We all have bad habits. Be it poor studying, sleeping or even eating habits, these habits are debilitating. Bad habits prevent you from achieving your long term goals. They are a waste of time and energy. But fret not! Change is only one mindset change away.
"What it lies in our power to do, it lies in our power not to do." Aristotle
So, how does one break a bad habit?
1. Find your own reason to overcome it
Take the time to reflect - why do you want to overcome this bad habit? What specific problems has it caused you? Without a cause for action, there’d probably be no action.
Personally, I used to drink an unhealthy amount of sugary drinks. It was convenient and tasted better than regular water. Eventually, I realized that it was taking a toll on my body. I started feeling more lethargic and listless. My skin was breaking out everyday, which caused severe distress.
My confidence plummeted, and that’s when I knew I had to stop. I knew that my choice of sugary drinks was to blame. I knew I’d have better energy and more confidence once I cut it out of my diet. My reason to overcome my bad habit was to regain confidence. Every time I thought about buying sweet drinks, I would weigh the importance of quick sugar high against the desire to stay healthy and positive.
Do the same for your bad habit. It could be staying up after midnight, procrastination, complaining too much. Start by reflect about the impact of your bad habit on yourself. Perhaps the combination of sleeping late and procrastinating has caused your grades to plummet. As long as the reason is personal and direct to you, it will become the objective that gives you purpose to overcome the bad habit.
2. Uncover what reward you receive from it
We subconsciously make decisions that benefit us. Bad habits often provide quick and temporary relief that very often leads to long term problems.
The reward that is gained from carrying out the bad habit is not always obvious. In my case, the reward from drinking sugary drinks was the relief from taking a break from work. I would have to travel to the school canteen or the nearest vending machine, giving me ample time to take a break from studying.
The real award is often not in engaging in the activity itself, but likely a deeper one that would require you to probe at. Here’s an example.
Are you procrastinating doing something because:
You’re fearful of failure? Do you feel that if you don’t try, you wouldn’t ever realise you’re bad at it? The reward may be the ability to think that you are capable of doing something if you put your mind to it, even though you might not be very good at it
You’re feeling anxious about doing something? The reward may be the ability to seek comfort and support from others.
Ultimately, every individual has their own reward system and motivations for rewards. Think about what is it that makes you go back to the bad habit every time. Being conscious of your thoughts and motivations can better help you overcome it in the next step.
3. Replace it
In a famous book by Charles Duhigg “The Power Of Habit”, he says that it’s significantly simpler to replace a bad habit with a healthier habit to enjoy a similar reward.
Since my motivation was to take a break, not simply drinking sugary drinks, I chose sugarless green tea instead. I could enjoy a break from studying and reap the benefits of a healthier drink. It took only a week to see an obvious change. My skin started to clear up and most importantly, I was feeling more energetic. That directly translated to better quality of work as I was processing information efficiently.
For this step to occur, it is crucial that you execute step 2. If bad habits are an undesirable way of achieving an intended outcome (reward), they can be overcome by using more desirable methods to get the same reward.
4. Formulate a plan to change
Bad habits are usually much easier to do than good ones. It is far easier to reach for your phone to scroll through social media than to finish a page of your homework assignment. What you need, is to make the process of doing the bad habit much harder.
That means reducing access to the bad habit as much as possible. Make it difficult to carry out the bad habit. If you’ve decided that you want to stop using social media as much, make using social media an inconvenience. When you know you shouldn’t be using your phone, you could power off your phone, put it in a box, inside a shelf, inside another room. Future you would have to get up, walk into someone else’s room, wait for the phone to power up fully before future you can access social media.
When the quick and temporary benefits of bad habits stop coming as quickly, you develop the ability to resist the temptation. That is because in order to satisfy that temptation, you would have to go through many inconveniences, defeating the purpose of enjoying the reward. It also provides you with more time to reason with yourself - should you really do it?
5. Stick to the plan
Finally, you should develop a plan to keep this change. Start small by doing your replacement activity in step 3 for seven consecutive days. Build momentum and keep it. If you're up for a challenge, promise yourself to not engage in your bad habit for 30 days.
You can make a pact with a close friend. Share your goals and action plan with them so they can help monitor you and cheer you on. You can even make the goal more tangible by creating a tangible consequence should you fail. For example, should you fail to commit to your plan for 10 days, you would have to do 3 things that you dislike doing.
This process, while difficult, will teach you about self-discipline and commitment. More importantly, upon succeeding, you would realise how possible change is. If you can change one bad habit, who's to stop you from changing all of them?
Change is never easy. But i believe that things that are hard to do, are always worth doing it. The pay off and long term benefit is better than temporary reliefs that end up causing worse problems later. You are more than capable of breaking that bad habit. All the best in your journey to a better self!