When we think of habit change, we usually focus on the behavior—“STOP DOING THAT!”—and then we wonder why it doesn’t work. When you’re caught up in a cycle of engaging with a bad habit you’ve been trying to let go of for a long time, there’s a lot of mental baggage there.
You might think, “Just this one last time.” And then there could be thousands of “one last times” that last over the span of years.
We try begging and pleading with ourselves, shaming ourselves…eventually giving up by pretending the habit is “no big deal” and thinking maybe we shouldn’t even bother trying to break it.
We think, “But what’s a life without pleasure? I LIKE this habit!” as another excuse to keep a behavior that ultimately hurts us or holds us back in some ways.
It’s no wonder that so many of us become trapped in bad habits with no way out. Our egos play tricks on us that keep us at a stage of wasting our lives at best, and at worst: we annihilate our health and peace of mind one day at a time by remaining stuck with old behaviors that no longer serve us well.
If You’re Serious About Breaking Your Worst Habit…
If you REALLY want to break a bad habit and you’re truly ready to leave behind the mind games and get on with your life, here’s how to do it in 6 steps. These steps aren’t “simple” or “easy” but you probably already knew that: if it’s going to actually work, it’s not an effortless solution.
However, it’s no easier to stay trapped in a destructive habit for the rest of your life, either. And if you do succeed in breaking your bad habit, life does become undeniably easier than remaining trapped in the struggle.
Let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!
1. Write down an honest history of your habit.
I will use myself as an example. For most of my adult life, I’ve used food (and sometimes alcohol) to assuage uncomfortable feelings. It started in my mid-twenties.
I felt a gap in my being. At the time, I held ‘this or that’ situation responsible. [Much later in my life, I learned my biggest problem was a lack of self-love. All the petty day-to-day stuff that happened was pretty irrelevant.] But still, I blamed all the things that went “wrong” in my life for my misery.
I turned to red wine, Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream, and cigarettes to ease my depression.
And here’s the thing: it worked! I felt a lot better. The habit of numbing became engrained, and although I did quit smoking, I kept going with the food and wine end of the equation for years.
Not to make this all about ME—let’s make it about YOU. Write down how your habit began, and what was going on in your life. Also write down what you know now that you didn’t know then.
Inventory the part of your life you’ve spent stuck in this cycle of:
- Something went “wrong.” Usually there’s an underlying issue that wasn’t addressed, but you blamed someone or something else for your discomfort.
- You reach for your bad habit, and you get something out of it—distraction from problems, temporary pleasure, etc.
- There are consequences to engaging in the bad habit: for example, weight gain, shame, guilt, etc. Sometimes there might even be “real world consequences” like if you hurt someone or your health. I want you to really get down in the muck on this one. Usually when we have a bad habit, we’re fooling ourselves in so many ways. Uncover the lies you’ve been telling yourself to protect your habit that make the consequences seem “not so bad”. Instead of minimizing the consequences, list honestly all the ways your bad habit has hurt you over the years. Think of everything you regret in relation to the habit: time and money wasted, going without long-term feelings of well-being and satisfaction, etc.
2. Mourn what you need to let go of.
When we keep trying to quit a bad habit—yet we’re baffled when we fail—it’s usually because that habit has become a friend to us. When I’ve had a hard day, a plate of pasta can make it feel alright. That’s NOT an easy thing to give up! At nearly the push of a button, POOF! all my problems are gone, at least while I’m eating.
When we fail at giving up a bad habit, it’s because we’re one foot in, one foot out. We think we can always push that emergency button if we really need our bad habit to support us. This second step involves letting go of the idea that we can go back. If you actually want to give up the bad habit, you’re going to have to look it in the face and cry while you say goodbye forever.
When I was giving up my own use of food as an emotional tool, I had to list out the things I loved about it. I had to allow myself to feel sad about the goodbye. (And yes, I cried.)
In order to break a bad habit, the end has to become real for you. You need to actually acknowledge that it’s over. This step is about being radically honest with yourself. Are you actually giving up your habit this time? Or just saying it (again). Get real with yourself.
Get emotional! It’s also a good thing to acknowledge and feel sad about the years you’ve spent struggling. Don’t punish yourself—punish the habit by closing the door. Those years are over now. There’s a new life ahead of you.
While you acknowledge how the habit worked for you on some level, see clearly all the ways it has also worked against you.
3. Go bananas fighting yourself and your habit.
I know, this sounds like an odd step, but if you’re anything like me, once you make a rule, you’ll want to break it.
So it’s possible that once you make the decision to shut the door on a bad habit, your mind will basically freak out and you’ll immediately break the rule you just made. I want you to be prepared for this potential scenario, because how you handle it is the difference between success and failure.
Here’s the scenario. You’ve decided to give up your bad habit. You’ve said goodbye…and you’re mysteriously drawn to doing the very thing you said you weren’t going to do anymore. Let’s say your habit is chocolate. You will go to the store and buy a big bag of chocolate and tear into it. You won’t mean to. You will think, “What is WRONG with me? JUST STAHP ALREADY!!!”
There are two ways you can handle this: 1. The wrong way and 2. The right way.
Here’s the wrong way, and what most of us do if we don’t know any better…
You immediately start struggling with cravings, debating with yourself, scheming to binge on chocolate…and the next minute you’re writing down a healthy meal plan and calendaring your gym sessions. And then you eat the chocolate anyway.
Then you berate yourself for being weak, you yell at the chocolate that it’s evil, and this goes on for another several years. Your struggle, you’re angry, you’re sad…you waffle between determination and resignation, and eventually your life becomes a blur of bad habits again. You forget that you were even trying to change, and you’re back to square one. It’s as if you never made the decision to quit in the first place.
Here’s the right way.
So you flipped out and bought a bag of chocolate. You’re going to eat it. You know this much. Your choice now lies in how you eat it. You can either eat it in a blind frenzy of guilt. Or you can eat it carefully…you can sneak up on yourself like you’re a scientist observing a wild animal in the jungle. You can journal about your experience. You can learn about yourself through the habit of indulging in chocolate. What are you running from when you turn to chocolate? Why?
You don’t get sad or mad or feel guilty. You just watch yourself from a place of curiosity. Now this stage of “cheating” might go on for quite some time. But as long as you stay conscious and curious, it probably won’t last too long, because you’re learning during the process (rather than eating yourself into oblivion.)
While you observe your own behavior, I want you to notice what wanting feels like, and what giving in feels like. There’s always a feeling of tension when we want followed by relief when we give in.
But the relief is actually a result of making a decision one way or another (not from giving in.) Because remember, after we give in, we have to suffer the results of having given in. And if you’re reading this, then you’ve already suffered enough of those results.
If the decision was a firm choice NOT to give in, we would feel that same sense of relief. On the flip side, debating with ourselves and going back and forth with the decision only increases the tension, making it more likely you’ll cave, and it increases your propensity for struggle going forward.
Just know this: we often trick ourselves into wrongly thinking we will suffer more if we deny ourselves the “treat” that has caused us so much grief.
Consider this: denying yourself this toxic “treat” can bring you more pleasure than giving in ever could.
4. Find other coping mechanisms.
This is both the hard part and the easy part. It’s hard because we’ve trained our brains to get a charge out of our bad habit. And so when we pick up a new coping mechanism, it’s going to feel like a watered down substitute at first. We’re going to feel super annoyed that the new habit fails to take all our worries away instantaneously.
Beware of holding bad feelings towards your new coping mechanisms. In order for them to take root and do their job, you need to look kindly and positively upon them. It’s going to take time for your new habits to work a groove into your neural pathways and to feel rewarding.
Two of my favorite coping mechanisms are exercise and mindfulness. Exercise boosts mood. Period. So if I take a walk outside every day, I’m going to be a happier person. When I compare that to my old habits, which were making me feel fat, foggy, and—in the long run—much sadder, then exercise wins, hands down. But we all know what it’s like to start an exercise routine. Not always that great on day 1, am I right? So give it some time to lift you up.
My other favorite coping mechanism, mindfulness, is the backbone of willpower. Usually we listen to our thoughts all day long: “I don’t feel like working anymore. When’s lunch? I wonder what I should eat. I’m so glad I got the garage door fixed. I want to call my sister.” And so on and so forth.
When we are mindful, we watch our thoughts from a detached distance. When we get triggered by something or angry at somebody, when we’ve been practicing mindfulness, we can step back and out of the drama.
Observing our thoughts from a detached distance helps us avoid regrettable reactivity—whether that’s in the form of conflict with a loved one, or face-planting into a cherry pie.
A lot of people complain about meditation and say they can’t do it. They’re wrong. You don’t have to sit on a cushion and practice—but you do have to get into the habit of watching what your mind says, without believing and reacting to everything you think.
5. Know your limits.
When you’ve made it this far and you’ve become detached from your bad habit, it can be easy to overestimate yourself and put yourself in danger of slipping. For example: let’s say the habit you want to break is drinking alcohol, and you’ve done all the work up to this point. You’ve said goodbye to booze, you’ve got other coping mechanisms locked and loaded, and you feel strong.
Here’s the scenario. You live in a city. Friends in the suburbs are throwing a dinner party where you know there will be lots of wine flowing all night. Dinner is at 8PM and a friend with a car offers to pick you up and drive you to this party in the ‘burbs. You think, “I can just bring sparkling water to drink. It’ll be good to see friends, and I shouldn’t isolate myself just because of that old habit I broke.”
The reality: people will sit up talking and drinking wine until 2AM. Now that you don’t drink and you don’t have the steady drip-drip-drip of wine to keep you awake and talking until the middle of the night, you’re ready for bed by midnight. The night drags on. You’re feeling restless. You can’t leave because your friend drove, and he’s not ready to go. You know that if you just have a drink, you’ll magically settle in and enjoy yourself. So here you are, in a risky situation.
Another example might be meeting family at an Italian restaurant when you know you’ve got a carb addiction. Or keeping candy in the house when your issue is sugar.
It might seem nuts to say “no” to common scenarios that don’t send most people off the rails and back into the arms of their bad habit. But you need to know yourself. Know your limits. Take them seriously.
You might have to say no to the dinner party or the Italian restaurant, and you might have to throw the candy away. You can look at it two ways: you can think you’re missing out on a good time. Or you can realize you just saved yourself from a lifetime of regret.
6. Welcome suffering.
“Welcome suffering? Is she batsh*t crazy?” you might be asking.
When we accept reality—I mean open your arms and truly accept it—suffering goes a lot faster. It’s when we argue with the idea of suffering with thoughts like, “I shouldn’t have to suffer!” that suffering actually gets a whole lot worse!
We’re all going to suffer in life. That’s guaranteed. You can either deal with the lifelong suffering your bad habit causes, or you can deal with the short-term suffering of giving up your bad habit. The choice is yours.
You need to say “yes” to suffering before you can get over it and let it go. Resistance to the truth of your life causes far more suffering than let getting of harmful habits.
And you know what’s on the other side of that suffering: freedom…freedom from struggling with your habit. So let it go and be in peace.