How To Break A Bad Habit, According To The Professionals

You wouldn’t be alone if – thanks to the pandemic – you’ve picked up a few bad habits over the last year. Whether that’s drinking too many nights a week or excessive online shopping… there’s plenty of help out there to get you back on track. Here, three behavioural change specialists answer some key questions, before psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne shares her five simple steps to break bad habits.
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First of all, how do you define a bad habit – and how is it different to addiction?
“A habit is a repetitive behaviour that has become unconscious, or at least semi-unconscious. For example, smoking is a habit and it can be a bit of a mental addiction, too. A bad habit is one that does somebody harm, and while there are universally bad habits, like smoking, some are subjective person to person. Common bad habits, which are often referred to as addictions are generally coping mechanisms for stress, to make ourselves feel better: smoking, drinking, drugs, overeating, shopping, gambling etc. Other synonyms include vice or guilty pleasure, although again, people might not view these as harmful all the time.” – Mark Newey, psychotherapist & founder of mental wellness platform, Headucate.Me

“Moralising habits isn’t always that helpful for change. There are some pretty obvious ones (I don’t know anyone who thinks smoking is a ‘good’ habit) one person may be trying to build a habit of exercising more while another might be building a habit of resting more and exercising less. To understand the difference between habit and addition, you have to understand we’re engaging in habits every day, whether on purpose or not. Addiction is when you feel unable to stop engaging in a behaviour despite wanting to.” – Shahroo Izadi, behavioural change specialist & author of The Kindness Method

How long, on average, does it take to break a bad habit?
“It is commonly accepted that it takes ten weeks to break a habit. This is enough time to retrain the unconscious part of our mind, by constantly denying the impulse to “do” whatever it is. It’s difficult because to use willpower requires us to use our conscious mind (9% of the overall mind) to overcome the habit programme in the unconscious (91%). You’ll know something is a real problem when, despite really trying to stop the habit for a matter of weeks, you just can’t.” – Mark 

“It is different for different people, though, and it depends on your level of motivation. If you have a high level of motivation, that’s a step in the right direction. Then it’s about having the confidence that you can follow through with that change. If the habit is something that’s started to interfere with your goals and values in life and you feel bad after engaging with a particular behaviour – then it needs addressing. Also, if at the time you felt very impulsive and you weren’t able to control or regulate yourself – then you also know it’s a problem and needs looking at.” – Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist & co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic

Why do so many of us find change scary?
“Many of us have gotten used to the comfortable status quo and we don’t know for sure that things will be better if we disrupt it. Some people learn through self-reflection that there are deeper blocks, like low self-esteem and feeling unworthy of achieving their most ambitious goals. Start by writing yourself a private ‘that’s it’ letter and be really honest about why you want to make changes. Then write yourself some very basic guidelines as an initial plan of change that you’ll review in a few weeks. Make your guidelines difficult enough so you’ll feel proud if you keep them up but easy enough that you don’t doubt your ability to. Then, commit to trying to speak to yourself like someone you love in moments when you want to throw in the towel and give up on your plan. The last exercise is effective because when it comes to the people we love, we don’t tell them to give up on their plans - we remind them of how capable they are pushing through and staying on track.” - Shahroo

Motivation is something that keeps cropping up – what happens if you feel it ebbing?
“When your motivation declines, it’s important to remind yourself of your pros and cons list. What’s the cost of this particular behaviour? Go back and try and problem solve situations where you haven’t managed so well so you can increase your sense of confidence in tackling it differently in the future. Depending on how well you feel you’re managing your journey towards change, you can try to do it on your own and use things like mindfulness apps, for example, but you may come to a point where no matter how hard you try, you feel stuck. In this case, it’s important to seek the support of a professional.” – Dr Elena

What are some of the main trigger points to look out for?
“The main triggers for engaging in a bad habit are when we’re emotionally vulnerable in some way. By that, we mean situations which increase our stress levels. Identify what situations trigger you – is it following difficult conversations at work? An argument with your partner? Ultimately, you need to create that link in your mind and identify when you’re most prone to engaging in a bad habit. Remember, rewards can be helpful in that they can act as positive reinforcement. That said, you obviously don’t want to become reliant on them instead of the habit you’re originally trying to break.” – Dr Elena

The main triggers for engaging in a bad habit are when we’re emotionally vulnerable in some way. By that, we mean situations which increase our stress levels.
Dr Elena Touroni

How can you avoid replacing one habit with another?
“Often, our unwanted habits are – or at one stage were – serving a purpose. What is now a problem started as a solution to something. In that sense, clients come to me to help them find another solution or reduce their need for a solution. If you are soothing stress with a habit you’d like to change, then it’s worth focusing on finding ways to reduce stress as opposed to simply new coping strategies for it. Setbacks are also necessary as they provide an opportunity to respond differently and demonstrate your capacity to get back on track immediately. We can learn to reframe them as catalysts for believing in ourselves more.” – Shahroo 

What are some practical techniques which might help?
“From a professional standpoint, I believe visualisation can help. Try imagining yourself breaking a habit and how you’ll feel. Imagine yourself feeling calm and happy – and make the image as vivid as possible. Mindfulness can also be helpful in helping you feel calmer and more centred, reducing the likelihood of triggers that can lead to negative behaviour.” – Dr Elena 

“Self-care is critical in today’s fast-paced, anxiety-making environment; anything that helps slow down, mindfulness, going for a walk and so on, helps reduce the need to fire off the fight or flight mechanism – you might just find it’s the thing that replaces your compulsive behaviour elsewhere.” – Mark 

Any final words of wisdom?
“Using willpower to break bad habits is not easy; it does require sticking power. So, take time to do some reflection on why you want to break the habit. What will the outcome be? Why is this important to you? Is it really important or are you doing it to please somebody else? How important is your health to you? These are all important questions to answer before you make any drastic changes in your life.” – Mark

“When in doubt, make the same decisions for yourself that you’d want the person you love most to make for themselves. Plans are great but plans won’t go to plan and you need to see that you can trust yourself more than your plan.” – Shahroo 

If you are soothing stress with a habit you’d like to change, then it’s worth focusing on finding ways to reduce stress as opposed to simply new coping strategies for it.
Shahroo Izadi

Ready? Here Dr Susan Krauss Whitbourne Ph.D. shares her five steps to break a bad habit…

Step 1: Decide to change & convince yourself you can

“You can only change what you decide you want to change. All psychological models of change emphasise the importance of commitment as a necessary first step. If you don't see a problem, you won't work on changing your behaviour. The more honest you are with yourself about the nature of your bad habit, the more likely you will be to start on the path toward change. You might want to start by keeping a log of your bad habits – how often you've been late, overeaten, smoked, lied, or drank to excess, for example. 

“To help motivate yourself, a frank conversation with the people closest to you may prove valuable. People who care about you can give you the mirror you need to see your problematic behaviours for what they are. Once you've decided you want to change, convince yourself that you are able to achieve your change goals. Seeing other people change successfully is inspiring, but you need to see yourself as having what it takes to make those changes in yourself.”

Step 2: Understand what's causing the habit

“Once you figure out your inner motives and the external incentives that are driving your bad habits, you'll go a long way toward changing them. Take a good hard look at the situations that lead you to commit your bad habit. If it's lateness, you may be trying to control the lives of others by setting the times that you (not they) want to meet. It's also possible that your behaviour is motivated by a kind of self-defeating need to undo yourself, or what psychoanalysts might call neurotic behaviour. 

“These sorts of inner motivations may interact with influences that are acquired through specific experiences. Everyone responds to reinforcements – the rewards that strengthen our behaviours. Some bad habits just feel good, so we keep repeating them. They may also make our other problems, such as stress, temporarily go away, and this relief becomes another source of reinforcement. Social rewards add to the mix. If your friends don't complain when you're late, act in overbearing ways, or commit social improprieties, you won't see any real reason to change.” 

Step 3: Set reasonable goals

“Your bad habits have taken time to establish themselves. You're not going to throw them off in an instant. Decide on a realistic schedule that will work for you based on goals that you believe you can meet, otherwise you’ll be bound to fail and then use your failure as proof that you can't change.  When it comes to a social behaviour such as being chronically tardy, your ultimate goal of never being late may also be hard to achieve in one step. If you're typically running 20-30 minutes late for your appointments, set a preliminary goal of only being 10 minutes late (still annoying to other people but not quite as much). It's unlikely you can change completely right away if this is an ingrained habit reinforced by others and caused by some self-defeating tendencies.”

Step 4: Measure your progress & don’t be discouraged 

“If you're going to reach your ultimate goal, you'll need to know how well you're doing. This means that you have to keep a diary or journal. In the case of exercise and weight control, for example, you can take advantage of apps that also give you tips that adapt to your record of progress. Your motivation to change will be fired up in part by the rewards you get from your new behaviours. However, even the people most dedicated and determined to change will suffer an occasional relapse. If you use that slip as "proof" that you can never change, you will in fact not be able to change. Instead, try to figure out why you slipped. Perhaps your reinforcement system didn't work and the pleasure of engaging in the habit outweighed the pain of changing the habit.”

Step 5: Seek additional support 

“One of the best ways to build your inner resilience is by looking outward for support. If you're having trouble making these changes on your own, reach out to your friends, family, or perhaps your supervisors, teachers, or mentors. Group exercise programs may also be more motivating than going it on your own.

Entrenched or change-resistant habits may also require psychotherapy. If you're afraid that reaching out to a mental health professional will be time-consuming, costly, or just not worthwhile, you may be surprised to learn about psychotherapy's proven track record. Newer psychotherapy methods are shorter and more focused than old-style psychoanalysis. Needing help doesn't mean you've failed. It just means that the change is going to require more resources than you initially anticipated.”

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