Take 10 to … break a bad habit

We’ve all got them and they range from the trivial like biting your nails or indulging in the odd choc chip cookie to the more debilitating bad habits of excess drinking, smoking etc. The longer we leave them the more established they become, hence it’s a perfect time to take 10 to…. do something about them!

The current climate around COVID 19 is a classic example of the conditions that can often allow negative habits to creep into our normal ways of working and get a firm hold that becomes harder to shift, even when the circumstances that created the bad habit in the first place no longer exist. When we are stressed by the uncertainty of a situation or other external events, and also bored as a result of the restrictions in place, we have a classic breeding ground for bad habits to emerge.

So what do we do about them?

Step 1 – Recognize and relate to them

The first step to dealing with bad habits is to recognise them for what they are. This means acknowledging to yourself that they exist and identifying their shape and form to you and the consequences they are having in your life – both now and in the future as the habits develop and become even more entrenched. To help, keep a simple note of when they occur during your day – and is there an obvious trigger for them – something that immediately proceeds them and acts as a cue or reminder for you to start the habit? This can become your habit journal.

Also ask yourself are you craving anything that may be acting as a driver for the habit that follows?

Step 2 – Understand their role

When we take the time to understand the shape and form of our habits, we also need to ask ourselves how are they serving us? We don’t take on habits for no reason – they will always serve us in some way – even if to the outside observer they seem very negative. They can serve a supporting need – offering us comfort and re-assurance. They can serve a biological need, relaxing us through drugs or alcohol etc. Again take a note of this. The more detailed your awareness the more likely you are to spot themes, so act like a detective. When did it happen, where were you? Who where you with? What were you thinking about? What did you do first etc.?

By understanding how our bad habits serve us and provide us with a perceived benefit, it can help us when we look at the fourth step in our habit reforming process,  where we look to replace them with another more positive habit that serves the same purpose, but in a  more positive way.

Step 3 – Get down to the roots

Having identified the existence and consequences of your bad habits, our next step is to identify the cause. For example, if they are a result of stress and boredom – perhaps brought on by the current COVID climate, that is a good start, but also try and dig a bit deeper and ask yourself are there any further underlying causes?  If we don’t get these underlying causes out in the open, there is the danger that, just like pulling up weeds without getting to the roots, the bad habits will quickly re-emerge when the right conditions represent themselves.  And let’s face it – stress and boredom are not difficult circumstances to find! Again, note down these causes in you habit journal.

If we can take the time to understand where our bad habits are coming from – their root cause, it helps us with the next step of dealing with bad habits, where we replace them with a more positive habit

Step 4 – The Switch

Bad habits take up space that could otherwise have been taken by a good positive habit – which is a kind of double whammy as to their negative effects. This does however also provide us with an opportunity. The best way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a positive habit.

My old Physics teacher used to remind me of the fact that “nature abhors a vacuum” a quote attributed to Aristotle to express the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural as they go against the laws of nature and physics.

The same is true with us – we don’t like empty space where habits and behaviours are concerned– it’s easier to fill it with something, hence when changing a bad habit, don’t leave yourself with a vacuum – replace it with something positive.

This means finding a switch habit that can act as a substitute for the bad habit. Your ideal switch habit needs to fit the following criteria in order for it to work as a proper replacement.

  • It needs to require a similar amount of effort – albeit in a different direction
  • It needs to offer broadly similar benefits or rewards – even if they are in a different form.

To help with this it can be a great idea to add a list of your bad habits to your habit journal – ranging from trivial to more serious – and next to each habit you identify brainstorm another list of possible substitute habits. Try and come up with multiple substitutes for each habit so that you have a chance to evaluate the most suitable choice – this being the one that offers the most comparable benefits to you and hence is most likely to work and more importantly to stick!

Step 5 – Think about your habit triggers

There is a simple model for understanding habits used by Charles Duhigg’s in The Power of Habit and James Clear in Atomic Habits. The model is Cue, Craving, Response, Reward.

The cue acts as a trigger point for the habit – its what gives us the signal we need to start the habit – be it positive or negative.

If we are aware of what is triggering our negative habits, it allows us to take steps to try and creatively avoid these negative triggers. I say creatively, because sometimes the trigger point can be another habit or action that we don’t want to change. A classic example is people smoking when they drink for example. The easy way to avoid the trigger is to stop drinking or avoid going to your local pub, however, this (going to the pub) may be a habit you want to maintain as a positive social outlet, and hence we need to be creative about managing the trigger and using our switch strategy instead, using the list you have created in your habit journal. Likewise, people can be trigger points for certain habits – we only behave a certain way when we are with a particular person. Again it may be that it’s not appropriate to break the association and hence a switch strategy maybe a better option – especially if you discuss it with the other person to get them onside to what you are trying to achieve. Time to go back to the habit journal.

Where trigger points can be more easily dealt with is when they can easily be removed without negative consequences. I love eating nuts and for that reason don’t have them in the house. If they were there, I would eat them, but removing them removes the trigger.

Don’t feel you have to go it alone when changing or working on bad habits. In fact, actively working with others can make the process easier. They say a problem shared is a problem halved. The same can be true with a bad habit – if sharing means collaborating with a friend to substitute the habit together. This also helps you to surround yourself with people who have similar interests – around improvement and betterment – which in turn has a habit of rubbing off on you! We tend to be as good as the company we keep and so seeking positive role models in those around you can have very positive impacts on your motivation to overcome bad habits and your willingness to pursue new more positive habits.

Remember, when you are dealing with bad habits, you are not necessarily creating a new self – instead you are going back to a previous self – before you started the bad habit. This shows that you are perfectly capable of functioning without the habit. This can be a great opportunity to list some of the other benefits or positive attributes you had, pre the bad habit in your habit journal – because this is what you can go back to and in doing this you may already find the substitute habit you had back then in place of your current bad habit.

Step 6 – Dealing with setbacks

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Winston Churchill.

It took a while to establish your bad habits – it will take a while to eradicate them and the odd set back and relapse is pretty inevitable. Don’t see them as a bad sign – this is progress and with each regression comes the opportunity to learn from it and use it to refine your approach.

Slipping back and having a cigarette with that drink doesn’t mean all the hard work up to that point has been lost. Just like one donut doesn’t ruin a diet. It just means you made a mistake. This can be a great opportunity to praise yourself for what you have achieved up to that point and to consider any other habit switches or adjustments you could make to try and prevent the slip up from occurring again. This way you are using the slip to make your habit changing approach even more robust – hence creating a positive from it. If you can spot the circumstances that made you relapse, note these too in your habit journal – perhaps it was a cue or trigger that you missed.

In my book Ten Minute Tactics we talk about a number of other areas where we can change our bad habits and make more positive lasting habits including:

  • Looking at the role environment plays in habit formation
  • How working with peer groups and accountability partners can help
  • Using critical visualisations to prepare for the ups and downs of your habit journey
  • Shaping your identity to align it with more positive habits

Use the link here to take you to a free actionable version of this Ten Minute Tactic where you can apply the six steps to your personal situation. We are initially providing these as a free resource to help you make positive changes in your life. Please like and share if you appreciate this and remember to register for updates on the launch of the book and app – Ten Minute Tactics. 

Click here to the website for the TMT form version