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Five Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

five steps to breaking a bad habit

At the start of a new year, we all become very focused on setting new goals and changing old behaviours. Usually we find that after the initial burst of enthusiasm and determined resolutions, making those changes stick is harder than you think.

Around 40-45% of what we do every day is done out of habit. You might be surprised just how much of our lives happen on auto-pilot, but it makes perfect sense when you consider how much time and energy we would waste if we had to decide every day what to do, when and how to do it. With repetition, our brain develops a ‘shortcut’ so that we no longer have to think consciously about what we’re doing, and our thinking mind is freed up to focus on other more important things.

Perfect! Unless, of course, some of those habits aren’t very good for you. Then you find yourself mindlessly acting out behaviours and falling into old patterns you’d rather not. When you try to consciously do something different, your brain acts to preserve the status quo by sending you signals in the way of strong urges or cravings to do the very thing you said you wouldn’t do.

From studying the neuroscience of habits, we know that every behaviour has a ‘cue’ or a trigger that instigates it, and is followed by a reward. Rewards give us a strong hit of dopamine in our brains, and after a while just thinking about the behaviour (e.g., when you anticipate the glass of wine, the online shopping or the chocolate biscuit) triggers the release of dopamine. No wonder those habits are so hard to break.

While the first few times you do something, it might very well be a conscious decision, after only a few occurrences, that combination of trigger, behaviour and reward becomes quite automatic and is instigated by a part of your brain that has nothing to do with conscious choice.  With these processes going out outside of our conscious awareness, bad habits can seem impossible to break. This is why it’s not enough to just focus on the behaviour itself but to look at all three factors in combination. Here are 5 tips to help you over-ride your impulses and establish healthy habits instead.

1. Practise mindfulness

Being mindful is like pressing a pause button between the stimulus (the urge or craving you feel) and the response (i.e., your bad habit), giving you a moment to consider a different response when you are hit with that craving. Mindfulness not only helps you to slow down enough to notice what you’re about to do, it also teaches you to observe your experience – including all those thoughts and sensations involved in a craving or urge – with a degree of objectivity. Usually we are consumed by our thoughts and we act on every urge as if we have no other choice. Mindfulness gives you that choice.

2. Identify your triggers

The trigger for your craving might be a time of day, particular places, people, emotions or even other behaviours that become paired together (such as having a cigarette every time you have a coffee). It can be helpful to keep a log of every time you experience the urge or the habit you’re trying to break. You should fairly quickly identify a pattern and know what your cues or triggers are. Armed with information, you’re better placed to stay away from, or be better prepared for danger zones.

3. Choose a new reward

Once you know the trigger, it’s important to also get clear on the specifics of your rewards. If your habit is to have a chocolate at 3pm, the reward might be the sweetness, the quick energy boost, or satisfying your hunger. Sometimes part of the reward is social connection (gathering in the tea room at work) or alleviating boredom by getting up from your desk and stretching your legs. Once you know that your reward is, you can find other activities that will help you to achieve it that don’t involve engaging in your bad habit. 

4. Use repetition to your advantage

Initially your new behaviour might not give you the exact same sense of relief as your old one. But with repetition, you are creating new neural pathways that over time will ensure your old habit is replaced by your new behaviour. By repeating your new preferred activity every time you experience your trigger, the new behaviour will also start to become automatic. Eventually the new pattern will become habitual and the old associations will be suppressed. Soon you’ll find yourself reaching for the peppermint tea instead of the glass of wine.

5. Remember – progress not perfection!

Habits aren’t formed overnight, nor are they broken so easily. If you expect immediate success, any slip-up can feel like a failure and send you straight back to square one. By forgiving yourself for slip-ups, you’re more likely to get back on track quickly and eventually ditch those bad habits for good. Practice makes progress! If you’d like to be the first to hear when doors open to my 8-week online course, Mindfulness for Busy People, you can register your details HERE and I’ll keep you posted. (There are always early bird discounts for people on the list!)


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1 Comment

  1. […] course one of the best ways to manage all the unhelpful thinking traps we all fall into is by practicing mindfulness. When you can learn to watch your thoughts with […]

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Cass Dun clinical psychologist
Hi, I’m Cass.

I'm here to help you find freedom from psychological struggles so that you can live your happiest, most meaningful and fulfilling life.

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