Have you ever stopped and thought about all the things you do on a daily basis without realizing it? As humans, we tend to be creatures of habits. And that’s often a really great thing. Brushing your teeth twice a day or having breakfast at the same time every day, for instance, are great habits to live by.
According to science, habits are there to train our brain how to perform things important to us exerting the least amount of energy and effort possible.
Yet, not all of our habits tend to be the most productive or uplifting ones. We may not want to admit it, but we all have bad habits that do us more harm than good, leading us astray.
Stress-eating, for example, is one of those bad habits that is so hard to eliminate. Turning to comfort food when we are feeling anxious or sad typically leads to regrets minutes after. Biting our nails is also one of those habits born out of nervousness. It is not only unhygienic, but that also tends to repel people around us. There are also harmful habits that arise from stress, such as smoking, which can have negative effects on people’s health.
Yet, the good news is that just as habits require repetition and constant practice for them to form, the same applies when trying to break them and transform them into newer, more productive ones.
Before digging into the scientific-backed strategies that help replace bad habits with newer, healthier ones, it’s important to understand the causes behind them.
What are the Causes of our Bad Habits?
According to James Clear, author of the book Atomic Habits, bad habits are usually caused by one of the following things: stress, nervousness, anxiety, and… boredom.
Have you ever thought about what makes you want to spend hours navigating the web? Or overspending when shopping? It probably is either your boredom or that something is stressing you out.
The first step towards changing a problem is always the same: recognizing the problem itself. This requires deep honesty with ourselves, being truthful about the reasons behind those bad habits. Is it fear? A limited belief? A feeling or deeper issue that you want to avoid?
The truth is that the habits in your life are there for a reason. Whether the habits are good or bad, they tend to help you in some shape or form, even if that means causing some form of harm to you in another.
It is only once the underlying issue of those bad habits have been recognized that one can begin to overcome them.
If you open up with those in your inner circle, you might realize that it’s not only you that will recognize your bad habits, but they as well! And you’ve probably heard the words “Just stop doing it” and probably… those words led you to nothing.
Why? James Clear articulates that bad habits cannot be eliminated; they should be replaced. If you go for comfort food when feeling stressed, you have to find a new way to cope with that stress. For some, going for a walk or exercising might be the cure.
In short, the new habit should replace the old one while providing the same level of benefit.
Here are some science-backed ways in which you can break and replace bad habits, those that prevent you from living to your max potential, interrupt your life, waste your time and energy, and can even endanger your health.
Know What Triggers You
According to Happiness Matters, habits are formed in the following process: cues, routines, and rewards.
Cues are the triggers that motivate you to engage in a certain habit. Cues often happen in a context, such as a stress-eater exploring the dessert menu when going out to eat. Or immediately going to your sofa when coming home from work. If this is you, and you spend hours on your couch watching Netflix, try placing the remote control far from the couch next time.
By understanding what triggers you to behave in a certain way, you can delineate a plan to avoid such cues. It becomes easier to avoid bad habits when you know which cues to avoid.
Choose Wise Substitutes to Replace Bad Habits With
Remember, bad habits are very hard to eliminate. They ought to be replaced.
Once you understand what triggers you to act in a certain way, start finding better, more productive behaviors to engage with to cope with that same cue. Have a plan of attack. If the urge to navigate on social media comes to you, open your email and respond to unread messages. If you are feeling stressed and the urge to comfort eat comes to you, go out for a quick walk.
Forming new habits take time. It won’t happen immediately, and you might face some bumps along the road. The important thing is to stay consistent and committed for the repetition of the behavior to kick in and for the new habit to slowly form.
Avoid Stress, it’s One of the Top Triggers for Bad Habits
Stress is perhaps the greatest common denominator of bad habits. Getting overwhelmed is largely why we form bad habits.
Stress usually triggers behaviors that we don’t truly want to engage in, but nevertheless, do to help manage what we are feeling or going through at that specific moment. According to the American Cancer Society, it’s the main reason why people smoke – it calms them down. Stress is also one of the main reasons why people get anxious and frustrated.
Fortunately, though, stress can be both managed and controlled. Meditation is among the best ways to control our willpower and improve our overall brain health. Getting a good night’s sleep also works, as a more rested body leads to better emotional control. Exercising is also a great way to manage stress, even a quick walk around the neighborhood can do a difference!
Don’t Go at it Alone, Together is Always Better!
Oxytocin, the chemical responsible for our feelings of friendship, love, and trust, is one of the most powerful neurotransmitters in our body. Oxytocin is the feeling we get when someone does something nice for us and vice-versa. It’s responsible for human connection – for our feelings of empathy and generosity. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to make ourselves vulnerable to each other.
Pair with someone going through something similar to you or that is aiming to also replace that bad habit and replace it with newer, more productive ones. By doing so, you’ll leverage the power of oxytocin to your advantage while boosting your immune system, increasing your problem-solving skills, and better resist the temptation to fall into the bad habit again.
We are social beings. We can’t be accountable to numbers – only to people. It’s different to say, “I will break my bad habit in 30 days” than saying, “We’ll break this bad habit together, no matter how long it takes.”
People often challenge themselves and go at it on their own to avoid been seen failing. The real power, however, is when we have the courage to make ourselves vulnerable to each other and hold each other accountable.
What Will the Future Look Like if That Bad Habit Was Broken?
Picture yourself succeeding. How will your life change if that bad habit was replaced with a healthy one? Will you become more productive? Will you be healthier? Will it make your family and loved ones happier?
Envision the future you’d like to have and work on making it happen. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of taking baby steps – slowly, but steadily approaching your goal. Picture yourself looking back and smiling, feeling proud of the effort and commitment it took you to better yourself.
Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself
We all stumble, it’s natural. Remember, a habit is built out of repetition and consistency. It took a long time to build that bad habit – it will take time, energy, and commitment to break it. It’s okay to stumble and fail sometimes, it’s what makes us humans.
Breaking a habit is like going for a hike up the mountains. There’s no way around it, you have to climb it all the way to the top. There probably will be times when you’d like to quit. Don’t. Try instead to set better goals for yourself, take baby steps.
And remember to take a friend to the hike with you, he or she will make you work harder, hold yourself accountable, and motivate each other. And when you reach the top, you’ll both celebrate each other’s victory.
Building Good Habits is the Fuel for Self-Improvement
Back in the day, Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Replacing bad habits with newer and more productive ones takes discipline, courage, and commitment. It demands of you a kind of effort that most often than not, takes you to tests your limits.
Yet, both the rewards as well as the person that will come with it will make it all worth it.
At Topic Insights, we know that there’s a leader inside each and every one of us. It’s our mission to help you nurture and inspire that leader. For more actionable content like this, subscribe to our newsletter. Questions? We’d love to hear from you. Contact us today.