How to change your bad habits

We all have bad habits that we'd like to get rid of. They can be something simple, like chewing our fingernails, or they can be something more dangerous like eating too much junk food or watching too much TV. Giving up a bad habit can be a difficult process, but it can be made easier by approaching it in the right way.

Why it's hard to stop a bad habit

Picture the scene: It's 3am in the morning, and you've just finished playing some Flash game involving towers whilst reading two-dozen blogs about funny things cats have done. You wake up the next day tired and irritable, with huge bags under your eyes.

"That's it", you say, "No more late night internet surfing for me!"

You make the commitment to stop hanging on the internet for so long. For the first few days you're clear of the internet, but it isn't long before you find yourself rubbing your eyes at 2am and wondering why you failed.

The problem isn't always that you don't have the discipline to succeed, or that you're too addicted to something. The problem is that getting rid of a habit leaves a hole to be filled. It sounds simple, but dropping the habit entirely won't fix the problem. By leaving out something like internet surfing, you're creating a gap that wants to be filled. If you don't fill it, you'll go back to your old ways.

A better solution is to replace the bad habit with a more constructive one.

Identifying your bad habits

There are two main ways of finding a bad habit. The first and easiest method is to just grab a piece of paper (or open up notepad) and write down what you think your bad habits. We're often our own worst critics, so it's not hard to fill a sheet of paper, but try not to be too hard on yourself. Focus your attention on the habits that will yield the highest rewards if you replace them.

The second way is to ask other people what your bad habits are. This can be quite an eye-opener, but be prepared to hear things you might not like. It's not essential to get feedback from other people, but it can be useful if you want to get a fuller picture.

Setting your new habit

Once you've decided on which habit to change, you must decide what you'll replace it with. I recommend only changing one habit at a time to begin, and to build upon small victories. Think of all the benefits you'll gain from taking up your new habit, and compare it to the consequences of keeping your existing habit.

It's important to visualise the benefits and how they'll make you feel, as this will help when the going gets tough (which it will). Don't forget to write all of this down, so you can refer to it as often as you need. I suggest when you wake up and before you go to bed, but it's really down to personal choice. The important thing is to constantly reinforce the belief of how this new habit will improve your life.

Changing your environment

Our environment often reinforces our current habits, so take a conscious step and change things to reinforce the habit that you want. A small change in our surroundings can make a huge difference in our habits. If your environment isn't supporting this new habit, then it's time for a change. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic, and even creating a poster with your new habit written on it can make all the difference.

For example: if you want to stop drinking lots of soda, replace all the existing drinks in your fridge with water or fruit juice, and keep bottles of water close to the areas that you work in.

The case of the chewed fingernails

To finish off with, here's a small example of how all this can work. A friend of mine had a habit of biting their fingernails that they wanted to change. They found the easiest way to prevent themselves from biting their nails was to place nail clippers around the house. The best places to put them were in areas where they would normally start biting, such as next to the couch or on the bedside table. When the urge came to bite, they could simply pick up some clippers and use them instead.

That's a very simple example, but it shows just how powerful a few small changes can be.

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