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8 Ways to Break Bad Habits and Create Good Ones

Strategies to help you do things a new way, without the guilt

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Why are bad habits so simple to pick up and good habits so hard to develop?​

“Bad habits, frankly, are easier,” says Adam Borland, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “They can become more ingrained because we kind of go on autopilot.” ​

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Finding the motivation to exercise or keep up a daily or weekly schedule is more difficult than sitting on the couch and watching Netflix, for example, Borland notes. ​

But the new year is a perfect time to try something new, to stretch boundaries, to override the tendency to act outside our best interests without conscious thought. But creating those good habits — and getting away from the bad ones — is even more difficult in the modern era, when we’re often tied to digital devices.​

“Our brains are overwhelmed by the way our modern world stimulates them, and the natural systems that we have for building habits have been basically hijacked,” says Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor at Stanford University in California and author of Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick.

As a result, it can take some time to create a habit we want to adhere to for our own good.​

A lot of digital apps designed to help form habits suggest it takes about three weeks to do the job. But modern research doesn’t back up that time frame — not by a long shot.​

Poldrack points to one study from the European Journal of Social Psychology that put the time frame for habit forming at between 18 and 254 days, with an average of 66 days.​

Breaking a bad habit is not necessarily about willpower, adds Poldrack: “It’s really about avoiding the temptation to begin with.”​

Small steps, big changes​

In his bestselling book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, entrepreneur James Clear says to imagine an ice cube in a room so cold you can see your breath. Slowly, the room begins to heat up, going from 26 degrees to 27 degrees to 28 degrees. The ice cube is still frozen. Twenty-nine degrees, 30 degrees, 31 degrees. Still, nothing happens. Then it’s 32 degrees and the ice cube starts to melt. ​

A one-degree shift alters everything.​

Similarly, Clear writes, we can cause big changes in our lives little by little: “Habits are the compound interest of self-​improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them.”​

There’s no shortage of tips out there for starting — and sticking to — a new practice.​

Stanford University behavior scientist BJ Fogg, author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, encourages piggybacking a new habit onto an existing one. The existing “anchor habit” should be something you do every day, such as brushing your teeth or turning on the computer. Fogg himself stacked a new habit (doing push-ups) onto an anchor habit (going to the bathroom) and now does at least 50 push-ups a day.​

Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist and director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, advises being curious about why you choose to do something your best self would rather not be doing. Curiosity feels much better than the rumination that follows giving in to a bad habit, according to Brewer, author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love — Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.​

Numerous studies, meanwhile, have shown that “implementation intentions” — a term researchers use to describe a plan for responding when a certain situation arises — are effective for sticking to a goal.

​Have a game plan​

Ready to fix what’s not working? Try these eight strategies for replacing a bad habit with a good one.​

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1. Prepare for discomfort​

Recognize that dropping a bad habit is not a quick process. Stepping out of your comfort zone is challenging and anxiety-provoking, so have patience.​

“Tell yourself you’re going to approach it with a sense of understanding that this is not easy,” says Borland, “but that’s where change occurs.”​

2. Have self-compassion​

Aside from patience, be gentle with yourself.​

For most of her life, Denise Longtin has had a problem with punctuality. The 58-year-old from Skaneateles, New York, often responded to the dilemma with negative self-talk — her bad habit — and even came up with a nickname for herself: Last-Minute Lou.​

“I was saying out loud what I didn’t want to happen, and my brain was saying, OK, perfect, let’s do that,” she says. “I had to start realizing that words have power.”​

Longtin began researching how the brain works, and learned that it often can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. She then began reframing her tardiness.​

“Instead of saying, ‘Oh my gosh, sorry I’m late. I’m always late,’ I now apologize and say, ‘I’m working on being more timely,’ ” she explains. ​

Longtin’s new approach has helped her stay on schedule more often. “At first I didn’t think it was going to work, but eventually I got better. I don’t beat myself up anymore. I feel a lot more in control of my mental state.” ​

Keep in mind that steps backward are inevitable — it took Longtin at least six months to see consistent improvement — but do not equal failure.​

“They don’t negate the progress you made,” Borland emphasizes. “And it doesn’t mean you have to start at ground zero. It means you’re human. It’s a bump in the road.”​

3. Stop with the “shoulds” ​

Part of the anxiety around building a new habit is centered around the word “should.” ​

“That just gets us into trouble, especially if we’re negatively comparing ourselves to others,” says Borland. “So instead of saying, ‘I should be able to work out five days a week,’ start by working out one day a week and give yourself a pat on the back. That’s an accomplishment. Then try to build off that.”​

4. Make a list​

Borland recommends using the two-column approach. On the left side, identify bad habits you’d like to eliminate; on the right side, write down possible coping tools and approaches for doing so. Be specific and creative, and be sure each step is small and manageable. The consensus among researchers is that small actions, repeated over time, create good habits. ​

5. Be grateful ​

Don’t overlook those small actions, and consider rewarding yourself at certain intervals with something that doesn’t jeopardize your progress. One of Borland’s clients treated herself to a pedicure after making healthier dietary choices during the week. ​

Longtin proposes feeling thankful for moments of clarity that lead you toward breaking a bad habit.​

“The awareness is like an idiot light in your car,” she says. “It’s a great benefit because it’s shining a light on where you need to take yourself in for service.” ​

6. Stay consistent ​

Use visual cues, such as sticky notes on a mirror, to remind you to stay on course. When Poldrack first got a night guard, which keeps him from grinding his teeth while sleeping, he put it next to his toothbrush as a reminder to wear it. ​

“It probably took me a couple of months to put it in without thinking,” he says. “Now it’s been a few years and I don’t even think about it. Even if my wife moves it, I remember and go find it elsewhere.”​

7. Seek out support​

Share your plan for building better habits with the people in your life, and ask if they’d like to join you on the journey.​

“People are often surprised by the support they get, and in some situations you can be giving the other person a gift as well” by becoming an accountability partner, Borland says.​

8. Shift your mindset​

Longtin thinks less about tossing bad habits and more about starting good ones.​

“When you add in the good things,” she says, “the bad things seem to take care of themselves.”​

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