How to Break Old Habits and Form Positive Ones

Bad habits constantly interrupt and disturb your life. They prevent you from achieving your goals. They’re a hindrance on more than one level. They waste your time, your energy and they can actually put your health in danger. This begs the question: why do we still partake in them knowing that they’re dragging us down, and knowing we could be doing so many more productive activities with our time?

In many cases, bad habits form because we’re either stressed or bored, and these habits offer a form of escapism or distraction, and are simply a way of dealing with the stress or boredom. This applies to drinking too much on the weekend, skipping that evening run or gym after work, or even something as trivial as biting your nails. Think of the last time you had some free time, knew that you could pick up a pencil and practice some drawing, but chose to watch series instead. It doesn’t have to be this way, however. There are a number of ways that you can teach yourself to restructure your habits around activities that promote growth and creativity.

Recognizing and breaking bad habits

The first step to getting rid of a bad habit is to recognize it. These habits no doubt confer some sort of perceived benefit, whether it’s emotional, relief from boredom or a distraction from a stressful situation. An example of this would be constantly checking your Instagram feed instead of studying. Once you recognize a bad habit the most logical response would be to drop it immediately. However, this method has a very low rate of success. Abruptly ceasing a certain behavior or habit – going cold turkey – is extremely hard to maintain. The correct procedure should either be to wean yourself slowly off the habit or to replace it altogether with a more positive habit that provides a similar benefit. For example, if being stressed causes you to want to have a drink to unwind, then you should find a more productive habit to replace drinking that will help you to alleviate stress.

You can also try cutting out triggers that tend to initiate your bad habit. If you find yourself looking at your phone too often, place it in another room while you work. If you’re trying to cut down on drinking and smoking, avoid going to bars for a little while. Above all else, don’t beat yourself up if you do slip up and regress a little. After all, we’re all human and are bound to make mistakes from time to time. The important part is to get back on track as quickly as possible and don’t let one small mishap undo all the hard work you’ve already put in.

How to build new habits

Once you’ve broken your old habit it’s time to build a new one. This isn’t as simple as it might sound. Building new habits requires a considerable amount of time, discipline and hard work, especially to make the habit stick. A good place to start is writing down your goals or intentions. This isn’t a new years’ resolution list that you make once and then forget about – it’s a daily list of goals that you want to accomplish. Therefore you need to identify the goals you want to achieve and break them down into attainable steps that you can list and check off.

Pen and paper is the obvious way of doing this, but a lot of people are turning to blogs and websites as a means of documenting what they hope to achieve and building new habits. Blogging means that you can share your journey with likeminded people, which can simultaneously inspire others and encourage you to stick to your commitments. Just remember, documenting your intentions isn’t the end goal, it’s just a framework that is used to ensure that everything is proceeding as planned.

Following through on your goals

Once you’ve written down what you want to achieve, it’s time to implement it… slowly. Perhaps the most common cause of failure when starting a new habit is diving headfirst into it, excelling for the first week and then slowly tapering off until you’re back where you started. It’s therefore important to start with bite sized chunks and ease yourself into a habit.

If you’d like to start running, then immediately attempting a 10km route after work every day is going to quickly end in exhaustion and failure. Instead, break it down into smaller, more manageable distances. Try run 2km every day after work for a week, and from there increase the length. 2.5km the next week, 3km the week after that. This will incrementally up the pace until you are where you need to be, but it will do it over such a gradual time that you won’t feel as if you’re taking on an unbearable load. Keep your goals small and simple and let them grow naturally. Many of us are so conditioned to expect immediate results that when things don’t happen instantly we get disappoint and give up. Remind yourself constantly throughout the process that progress takes time; be patient!

Then of course it’s about sticking to your schedule to really ingrain the habit. Skipping whatever habit you’re trying to build too regularly is fatal to progress, so it’s critical that you stick to your schedule even if it’s only in a small way. Don’t have time for a full workout? Just do ten pushups instead. Don’t have time to write a full article? Write something in your journal. On their own these might seem insignificant, but it’s this type of reinforcement that makes a difference and will help you to maintain a solid regimen. Stick to your habit building, no matter how small the input.

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