7 Science-backed Ways to Break Bad Habits
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Lists - August 15, 2023

7 Science-backed Ways to Break Bad Habits

1. Track your behavior patterns

“If we want to figure out how to prevent ourselves from engaging in unwanted habits, we first have to figure out what triggers the habit and what contexts it occurs in,” says Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at Stanford University.

“Check in with yourself regularly to assess your mood and know when you are feeling vulnerable,” says Robert Taibbi, an author and licensed clinical social worker in private practice and author of “Process-Focused Therapy: Guide to Effective Clinical Outcomes.”

2. Avoid your triggers

“Once a person has figured out the triggers or situations that cause them to engage in the habit, they should do their best to avoid those situations if possible,” Poldrack says.

3. Replace the behaviour

Breaking bad habits isn’t only about avoiding triggers — you can also try substituting a different behaviour that provides the same satisfaction, Taibbi says.

4. Distract yourself during urges or cravings

If you feel a strong craving coming on, it can help to distract yourself with an engaging activity like calling a friend or watching your favorite TV show.

“It’s good to have a list of alternative things to do at the ready,” Taibbi says. Write down a list and put it somewhere visible like your refrigerator, so you don’t have to come up with an idea in the moment.

“Most cravings only usually last from a few minutes to about 20 to 30. If you can get through that time, you’ll usually be able to not give in to the craving,” Taibbi says.

5. Reward yourself for progress

“You usually start out with a lot of enthusiasm and resolve but it can begin to wane on bad days or when you’re not really seeing the benefits yet,” Taibbi says.

Rewards may help you keep motivated and less likely to give up on quitting — some options you can try are:

– Add up the money you would have spent on alcohol or cigarettes and use it to buy something you always wanted.

– Create benchmarks for progress — after one month of avoiding the habit, you can take yourself out for a nice dinner or a day trip.

6. Forgive yourself for flops

Relapsing on your bad habits is a normal part of the process of quitting.

“People shouldn’t beat themselves up when they fail, because it’s hard work and there will likely be failures along the way,” Poldrack says.

Getting angry or telling yourself that you’re a failure may make you feel discouraged and less likely to try quitting again.

A 2012 study found that people who criticized themselves more achieved less progress toward their goals, compared with people who weren’t as critical.

7. Get support

If you’re struggling to make any progress on breaking your bad habits, reaching out to a professional like a therapist may help. A therapist can offer insight into why you might rely on the bad behavior and how to meet that need in a different way.

There are also online forums for many different habit-breaking efforts. People on forums can offer tips and firsthand experience, validate how hard the process is, and keep you accountable to continue the process.

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