Want to Change a Bad Habit Forever? Here Are the 4 Proven Steps to Make the Change Stick.
In a few key ways, our bad habits aren’t too different from our good ones.
They are both created to meet our needs, for instance. And these routine behaviors get assigned to a part of the brain that processes behaviors automatically. In other words, we don’t have to decide, so that our brains can shift focus to newer decision-making activities.
What’s more, habits of any stripe are formed by following a three-step loop, according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: First, there’s an environmental cue or trigger, such as an argument or confrontation. This is followed by the “routine,” or the behavior itself. The behavior could be something like smoking a cigarette or biting your nails. And last step is the reward: Your brain has to “like” something about the behavior, like the sense of stress relief the behavior brings, for it to remember the habit.
The good news is that it is that we can definitely change our habits from bad to good by interrupting the behavior loop, according to Hugh Byrne, Ph.D. expert in mindfulness and author of The Here and Now Habit. Byrne coaches habit change through mindfulness. “Mindfulness,” he writes in an email, “helps us to learn to stay with the feelings, urges and impulses that tend to trigger particular habit patterns. We are able to bring the habitual behavior into awareness. We make what was unconscious, conscious.”
By deliberating in the space between the trigger and the response, Byrne says that we can “give ourselves the choice to not develop the neural pathways that lead to unhealthy habits and develop pathways in the brain that are more supportive of well-being.” And while it takes time and multiple attempts for authentic habit change, there is a clear four-step roadmap for success.
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Just deciding to change a habit isn’t enough. To truly change a habit, according to Byrne, you need to be mindful. This means being aware of your habit, knowing the triggers that bring on the behavior and tuning into the feelings that emerge following the trigger. Fully understanding and recognizing both your triggers and the feelings and habitual response that follow allows you to recognize the loop you find yourself in and redirect your response.
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Create an action plan.
Getting rid of an old habit means replacing it with a new one, writes Bernard Luskin, a licensed therapist. You must have a practical plan in place for those moments you will inevitably find yourself engaging in old habits. After all, it requires serious repetition of the new behavior to replace the old.
Your plan should include making your change as easy as possible for yourself, according to author and habit expert James Clear. For instance, if you’re trying to stop yourself from checking your phone first thing in the morning, and you want to exercise regularly, you can replace your smartphone habit with running instead.
To make it easier on yourself, your plan should include placing your smart phone out of easy reach, using an alarm clock that is completely separate from your phone and putting out your running clothes, sneakers and headphones the night before, so you can just change and go. Through artful planning, you’ll create a setup for success.
Keep “Plan B” in your pocket.
Sometimes even the best plans go astray. You want to reach for a carrot, but find yourself halfway through a chocolate bar instead. When your Plan A falls apart, your Plan B is to be mindful and slow down. Find yourself a quiet spot and check in with yourself.
Ask yourself: How are you feeling? Anxious? Sad? Bored? Lonely? As Byrne puts it, these feelings tend to trigger particular habits. People don’t like to feel this way, so they turn to whatever can distract them from their feelings. The key is finding a way to train yourself to be comfortable feeling uncomfortable, says Byrne. If it helps, set a timer, close your eyes and meditate.
While slowing down and checking in with yourself might not necessarily stop you from falling back on the bad habit, what it will help you start to realize is that you are reacting to bad feelings and that those bad feelings come and go. Says Byrne, “We can choose a more healthy and helpful response.”
Rinse and repeat.
Habits are created by repetition, period. Note: You will likely backslide or forget to do the new habit. That is completely normal and to be expected. However, just get back to the new habit the next time. “Be persistent with your new routine, writes Luskin. “It will eventually stick.”
You may need supplemental supports, like visual reminders of your new habit. Write it down in your calendar, write yourself a note and leave it in a visible place and recruit your most supportive friends and family and coworkers to help remind you of your new habit. You may even want to partner with a friend or family member who also wants to change a habit. This way, you can keep each other accountable.
When things get tough, just remember: You have a choice. That choice lies in the space between every stimulus and its response. That ability to choose can transform you -- and unlock possibilities you’ve never even imagined.