We’re several weeks into the new year at this point. If you set some significant goals, you might be feeling the challenge of sticking with them. That’s especially true if you’ve got a bad habit holding you back.
Do you have a habit you’re struggling to break? Sometimes it can feel impossible. We’ve all been there. According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll, 41 percent of respondents said it would take a near-death experience to permanently break a bad habit!
But it’s not that dire. Deeply ingrained habits are hard to break—but not impossible. There are seven steps you can take to break that bad habit.
Step 1. Admit the Challenge
Half the power of habits is our lack of awareness. When we do become aware of a habit working against us, we have to admit it’s inhibiting our progress. It doesn’t have to be life-threatening to be serious. It simply has to be standing in the way of your goals.
If that’s the case, then say this to yourself right now, with as much conviction as you can muster: “I have a problem with [fill in the blank].”
The good news is that whatever the impediment, you’re not alone. Other people have faced it, too. And from their success you can take courage that you can overcome it as well. All it takes is determination and possibly some outside assistance.
Step 2. Understand How Habits Work
After we understand a habit is at work, we need to understand how it does work. This will enable us to break it’s power over us. A habit has three components:
- The trigger. This is often something we see with our eyes. But it can involve the rest of our senses as well.
- The behavior. Normally, we think of the behavior as the habit itself: overeating, procrastination, whatever. But it’s only our response to the trigger.
- The reward. More than the physical sensation we experience, this is the dopamine hit the behavior produces.
The trick is that we begin experiencing the reward at the point of the trigger—even before we act. Your brain gives you a dopamine hit every time your eyes encounter something you associate with the reward. It’s like a feel-good credit card. The fun comes now; the bill comes later.
And this where we get tripped up. Why? “We don’t have complete control over what we pay attention to,” explains Johns Hopkins neuroscientist Susan M. Courtney. “What we tend to look at, think about, and pay attention to is whatever we’ve done in the past that was rewarded.”
So think about the habit you want to break. Can you identify the trigger? Sometimes it’s obvious, but it might take some reflection.
Step 3. State What You Want Instead
Now that you’ve admitted you have a challenge and understand why it’s so challenging, it’s time to state what you want instead. Some examples:
- I want to find other ways to relieve my anxiety besides smoking.
- I want to eat healthy, delicious food, and exercise five days a week.
- I want to get better rest and more sun instead of relying on coffee to get me through the day.
Visualization experts use a trick called the polar bear problem. The speaker will ask a crowd to close their eyes and think of a polar bear in the arctic tundra. Then he describes the polar bear in detail—the big powerful arms, the vanilla white fur, the big black nose, and so on.
Next, he’ll tell the audience to stop visualizing the polar bear. But they’ve built such a compelling image in their minds they can’t. By trying not to think about the polar bear, they are drawn back to the polar bear. Their brains don’t want to give it up.
So then the speaker will tell them to close their eyes again and think of an eagle in evergreen country, soaring above a lake, looking for food. He will build up that image for a time and then ask an unexpected question.
“Where did the polar bear go?” To the amazement of the audience, the eagle has taken its place.
Bad habits are a lot like the polar bear. When we try to break them, our minds are drawn back to what we crave, and it seems like we can’t escape. But that’s only because we haven’t found our eagle yet.
Step 4. Swap the Behavior
Rather than fighting our own brains, what we really need to do is give them another focus. The goal is to replace the behavior while keeping the trigger and the reward in place. Consider smoking:
- The trigger. Maybe you feel anxious or see someone else smoking. You immediately start anticipating the reward.
- The behavior. You light a cigarette and inhale, a behavior that you normally associate with the reward.
- The reward. Your brain and body relax.
Now keep the trigger and the reward the same but replace the behavior. For example, every time you get the urge to light up, drink a flavored water like a La Croix instead. Or go for a walk. Or something else!
The point is to find something you can do to change your focus to something different and better.
Step 5. Track Your Progress
Maintaining the swap won’t be easy. But tracking progress not only keeps your intention front and center, it can also deepen your resolve and maintain momentum.
I recommend using an app to track your progress. There are several that can help you trade bad habits for good ones.
I’m currently using HabitBull. It is available for both iOS and Android devices and it allows you to set reminders, chart streaks, and review your results.
Step 6. Seek Outside Help
If necessary, seek outside resources. I cannot recommend this enough. There are whole organizations dedicated to helping people kick the habits that block their progress.
It could be a business coach, a personal trainer, Weight Watchers, AA, and the list goes on. Name your hangup—someone has already cracked the code, and they’re ready to serve. Find them and take advantage of their expertise.
Step 7. Stay the Course
The transformation won’t happen overnight. The final step is to simply persist. Keep at it until you consistently get the results you want. It takes close to seventy days of hard work to replace an old habit with a new one.
But now that you understand the problem, if you keep at it consistently and smartly, I am confident you can shake free and experience the results you want.