Do you have a bad habit that's imprisoning you? Make a solid commitment to break that habit, and you'll have taken the first step to freedom.
This month in our series, 12 Months of Wellness, we’re going to examine just how liberating it can be to purge ourselves of bad habits and their grip on our health and well-being. We’ll also look at how to replace them with something more positive.
Who among us doesn’t have a bad habit (or two) we’d like to be rid of? Bad habits can run the gamut from the mundane and mildly irritating (nail biting and knuckle cracking) to the much more serious and health challenging (gambling and smoking). If the habit has an unwelcome hold on us, we’d likely be better off without it.
Anatomy of a habit
Habits are hard to break. Researchers have spent years studying the anatomy of repeated behaviours to figure out why we engage in them, particularly—in the case of bad habits—when we know they’re not good for us.
Scientists believe that habits—routines that we perform automatically, without thinking—are ingrained deeply in our brains. The habit may have started as a choice given a particular cue or trigger (such as biting nails when stressed) and become ingrained over time when the same choice is repeatedly made in response to the same cue.
For example, many of us perform the same rituals when we arrive at the office in the morning: we grab a coffee, then turn on our computers and check our email. Because they’re habitual and deeply ingrained, we don’t have to think about these behaviours, allowing our brains to focus on more taxing matters.
But when the habits fixed in our brain are bad ones, such as eating a triple chocolate doughnut with that morning coffee every day, they can have a long-term—and damaging—effect on our health.
So how do we go about breaking bad habits? We’ll take this step by step, week by week during the next four weeks.
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Week 1: November 3 to 9 – Make the decision
Understand. The first—and possibly most important—step toward breaking a bad habit is to be clear about your motivation. If Mom told you to stop chewing with your mouth open, you probably had no clear motivation other than making her happy. But, later in life, if your date looks appalled during an intimate dinner, you’ll soon find your motivation!
You need to know—and really understand—why you want to change your habit.
Identify. Next you need to analyze your habit. What are the cues, triggers, and environmental factors that cause you to engage in the automatic response you’re trying to change? Be honest with yourself to gain the most success.
If you’re trying to break free of the double chocolate doughnut with your morning coffee, break just one link in the chain of cues. Instead of picking up a coffee on your way to the office every morning, brew some at home and enjoy it in a thermal cup when you arrive at work—without the doughnut you usually buy at the drive-through.
Believe. Once you understand the why, next is to believe—believing you can change the habit is key to commitment. Identifying all of the cues and triggers that lead to your behaviour will arm you with a better sense of how to change it, and hence the confidence to succeed.
Commit. Making a commitment to change a habit is much easier once you’ve done some thoughtful introspection. This is often the case when you’ve really analyzed something and come to understand its components. In this case, understanding your motivation, identifying triggers—and most importantly—believing in your ability to change.
Week 2: November 10 to 16 – Out with the bad—in with the good
Although countless books have been sold on the myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, neuroscientists have largely debunked that idea. Instead, they believe that “automaticity” (the word scientists use to describe an established habit) happens over a fairly wide range of time depending upon the person and particular activity.
In other words, a pretty simple habit could take fewer than three weeks to establish, but a more complex one could take longer. The long but, hopefully, short of it is: don’t set yourself up with unrealistic expectations when it comes to breaking the bad and establishing the good.
Once you’ve decided on the habit you want to cast off and identified the triggers and environmental cues that surround the behaviour, look for ways to make a substitution—a good habit for a bad.
The good for the bad
Week 3: November 17 to 23 – Find support
When you’ve decided to break a bad habit, especially if it has a negative impact on your health and well-being, you may need some help from others. You might discover that letting friends, family, colleagues, or peers in on your commitment to change will open up valuable sources of insight and support. Anyone who’s worked at changing a bad habit will understand your challenge.
When you need more than a friend, though, there are plenty of resources available, ranging from online chat or support groups to inpatient treatment programs. Many services are offered through provincial or federal governments, and some may be covered by provincial health insurance plans.
Counsellors and psychotherapists
If your habit requires some outside help to resolve, consider speaking to a professional counsellor or psychotherapist who can help guide you through the process of understanding, confronting, and breaking damaging habits. Find a Canadian certified counsellor in your area at ccpa-accp.ca.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with a drug habit or addiction, you can find national and provincial help contacts, support groups, and other valuable information at nationalantidrugstrategy.gc.ca.
Smoking is much more than a habit; when you’ve made the decision to stop, you can get support from the toll-free Canada-wide Quitline at 1-866-366-3667, or find provincial resources online.
What to ask when seeking professional help
Week 4: November 24 to 30 – Write it down
Have you noticed that when you keep a record of something—say, the amount you spend on double chocolate doughnuts each week—it somehow becomes more real? It also tends to keep you more accountable to yourself.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that women who wrote down their commitment to achieve a 10 percent reduction in weight and diarized their food intake over a year lost more weight than women who didn’t write down anything.
To help increase your odds of success in breaking a bad habit, start your record-keeping by identifying the habit you want to break. Then log the process of analyzing the habit, commit to its resolution, and track your journey to success.
What to log in your habit-breaking diary