We all have bad habits. Even people who may appear above such things have bad habits, too. In this Real Simple article, Mindpath Health’s Kiana Shelton, LCSW, shares her top tips for breaking habits once and for all.
We all have bad habits. Tom Cruise bites his fingernails. Marilyn Monroe was famously late to events. Barack Obama rarely gets the recommended eight hours of sleep per night. Even people who may appear to be above such things have bad habits, too. It’s just part of being human.
But that doesn’t mean that we won’t want to change some of those unwanted habits. Continual self-improvement is another trait of being human. So, why do we do these habits in the first place, even when we know they’re “bad”?
Why we develop bad habits
Unsurprisingly, it all comes down to the brain. Kiana Shelton, LCSW, with Mindpath Health, says that automatic responses happen when we do a particular thing consistently, whether it’s good or bad.
“The brain picks up on these habits and makes them automatic,” Shelton explains. “In a way, the brain is trying to be helpful, but unfortunately, there isn’t a differentiation between good or bad— just how many times you’ve used the pattern. This can make it difficult to break or change unwanted habits.”
Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, BCC, prefers not to think of habits as “good” or “bad.” Rather, she believes that habits, even less-than-desirable ones you want to break or change, serve some sort of purpose.
We learn habits through rewards-based learning, where there’s a trigger (stressor), a behavior (eat ice cream), and a reward (ice cream is delicious, and the brain receives a pleasure signal via dopamine).
How long does it take to break a habit?
Since the brain doesn’t distinguish between good and bad habits, and it’s difficult for the brain to unlearn them, it can take an average of 30 to 60 days to actually break a habit, according to Shelton.
That’s why consistency is key when trying to reach a desired goal. But when it comes to changing a habit once and for all, it can be a challenge just to start.
Tips to break a bad habit
Pinpoint the habit trigger.
Shelton says that oftentimes, people know the exact habit they want to change. But they may not be able to identify what actually triggers the habit. As a first step, Shelton recommends trying to become familiar with what specific thing activates the habit. Use this as the alert signal to implement a new desired habit, but first, thoroughly pay attention to those cause-and-effect patterns in your life.
Identify why you want to change the habit.
To break a habit, it’s important to go into it with the right mindset, Jiménez says. She strongly recommends taking the time to identify why you want to change before taking any action, which can require some soul-searching, but will ultimately become a powerful source of motivation.
Write your “why” on a piece of paper and put it somewhere you can see it. Write it down in a journal. Create an entire vision board around it. Place that “why” front and center as you set out to change a habit.
Jiménez says that frequently, people try to make “huge overhauls” when attempting a behavior change. Jiménez recommends starting very small, which she believes is the key to success. This means that you may need to tweak things about attaining your goal, focusing instead on what’s realistic and feasible in terms of challenge and effort.
Make it easy.
Jiménez suggests tempering down the effort level in general.
“Think about the level of effort and the level of challenge it will take for you to change your behavior,” she says. “On a scale of zero to 10, zero being no effort and challenge, 10 being extreme effort and challenge, I recommend trying to find a way to modify your behavior that puts you at a three or four. By making it easy, you are giving yourself the best chance of establishing a new habit.”
In her experience working with clients, Shelton has found that successfully changing habits requires increased mindfulness. This means that to break a bad habit you can increase your level of mindfulness, or in-the-moment awareness—without being critical of yourself.
Let go of perfectionism.
“Don’t aim for perfection—aim for consistency,” Shelton says. “Success is not a straight line. Some days will be easier than others, and that’s okay. It’s not about getting it perfect each time. What matters most is consistency in your daily efforts to modify your behavior. Falling into the all-or-nothing trap, which is easy because we tend to be our worst critics, is a set-up for discouragement and decreased motivation.”
Track your progress and celebrate tiny wins.
Jiménez says that it’s essential to take note of any small wins and progress you’ve made toward changing your habits. In fact, acknowledging those wins can make the difference between failing and succeeding.
That means writing down your wins on sticky notes and putting them on your bathroom mirror, telling a friend or family member how proud you are of yourself, keeping a journal, or using an app to track your progress. You’re taking on the challenge of changing or breaking a habit deserving of admiration, which, most importantly, should come from yourself.