and not in the faraway future, such as a desire to enjoy your grandchildren. When you’re suffering in the moment, you need a strategy to deal with that discomfort right away.

6. Keep temptation away

If you want to eat better, keep unhealthy foods from your pantry and fridge. If you want to quit smoking, get rid of every cigarette. This not only keeps temptation away; by not purchasing these products, you create a counter-incentive. The money you would otherwise spend on these items can be saved and used later on for something you really want.

7. Recognize that it’s a journey

Once you realize a behavioral change, what happens next? It’s time to adopt a maintenance schedule, or as Dr. Bea explains, go into relapse-prevention mode. 

“Our humanness can drag us right back,” he says. “We’re creatures of habit, and bad habits still have some power over us. If you fall back into bad habits, remember that sometimes it takes many trials to get to where you want to go.”

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