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The best ways to break a bad habit

4 minute read
A woman laughing and squeezing a stress ball

Whether you’re a procrastinator, serial alarm snoozer, knuckle cracker, junk food lover or nail biter, we all have bad habits we’d like to break. There’s a common theory that it takes 21 days to successfully make or break a habit, but is that actually the case?

This three-week timeframe originally came from a 1960s book written by plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz called Psycho-Cybernetics. Interestingly, Maltz noticed his patients took an average of 21 days to get used to their new and improved faces. If you’re looking forward to being a better version of yourself in a few short weeks, you might want to lower your expectations.

A more recent study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found it actually takes an average of 66 days, with individual results varying from 18 to 254 days. Habits can be incredibly hard to change, because they’re, well… habits. So, if you’ve been trying to change your behaviour for a while with no results, it might be time to shake things up.

Knowing where to start when breaking a bad habit can be a little confusing, so we’ve compiled a few tips and tricks to help you kick them to the kerb for good.

1. Pick one at a time

It takes self-control to say no to a free doughnut or to stop endlessly scrolling through Instagram, and that’s because there’s a finite amount of willpower we can exercise each day.

This comes down to a psychological theory called ego depletion, which refers to willpower operating similar to a muscle that can be exerted. To avoid setting yourself up for failure, pick one habit at a time.

2. Go slow

One of the biggest reasons why people fail is because they’re expecting to be able to ditch their cravings overnight or start seeing incredible changes straight away.

Rather than going from no exercise at all to doing back-to-back gym sessions, it’s better to start slow and set small goals. If you decide you want to give up sugar, you could slowly cut back on sweet treats each week rather than going cold turkey.

A woman drinking a cup of coffee in bed with her hand over her face

3. Retrain your brain

One of the best ways to change your behaviour is to swap your bad habit with a healthy substitute to fill its place. If you want to cut down the amount of time you spend watching TV, you could buy a few books, organise to meet up with a friend or cook a new recipe from scratch to fill in that time instead. Similarly, the next time you feel stressed, you could give a friend a buzz or squeeze a stress ball instead of biting your nails.

4. Get rid of temptation

Habits are typically performed automatically and with minimal conscious effort, so to avoid mindlessly falling into your old ways, it’s best to remove temptation from your home. That might mean cleaning out your kitchen if you’re hoping to eat healthier, or putting your phone in a different room if you want to stop mindlessly scrolling before bed.

5. Plan for failure

Maybe you ditched the gym for a night on the couch or snoozed through your morning alarm six times when you were planning on getting up early. If and when you slip up, the best thing you can do is cut yourself some slack.

You’re not a failure; you’re human. What will make you successful is your ability to bounce back quickly so don’t let a setback throw you completely off track.

6. Reward yourself

Breaking a habit is no small feat. To keep motivated, set yourself mini-milestones along the way and when you reach them, treat yo’self! Try giving yourself a point for each day you stay on track, and rewarding yourself with something small for every 10 points you collect. Just make sure your reward is a healthy one.

7. Seek help

If your bad habit is starting to impact different aspects of your life negatively – and you’re struggling to give it up by yourself – there’s no shame in seeking professional help. A psychologist or GP can offer support and advice.

Looking for more ways you can improve your overall health and wellbeing? Check out The Check Up’s dedicated Healthy Living section.

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