The new year is still fairly fresh, but that doesn’t mean that many of us haven’t already been tested in our ability to break the patterns we swore to leave behind in 2014.
But breaking bad habits — or what James Claiborn, a psychologist and co-author of The Habit Change Workbook: How To Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones, describes as learned, almost automatic thoughts or behaviors that have become somehow problematic in our lives — is tough. Really tough. Here are five surprising strategies to help you succeed.
Become hyper-aware of your habit.
Trying to ignore the behavior you want to change might seem like a good way to vanquish it, but one of the first strategies Claiborn is likely to recommend is, in fact, the opposite. To break a bad pattern, he asks patients to increase their awareness of what they’re doing in the first place.
“One of the things I’m likely to suggest is some sort of record keeping — it may take the form of making a checklist to find out how often you’re doing things and under what circumstances you’re doing them,” he said. “We need to understand the behavior before we can change it effectively.”
So break out the notebook and really spend some time sitting with your bad habit — when you do it and why you do it and how it makes you feel. Not only are you generating information that can help you find effective alternatives, the very act of tracking and measuring your habit may automatically cause you to reduce how often you, say, pick up your smartphone at the dinner table or skip the gym, Claiborn said.
Stop focusing on what you’re not going to do.
“People tend to set negative goals and focus on something they’re not going to do anymore, so ‘I’m going to eat less … stop smoking … or check e-mail less often,'” said Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others (and a frequent HuffPost blogger). “You’re just about doomed to fail when you set up your desire to change a behavior in that way, because ultimately what you’re trying to do is create new habits.”
The brain’s habit-learning system doesn’t really learn anything by “not doing,” he said. Instead, frame your goals in terms of what you are going to do. For example, Markman used to bite his nails while reading and working at his desk. He only succeeded at breaking the habit when he focused on his new, alternative behavior: playing with desk toys whenever he felt the urge to chew. (He was playing with a slinky when he spoke to The Huffington Post, Markman said.)
Be your own opposing counsel.
Claiborn recommends spending some time going through the thoughts you tend to have in the moments, sometimes seconds, before you engage in a bad habit. “If you said them out loud, they probably wouldn’t sound very believable, even to you,” he said, citing common examples like, One more time won’t hurt me, or I know it’s bad, but I deserve this.
“People can make some important steps if they look at those ‘permission-giving’ thoughts pretty carefully, spend some time writing them out and thinking about alternatives,” he said. When you deliberately tune into those “permission-giving” thoughts and look at them critically much like an outside observer might, you’re better able to call yourself out and hold yourself accountable when they strike again.
Positive thinking absolutely has its time and place, Markman said, but one of the biggest mistakes he sees is being too cheery about your habit-breaking prospects. “People don’t take the obstacles they’re going to face seriously enough when they set out to change behaviors,” he said.
“Turns out, each of us has a finely honed ability to really be able to talk ourselves out of anything,” Markman continued. Instead of pretending that’s not the case, “engage that process,” he urged. “Figure out all of the things that can go wrong, and use those as guideposts for the things you need to be prepared for as you embark on the process of making change. Because a lot of obstacles are very real.”
Focus a big chunk of your efforts on your environment.
Yes, the habit or action itself is important. But people often overlook just how critical it is to establish an environment that makes desirable behaviors easy and undesirable behaviors hard to do. If, for example, you’re trying to break the habit of eating sugary dessert every night, you don’t win an extra prize if there’s ice cream in your freezer and you manage to not eat it for several nights in a row.
“If you don’t want to check your cell phone that often, shut it off. If you don’t want to use it while you’re driving, put it in the glove compartment,” Markman said. “It seems simple, but it’s incredibly important. The more you manage your environment, the more likely you are to succeed. It’s not cheating.”