How to End a Bad Habit
Got a bad habit you think you might want to say goodbye to? Overeating, excessive drinking, speeding, biting nails, emotional shopping, and more, all are examples of behavior that can get out of control.
The first thing to remember is that all habits, good and bad, begin as thoughts. For this reason, I believe that what you say to yourself about your habits—in the final analysis—is the only thing any of us ever use to accomplish any goal, including the goal of exchanging a bad habit for a good one.
Self-talk resides in our “thought realm.” As internal dialogue, if you train it well, it will serve as a sort of “thought guide,” helping you to convince yourself of the need for change, and then with managing and focusing on the positive thoughts to help you engineer the change you want to see in your life.
Learning to focus your self-talk in a way that will activate your inner drive, to be the engine behind achieving your goals, is what this Hub is all about. We all engage in self-talk, constantly, whether or not we learn to use it in a positive, life-changing way. It is something we can’t help but do. It is the way we process information as humans. Still, unless we learn to bring focus and clarity to what we are saying, our inner dialogue can be little more than a hodge-podge of words and images strung together to which we don’t really give much present or afterthought.
Self-talk Can Help You Change Long-Time Bad Habits
Once you learn to focus your inner dialogue in a positive manner, and to pinpoint exactly what you want to accomplish, you can begin to put forth the effort it will take to achieve specific goals.
Make no mistake, it will undoubtedly take an enormous degree of self-discipline to break any lifelong bad habit. Still, self-talk, your inner dialogue, is ultimately the only way to get you to do anything.
Many experts say that you should tackle your bad habits one at a time, and that it usually takes from 14 to 21 days (and many believe it can take a month or even longer) to break a habit.
First Identify, Then Replace Unwanted Behavior
When anyone attempts to break a bad habit, he or she is trying to replace unpleasant or unproductive behavior with more pleasant or more productive behavior. According to my research, some of the bad habits people cite often as ones they'd like to break include:
- Stress eating
- Procrastinating/wasting time
- Emotional spending and/or mismanaging money
- Being a couch potato/watching too much television/lack of exercise
- Neglecting health and nutrition
- Working too much/not spending enough time at home or with family
These are just several habits, among many, many other things that people say they want to put an end to. Self-talk, in many instances, may be all that is needed to help bring an end to a bad habit that is simply annoying, while habits that have health-threatening consequences may also require professional help. Still, even if you seek and receive professional help, self-talk is still your best ally in helping you implement any recommended or prescribed positive behavioral change recommended by professionals. Remember, the work of professionals ends when negative self-talk begins.
Self-talk is a powerful tool for anyone desiring to end a specific behavior. The stages to consider for exchanging a bad habit for a good one can be seen as including awareness, desire, commitment/promise, action and repetition.
The problem sometimes lies in the fact that although other people may consider something that you do habitually to be a bad habit, you may or may not be admitting to yourself, through your inner dialogue, that it is truly a bad habit. You may agree in your conversations with others that it is a bad habit or undesirable behavior, but within yourself, you may feel justified in engaging in the behavior. If you don’t truly agree that the habit is bad and that it needs to change, then there is almost no chance that you will be able to talk yourself into changing the behavior.
For this reason, the awareness stage is where is you will need to do enough soul-searching to discover if you truly see your habit as others may see it, and if it is something you truly want or need to change. This is also the stage where you need to stop telling yourself that you can’t change this habit. If it is a bad habit, it is bad for a reason. Consider the consequences, what it is costing you, to engage in this behavior. If the consequences are negative, then this habit must be something you want to change. Becoming more aware of what the habit is costing you (consider financial, physical/health, and/or social costs) and how you truly feel about its costs will help you decide whether or not it is something you can commit to changing.
After the awareness stage comes desire; the stage where you will need to use your inner dialogue to question yourself about your desire and motivation to change the behavior in question. Inner dialogue can be very helpful at this stage because no one can motivate you better than you. In fact, other people can inspire you and give you good reasons to become motivated, but the drive to achieve change can only be found within you.
At this stage, you have already acknowledged the bad habit and its negative consequences in your life, and you are keenly aware that you need to change your behavior. Now, you will need to dig deep inside to find the inner drive that is required to actually change it. After all, you allowed this behavior to become a habit because it gives you some type of reward. If it did not provide a reward, you would not have kept it around long enough for it to become a habit. Therefore, your motivation to change will be based on the reward you must believe you will get from ending or changing the behavior:
- Perhaps not changing your behavior will keep you from doing something else that you truly want to do.
- Maybe your health, or the health of your loved one, will continue to deteriorate if you do not change your behavior.
Many smokers, For example, have come to realize that smoking indoors, around children, other family members, and even pets, can cause adverse health effects for the non-smoking members of the household, and that that can lead to higher medical bills. No matter how much the smoker loves smoking indoors, the idea of causing those they love to suffer, and causing the family to face higher medical costs, can become great motivation to smoke outside, or to stop smoking altogether.
It will help at the desire stage to use a journal to develop an overview of your habit. If you use it to document times when you engage in your habit, writing in your journal will become part of the foundation for changing your behavior. Then, through your inner dialogue, you will be able to determine and then make note of how much time, on a daily basis, you are devoting to changing the habit you want to change.
Again, think and journal about the financial price tag of your habit? What about the social cost of it? What has this habit kept you from doing that you would like to do? What will you do with your time once you get rid of this habit? What benefits (try to think of from five to ten main benefits) will you receive after this habit is no longer part of your life?
The desire stage is also a good time to focus your inner dialogue on talk about the kinds of things you might encounter on the road to change that might cause you to revert to your old behavior. What are some of the possible roadblocks you could face along the way? Try to think of as many as you can, and jot down any potential obstacle that could come between you and change. Next, think of and write down something you might do to combat each and every potential obstacle you listed.
Once you discover your motivation, the next stage is where you will commit to change. This is the stage where you will promise yourself that you can and will dedicate yourself to making the changes in your lifestyle you will have to make in order to eradicate the undesired behavior.
In the commitment/promise stage, you must stop saying, “I can’t stop doing this” and begin believing and saying “I can stop doing this.” Instead of thinking, “why do I need to stop doing this?” you should now be asking yourself “how am I going to stop doing this?”
The commitment/promise stage is also where you must constantly remind yourself that who you are today is not based on who you were yesterday. Just because you did not change your behavior yesterday does not mean you cannot change it today. You can give yourself permission to reinvent yourself, today.
You can allow your inner voice to tell you how changing this habit now will improve your life. Instead of being someone who smokes or drinks too much, you can start today being someone who once smoked, or who once drank too much. This type of positive, goal-affirming self-talk will help you begin to see yourself differently—as someone capable of leaving the past behind, someone wise enough to use today to start making the changes you want to make a part of your life tomorrow, and forever.
"Action" Equals Activities!
It can help a lot to keep a daily calendar to track progress you make toward your goal. For example, if you've decided to stop being a coach potato, document the steps you will take to stop watching so much television. What is your plan? You might want to tackle this problem in two parts. To stop watching so much television, you might begin substituting reading books instead. To reach this goal, if you prefer new technology to old, you could buy an eReader, so that you can take your books with you easily, wherever you go. To begin, you might decide to trade one hour of watching television for one hour of book reading every day. In addition, you might consider taking a daily walk in a nearby park. You could plan what time of day you will turn off the TV and pick up your book, or what day/time of day you will go to the park or to the gym. You could even set goals for yourself in terms of how many books you will try to read in a month’s time, or how many miles you will walk every day or every week.
Now it is time to journal your plan of action. Begin talking to yourself about what specific steps you will take to end your bad habit, and to begin your new one. Take baby steps to begin by setting easily achievable goals that you know you will be able to reach. Every time you reach a goal, reward yourself with a gold star in your journal. Raise the bar once you begin to feel strong enough to reach an even higher goal.
Act If/When You Backslide into Your Old Behavior . . .
After setting goals and deciding on specific action steps, if you should happen to backslide into your old and undesired behavior, don’t worry about it, and don’t allow your self-talk to become negative as a result. In other words, don’t beat yourself up over it, and don’t allow the frustration of backsliding to cause you to abandon your mission. Instead, tell yourself that you had a temporary setback and then work hard to get back to the desired behavior. Remember, getting back on track is an action step too.Be sure to make note of everything in your journal, and, using positive self-talk, discuss what was going on in your life when you reverted to your bad habit.
Act by Being Kind to Yourself . . .
Speak kind words to you and about you through your inner dialogue. Talk things through, honestly, kindly, and considerately with yourself. Doing so will help reduce stress as you seek to uncover possible influencing situations, moods, or interactions with others that might, somehow, be triggers for the return to your old behavior.
Act by Using Your Journal
Once you discover possible triggers, make up your mind that if/when these things reoccur, go back to your list of potential roadblocks that you developed and wrote about in the desire stage. Check to see if you have already listed a possible solution. If so, implement it; if not, be sure to add the new trigger to your list of obstacles, and then brainstorm possible solutions. Next, remember to review your journal in its entirety, as much as possible. This is how you will get to know your thoughts and feelings, and knowing them will help bring clarity of mind, enabling you to focus on solutions.
Review your promise statement, and your plan of action. Make any needed adjustments to your action plan to accommodate handling new triggers you may have discovered. Constantly remind yourself to be consistent and repetitive in efforts that can help you dump your old habit and adopt a new one.
Act Through Repetition of Positive Behavior
I was once a "nail biter" of renown. My friends from high school would be shocked to know that these days, while many women are paying a lot of money to nail salons to have beautiful, flawless looking nails, mine are completely real, and they're ultra strong and attractive, because several years ago I conquered the bad habit of nail biting. I began by admitting how much I wanted to stop, then I talked myself through stopping the behavior. I bought some nail polish, kept my ragged nails painted at all times to discourage biting, and I re-painted them when the paint wore off naturally. The very act of painting them helped to underscore for me that I truly desired to have beautiful nails. Within a month's time, I changed my lifelong bad habit into a good habit, and I'm happy to report that many years later I don't have even the slightest desire to revert to my old behavior. Painting my nails and engaging in the repetitive behavior of keeping them painted was key to the ending of my bad habit.
After you get your plan down for changing your bad habit, act on it, over and over again, until your old bad behavior is nothing more than a memory.
© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD