How to kick your harmful bad habits once and for all


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Contrary to what you might believe, a recent survey estimated that 70% of smokers actually want to quit smoking.

Typically, those who smoke are viewed by those who don’t smoke as “undisciplined” or lacking the will power to quit. And while there may be some merit in that statement, the reason most fail to successfully quit smoking has less to do with their will power or desire but instead everything to do with their habits.

Smoking, like drinking, brushing your teeth, making your bed or driving to work with the radio on, is just another habit. Habit’s fall into two simple cartegories for most:

  1. Good habits (positive benefits)
  2. Bad habits (negative consequences)

Here is the kicker about habits in general, bad or good, habits are actually mental shortcuts our brains use to automate responses. Our brain does it’s best job to stay as efficient as possible to conserve energy, including mental energy.

So how do you break bad habits and start to control your life by introducing good ones?

This article will explore just where bad habits come from, actionable ways to bring attention to your bad habits, and simple steps (that work) to help you rid yourself of some of the bad habits.

It’s time to learn how to break bad habits and for you to start controlling your habits. Let’s get started.

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Bad Habits – Where do they come from?

When you want to change any behavior, motivation, or in this case – break bad habits – you must first start with the source. In this case where do bad habits come from?

Habits themselves are not innately bad or good, they’re simply just habits.

You don’t think about getting out of the bed in the morning when your alarm goes off, you simply do it because your brain has associated the ringing of your alarm with waking up.

Our conscious mind can only manage one thing at a time, thus it does it’s best job to store as many routines – habits – in our subconscious mind with intentions of putting them on autopilot mode.

This is why we all find ourselves:

  • Scrolling on our phone without even noticing
  • Going through a morning routine daily we don’t even think about
  • Checking email when our mind wanders and we see the notification
  • Biting our nails, tapping our feet or picking something when nervous

Or in our example from earlier with smoking, a smoker just find themselves smoking when driving, walking, etc without even really noticing. The list of both good and bad habits we do on autopilot is endless.

So knowing our bad habits come from our brain chemistry and human nature to place precedence on conserving energy – being as efficient as possible even if it is a “Bad Habit” – it’s vital to know that our habits add up!

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Bad Habits Add Up

Ever had one of those days where it just really didn’t go well?

There is a chance some circumstances were out of your control, but there is also a higher chance some of your habits actually had something to do with it!

As you can see in the graphic below, a habit, a choice in itself is not necessarily good or bad. However, over time they can add up.

Smoking one cigarette is not going to kill you. Having a glass of wine from time to time or checking your Facebook doesn’t make it a bad habit.

However, drinking 5 glasses of wine daily is a bad habit. Sitting on Facebook for three hours a night is a bad habit. Long term, these things add up.

Recognizing that your habits are simply a microcosm of a bigger picture – you’re happiness, health, wealth, prosperity, relationships – is vital in beginning to break your bad habits.

Habits are subconscious, so bringing attention to them as you are doing is the first step. Knowing they add up and matter is vital to learning how to break bad habits.

For the rest of this article, we will explore actionable strategies to help you break your bad habits!

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1. Align Your Values

If you want to know how to break bad habits, it’s start with recognizing that our habits our in a sense, our identity that makes us, us!

While you might initially rebuke that statement, think about it. Someone who smokes, a bad habit, refers to themselves as a “smoker.” There identify is smoking.

Just like someone who chews their nails or picks their face refers to themselves as a nail biter or picker. These are examples of bad habits that seem simple to overcome, but they’re not so easy to break!

But when you change how you identify yourself and align values around your habits you will increase the chances of braking bad habits and creating new ones!

Image Credit: AaronAmat / iStock.

Align Your Values Behind Your Habits

Instead of saying, “I am not a big exercise person,” the phrase should be, “I workout because I want long term health to live longer.”

The value = long term health to live longer.

If you want to quit smoking, you’re saying you value your health, thus when you go to smoke, you begin to identify as a healthy person not a smoker! This approach can be used for:

  • Saving money
  • Eating
  • Bad habits/vices you want to lose
  • Avoiding common time wasters
  • Computer use, TV, Phone use, Social Media, Email
  • Stress

Once you align your values around your desired habits, it’ll be easier to start making perhaps the biggest (but most necessary adjustment) which is adjusting your environment!

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2. Take Control of Your Environment

In college, there were plenty of occasions when I had the intention of having one beer because of a big test the next day, yet four hours later I found myself calling a cab to go home.

What happened?

My environment got the best of me. The music, the fun, the friends, the social influence – all of this made it easier for me to order another drink, followed by another, and so on.

Perhaps the hardest part of changing our bad habits is changing our environment. Some elements of our environment might not be controllable, but there are ways to exercise environmental control.

Do some quick research on those who suffer from substance abuse issues and go to rehab, you will find out that 90% relapse when they return home. In other words, when they get back to their old environment – the same environment where they struggled with substance abuse – they resort to their old ways.

So what do good rehab programs teach? Remove all environmental triggers from your home, find new friends, and get immersed in environments that promote positive change.

This is an extreme example of how habits in the environmental context work if you’re just looking to stop chewing your nails or eating donuts, but it proves the point. 

Image Credit: NurPhoto.

Our environment has a direct impact on our habits!

Often times the quickest way to get better at time management or to stop eating bad foods is to adjust our environment (like the tweezer example I later share).

Here are some ideas to help you flip your environment to support new habits and break your bad habits:

  • Fitness = find an accountability friend, partner, or group (I workout with neighbors at 4:00 to stay on track)
  • Eating = take away all the junk food in your house that tempts you
  • Cigarettes = place your pack in your trunk when driving
  • Dipping = Hide your can when you get home
  • Television = Place your power cable in your closet
  • Internet Surfing = Use the waste no time plugin
  • Social Media = delete apps, set limited or rearrange
  • Money = avoid high spending environments & people

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3. Make Your Desired Habits Easy

This might go without saying, but if you want to make a new habit possible – it needs to be really, really easy.

Truth be told, we typically don’t do this when we look to break our bad habits and replace them with new ones. Instead of making good habits easy and bad habits hard, we tend to make our good habits hard and our bad habits really easy.

Remember human’s are chemically designed to save energy, thus we are naturally efficient and tend to go towards what is easier.

Case in point, the reason why most people fail to ever follow through on their New Year’s goal of a new habit change is beacuse the make it too hard!

  • I am going to workout = I am going to get up at 5am and workout for 90 minutes = TOO HARD
  • I am going to save money = I am going to cut out all wasted spending and manually save $1,000 per month = TOO HARD
  • Eating healthy = Cold turkey, no more bad foods, only salad = WAY TOO HARD

Instead, a more applicable example of making your new desirable habits easy to accomplish would look like this:

New Habit: Make it Easy

  • Working Out: 10 Minutes right when you get home
  • Eating Healthy: Adjust one meal per day
  • Saving Money: Auto-save $100 each payday
  • More Writing: Write 1 paragraph
  • Meditation: 1-minute right when you get up

Image Credit: Inside Creative House // istockphoto.

4. Create Friction Around Your Bad Habits

Opposite of making your desired habits easy to accomplish, the key to breaking bad habits is making them hard!

Most of our existing habits are really easy to do. It’s not too hard to open your phone and check a text, which leads to checking your social media feeds.

It’s not hard to reach for the cigarette pack in your car after a long day at work or to turn on the TV the minute you get home. When you boil a bad habit down to it’s simplest form, the initial action is very easy.

However, when when you want to break bad habits, it starts with making it harder to complete your bad habit. Put another way, you want to create “Friction” around your bad habits.

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Create friction in between you and your bad habits

I have a really, really, really bad habit of picking my face after I wash my hands in the bathroom. As I wash my hands, I see something on my face, I grab my tweezers, and I pick at whatever I see.

It’s gross, it’s not good for my skin, and it’s a really bad habit. So what did I do?

I placed the tweezers in my toiletry bag, under my sink, in the back of my vanity making it really hard to reach. This creates friction between my bad habit – picking my face – and me doing so.

If I want to really pick my face – I am going to have to go under my sink, grab my bag, find my tweezers, and then pick my face. Thus, I have decreased the chances of this by adding friction to my bad habit!

Try these ideas:

Bad Habit: Friction

  • Smoking: Hide lighters
  • Too much TV: Unplug TV, Hide Remote, or Disconnect Cable
  • Social Media: Delete Apps
  • Spending Money: Leave wallet in car, only use cash, adjust spending limits
  • Junk Food: Place in back of pantry
  • Picking, Biting Nails: Wear a glove when driving
  • Email: Use time waste plugins

Note: Our habits have a lot to do with why we are broke or not broke!

Image Credit: PashaIgnatov / iStock.

5. Start Small, Finish Big.

You didn’t gain 40 pounds in one night, so why should you expect to lose it in a week?

The same goes for your debt, your sedentary lifestyle choices, the amount of alcohol you consume, and so on. In fact, think about the person who smokes cigarettes or uses alcohol regularly.

They didn’t wake up one random day and decide to guzzle five drinks every night after dinner or smoke a pack of cigarettes per day. No, in fact, over time they participated in the activity and subconsciously the seemingly insignificant habit, grew into a bad habit.

Smoking one cigarette or having one drink with dinner isn’t a bad habit, in itself. However, smoking one cigarette 10x per day and having three drinks every night after dinner are. But just like bad habits grow and evolve, so do good habits, which is why you should start small.

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Change your bad habits a little at a time

What happens in most case, in a sudden act of inspiration, humans tend to use surface level motivation to go change a habit – typically around the new year.

Be it a new goal to save money or finally lose 10 pounds, what happens in most scenarios is we tend to go from a comfort zone straight to a stress zone.

Instead of easing into a workout routine to create a habit, we go from never working out to working out 5x per week for 2 hours.

Simply choose one bad habit to adjust or one positive habit to increase in each of the following areas (just one per area!):

  • Health
  • Wealth
  • Career
  • Family
  • Time

As you grow your habits, you can stack new habits on your existing habits in what is called habit stacking!

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6. Use the James Clear Two-Minute Rule

Similar to making your new habit easy, James Clear the author of the NYT Best-seller Atomic Habits has a great teaching on introducing habits, called the “two-Minute Rule.”

Simply put, any new habit you aim to accomplish should be completed in under 120 seconds, or two minutes.

The goal is not the desired result of the a new habit – like not smoking, saving more money, eating healthier – but instead creating the mental reps behind the new habit.

  • Working out in itself isn’t hard, doing it for 60 minutes can be.
  • Eating celery isn’t hard, doing it instead of eating a meal is.
  • Writing a sentence isn’t challenging, writing a book is.
  • Making 1 call isn’t hard, making 50 could be overwhelming.

Put another way, we have the natural tendency to sometimes implement a complete overhaul that simply isn’t conducive to our current lifestyle. Sedentary Sam wants to workout for 90 minutes a day at the start of the New Year after not working out for five years.

Instead, Sam should set a simple daily goal, like each day at 5:00 I will put running shoes on and walk for two minutes. Sam will create the habit and identity of fitness, which in turn will lead to more sustained and longer workouts!

The 2-minute habit rule is simple: When creating a new habit you want to puruse, it can’t take longer than two-minutes.

It’s more important to start the habit, then it is to “crush” the habit.

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7. Forget the Will-Power/Motivation Hype!

Motivation is fleeting.

You might be able to will yourself into working out for 90 minutes a day every day for a few weeks, but eventually, the stress zone you have entered will supersede your will power.

In other words, will power and motivation are very short term approaches that might get some quick results in the habit category – but they wont last long!

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Final Word on Breaking Bad Habits

Now that you know how to break bad habits, hopefully, you recongize a few things:

  1. None of this will happen over night
  2. Make your desired habits REALLY EASY
  3. Make your bad habits REALLY HARD
  4. Don’t worry about motivation or self-discipline, they don’t really work long-term

When it comes to breaking bad habits, it’s not a complicated process now that you understand how habits work. Creating awareness around what you want to change is essential, taking small baby steps and avoiding bad habit induced environments will all help you create the positive habits you desire!

Here is to creating the desirable mental shortcuts that make your life, happiness, relationships and wealth more enjoyable!

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