7 ways to break a bad habit

Right around the end of January, just as the novelty of “reinventing” myself is wearing thin, my bad habits rear their ugly heads.

It’s like they know — January 30th (or so) is the perfect time to drag me back to the sad, sniveling collection of tics and autopilot loops that was “me” prior to January 1st.

Take yesterday, for instance. At breakfast our blender was silent for the first time in 28 days. I felt a pang of guilt seeing it sitting there all kale-less and apple-free on the counter. It scowled at me as I poured a heaping bowl of Cinnamon Harvest and shoved a spoonful in my mouth.

Ugh.

My thinking brain and my body knew they were supposed to be doing something different, but their cries were muffled. I was mentally underwater, unable to pivot. Stuffing my face with cereal I didn’t even want.

Even though it might feel like it in the moment, sliding back into a bad habit is not a sign of a deficient personality.

And I’m not just saying that because I do it with alarming regularity.

The reality is, habits — good and bad — form familiar neural pathways in our brains. While creating a “new” pathway is definitely possible, it will take many, many, many repetitions for the new habit to become more dominant than the existing one.

And worse, the old one never really goes away.

So, all the while you are diligently working on instilling your new habit, routines stored in your basal ganglia can be triggered to run the old (bad) habit at any time. In my case an old cereal-eating habit was triggered by the cue of walking downstairs and into the kitchen first thing in the morning.

When that happens, the key is not to go all black and white and label your trip up as “a FAILURE” (or worse yourself as a failure).

You had some neurons fire on autopilot before your “executive function” could step in. That is all.

The key to success is to recognize what’s gone on in your brain and then figure out which of these 8 tactics you should work on to keep your basal ganglia from running that old/bad routine again.

1. Get to threshold

The reason your brain runs the old pattern is that it learned (early on) that the behavior was rewarding in some way. For example, I got in to the cereal habit as a swimmer. As a teen, I’d come home ravenous after a 2-hour early morning practice and within seconds would have both a happy tummy & satiated sweet tooth thanks to the ready to eat cereal boxes in the cabinet & cold milk in the fridge. Happy tummy + satiated sweet tooth = dopamine squirt. Enough of those dopamine squirts and my smart brain linked up the cue “walking into the kitchen in the morning” to the action “pouring a bowl of cereal” so that it just happened without me thinking about it.

Great at 18 when I swam 4 hours a day and ran cross country to boot. Fine at 30 when I was training for marathons. Bad, bad, bad at 41 when my main activities are childcare, cooking, and digital entrepreneurship.

The interesting thing though is that it IS possible to reframe what the bad thing means to you. All you have to do is start to associate bad things to the behavior. For example, with my cereal habit, I think about the glycemic index of cereal. Then I picture my sugar levels spiking after eating a spoonful of cereal. Then I picture the inflammation inside my body caused by the insulin spike. I also pinch my middle and say the word, “cereal.” And so forth.

The thing is, it works really well as a re-motivator. And although I don’t know of any scientific studies proving this, it might just help your brain “unlearn” the habit.

So if you find yourself running a bad habit loop, take a beat if you can (or reflect after) to bombard your brain with the negative attributes of the habit. Really picture yourself doing the thing and then that action triggering an avalanche of BAD things. Rinse & repeat as often as you can when you’re trying to overcome it.

2. Be mindful.

When you slip up, get really granular about your behavior. Try to break down your habituated routine into three parts: the cue or trigger, the routine, and the reward you are getting. The more you can observe objectively it as a process, the more you will be able to think “scientifically” and creatively about how to change it.

Charles Douhigg, author of The Power of Habit, has a really helpful flowchart for breaking your habit down. I recommend checking it out — and his amazing book, too.

3. Have an IF/THEN plan.

I’ve written about the power of if/than statements before. They act as primers for your brain, telling it what to do when it encounters a certain context. These are a really helpful tool for keeping your brain on track when it’s likely to go off-course. They can be used to tell your brain what to do to avoid the bad behavior all together OR to course-correct a brain on autopilot.

So, continuing my cereal example, my “IF/THEN” statements could be:
– IF I find myself mindlessly pouring a bowl of cereal first thing in the morning, THEN I will pour the cereal back into the box, walk to the fridge, take out my kale, apple, and lemons and start making a green monster instead.

– IF it is a weekday, then as soon as I wake up, I will walk downstairs and make myself a green monster shake for breakfast first thing.

In my experience, the key with these if/than statements is to repeat them often, sort of like a mantra. When you get to the point of having an automatic response your statement, you’re in business.

4. Eliminate as many triggers as possible.

Obviously, this will be easier for some habits than others. But if you can get rid of the triggers that keep you stuck in old routines, do it.

If you eat cookies when they’re in the house, toss them. Ditto for cereal. If you are tempted to read Gawker instead of doing productive work on your computer, make it impossible to do so with the use of Freedom or Get Concentrating.

Of course, things get complicated when you have others in the house that have conflicting needs. I can’t toss the cookies OR the cereal as my kids and husband would revolt. But I can change up how they are stored in a way that muffles the trigger for me. For example, I could put them in a brightly colored plastic bin with “FOR THE KIDS” in my pantry. Perhaps seeing them designated as “not for me” might remove the trigger.

Think about ways to remove or muffle the triggers that trip you up. Get creative — there is always more than one way to skin a cat.

5. Lock yourself in so that NOT breaking the habit will be more painful than breaking the habit.

Odysseus knew he’d encounter the sirens. He knew that upon hearing them he’d want to untie himself from the mast and dive to his death to reach them. So he instructed his crew to fill their ears with wax so they could not hear the sirens and to ignore his entreaties to be set free until the ship was well past the treacherous “siren-zone.”

Research has shown that the more you pre commit — or lock yourself in to a certain course of action before you have to act — the more likely you are to stick with the program.

If you find yourself falling back into old patterns frequently, lock yourself in like Odysseus. Put money on the table. Put your honor at stake. Whatever it takes so that it is either impossible, darn near impossible, or downright humiliating to go astray.

6. Reward yourself each time you do the right thing.

Give your brain a reason to keep doing the new, better thing. It likes rewards because they help it determine which routines are worth learning and ultimately routinizing. To that end, be sure you’re giving yourself a good squirt of dopamine when you make the right decision.

I personally do a little happy dance around the kitchen when I have my breakfast smoothie in hand and revel in the boost to my self esteem. When I get to 30 days in a row on March 1st, I will be marching my (slim) behind down to the local manicure/pedicure spot to celebrate. When I get to 60 consecutive days, I’m going to spurge on some new jeans. At 90 days? Why, I’ll be getting a fancy haircut & color of course!

If you can’t figure out how to reward yourself, here are 101 fun ideas.

7. Stop defining slip-ups as failures.

Last but definitely not least is to take the word “failure” out of the equation where new habits are concerned. What you believe about an event will determine what you do next. If you believe a slip indicates you’re a failure and are incapable of change, you won’t take the corrective steps you need to, and sure enough, you’ll prove to yourself you’re a failure at making the change.

The only thing a slide back into old habits means is that your brain has some well worn grooves and getting it to move beyond those grooves will take effort.

This one is harder to do in reality – I certainly didn’t ever realize how quick I was to judge myself as a total failure. But once you make the shift, the difference in your ability to course correct is massive.

Have you noticed yourself slipping up on your resolutions this week? What do you do to get yourself back on track.

  • Sarahbeth

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Every morning, I get out of bed & stumble into the bathroom to take a shower instead of jumping on the treadmill. I’m going to hang my wedding dress on the bathroom door. Hopefully, touching the organza & tulle while I’m grabbing the knob in the dark will help rewire my brain & wake me up to what I should do. When the big day comes in May, I’ll be ready. Thanks for this post!

  • SarahButtonedUp

    Love your idea – great way to “interrupt” your habit loop. Congrats in advance on your big day and keep us posted! I DID make a green monster this morning. Day 2 (again) 🙂 XO

  • Lisa

    I’m putting out my healthier breakfast dish and supplements on the kitchen bench the night before – takes 20 seconds – and then I have no need to “think” about breakfast in the morning and just do the “right” thing. This is a new habit but working a treat.

  • SarahButtonedUp

    That’s super smart Lisa — a way of both “locking yourself in” and having your implementation plan figured out.