Tips for Breaking Habits
If you could wake up tomorrow and get rid of any habit, what would it be? Doom-scrolling before bed? Maybe the impulse to correct people's grammar in casual text conversations? Smoking, biting your nails, the 3 pm coffee that always makes you crash harder around dinner time?
Waking up tomorrow without this habit is a tall order, but what if you could break your habit within a matter of months? The good news is – you can.
What makes a 'bad' habit?
Habits can be great – brushing your teeth, washing your hands, listening to a hype-up song before an interview or date. But when a habit gets in the way of your health, happiness, success or relationships, it's probably doing more harm than good; it's a bad habit.
Bad habits can be quick to identify, like eating fast food with little nutritional value every night. Or, they might be hiding in plain sight, like exercising (a good thing, right?), but over-exercising to the point of a mental fixation, social isolation or physical burnout.
Habits form because they make us feel good and reward our brain, usually with dopamine. We create a reward system associated with the habit, and the behaviour becomes a shortcut to feeling good, regardless of if it's destructive in the long term.
How do habits form?
A habit is usually formed by repeating a simple three-stage process, sometimes referred to as the three Rs:
A reminder or trigger presents itself in a particular context. This trigger could be an action or an emotion – for example, the trigger of someone sneezing (which leads you to say 'Bless you') or the trigger of feeling stressed (which makes you want a cigarette).
Consistently reacting in a certain way to a reminder can create a routine. If the reminder is a sneeze, the routine is saying 'Bless you'. The more often you perform a specific action in response to a particular trigger, the stronger the neural pathways in your brain become that inform that behaviour. Like Pavlov's dogs, you're conditioning your mind and body to want or do something – eventually, without thinking about it.
The reward cements the reminder and routine reaction. When a habit makes you feel good, you're more likely to repeat it. If saying 'Bless you' gets a 'Thank you' and makes you feel good, you'll probably say it again next time someone sneezes.
How do you break a habit?
You may have heard that it takes 21 days to break a habit. Weirdly enough, this rule of thumb began from the results of a study that saw it took about 21 days for people who had plastic surgery to adjust to their new appearance – not exactly the correct data to use for breaking bad habits.
More likely, breaking a habit takes two to three months, but this time frame changes depending on the person, the habit and the method used to break it. This leads us to the first tip for breaking a habit:
Give it time
More often than not, you won't change a habit straight away. You've got some re-wiring to do in your brain to break out of that reward cycle. You're also likely to slip up when trying to quit a bad habit. Remind yourself you're undertaking a pretty intense cognitive reshuffle, and the key is to persist in the face of relapses or struggles.
Identify your three Rs and work to alter them.
Avoid the reminder
Identifying the situations that trigger your habit can help you avoid them. Do you always pick up your phone to scroll social media when you get in bed and wind-up bathing yourself in blue light for an hour and having a bad sleep? Leave your phone in another room, buy an alarm clock, or remove the apps from your phone when first trying to skip the habit.
You won't be able to avoid every trigger. If 5 pm always means cracking a soda, you'll have a 5 pm temptation every day. For these situations, you'll need to work on changing the routine.
Change the routine: Particularly for habits for which you can't avoid the trigger, you'll need to be intentional about switching your response to them. When 5 pm rolls around, and the temptation to grab a can of soft drink kicks in, you need to work toward not going for the fridge. But how do you do this?
Distract yourself: Remove yourself from the trigger as best you can, for example, go for a walk, call a friend or otherwise busy your hands or brain instead of getting the soft drink.
Replace the routine: A good way to ease off a habit is to start by substituting the behaviour with something less harmful. Try having a less unhealthy drink ready, like a naturally-flavoured electrolyte drink or mineral water with lemon. Please be mindful of replacing one harmful habit with another habit that's harmful in a different way.
Create a different path to the reward
What's the reward you're getting from your bad habit? It could be stress relief from a dopamine hit or a sugar rush. Identify the goal of the habit, for example, 'reduce stress', and figure out a healthier way to get there, like breathing exercises.
How to stay motivated to kick a habit
The first couple of months of quitting a habit can be rough. Your brain and body will be crying out for it, and you'll want to listen. Help yourself out with a few strategies to stay motivated:
Identify the long-term benefits of life without this habit and the long-term negatives if you don't make a change.
Try handwriting the benefits you'll be enjoying a few months from now if you stick with it and break your habit – for example, 'more energy, improved fitness, extended life expectancy, better moods' for quitting sugary snacks.
Then, do the same for the version of you that keeps up the habit: 'low energy, higher risk of disease, shorter life expectancy, more irritable.' Keep these versions of you in mind whenever the temptation of your bad habit sneaks up.
Depending on your habit, you may benefit from speaking to a doctor, pharmacist, therapist, nutritionist or another professional that can help you safely and effectively remove the vice from your life. You should also turn to the people you trust for support, whether it be your parents, friends or someone you know who's already quit the same habit.
Quitting a habit can be confronting and requires some self-reflection. Being mindful of your reasons for quitting and why it's hard can help you stay in touch with yourself through the process. Ways to be mindful include journaling, meditating, breathing exercises and connecting with your senses through any experience.
Reach for RESCUE Remedy®
When you could use some support staying balanced, composed and focused, or you're looking for some comfort and reassurance, RESCUE Remedy® can help. The natural blend of flower essences helps restore emotional balance and resilience in times of demand – like when you're quitting a habit!
RESCUE Sleep® can also help when you have distracting thoughts keeping you awake or if your habit's trigger is bedtime (like scrolling on your phone).
Give it time
We're repeating this one because it's important. Remember to create that image of a happier version of yourself once you've kicked this habit, and keep working toward it even when you slip up or give in. You can always try again.