Our brains are just like computers (or like the iPhone 11, for all the other millennials out there). All iPhones, and all people, have some “coding” that may not be beneficial. For iPhones and computers, this looks like a glitch in the system. For humans, this looks like bad habits. Luckily, we can rewire the brain to code a little differently and break bad habits, no matter how programmed they are into our routines.
Breaking bad habits, like that caffeine addiction, constant scrolling through Instagram, staying up too late, complaining too much, or procrastinating at work, can not only make your life better, but will build confidence and form good habits. Read on for 11 ways to break out of negative routines that you probably haven’t tried yet:
1. Keep track
The first step in breaking a habit is increasing your awareness. Maybe you know that you mindlessly check Instagram throughout the day, but you’re not sure exactly how much you’re scrolling or when you’re reaching for your phone out of habit. Maybe you know you need to quit drinking soda but are not sure how many cans you’re sipping on throughout the day.
Without judging, start keeping track of the bad habit. Try recording each can of soda you drink or have your phone track how many times you check Instagram every day. Plus, sometimes setting measurable goals can help make changes. When you know you hit the snooze button three times before getting up, you can set a goal to hit “snooze” only twice by the next week, and use baby steps to reach the final goal (AKA not hitting “snooze” at all).
2. Identify the trigger and then replace the habit
To stop the habit, identify the trigger. For example, maybe you reach for a piece of candy every afternoon like clockwork. Is it a sweet tooth craving? Keep a stash of dark chocolate so you always have a better option on hand. Is it stress? Take a five-minute break and do something relaxing instead of eating the candy. Is it exhaustion? Take a walk around the block to get more energy. Get curious about why (and when) your bad habit is happening, so you can either avoid the trigger or replace the habit with something better for you.
3. Trick yourself into changing habits “temporarily”
There’s a reason going vegan for 22 days worked for Beyoncé; the program is based on the fact that it takes 21 days to form a habit. The key to this trickery is that you’re telling yourself that you only have to stop a bad habit (or keep up a good habit) for a certain amount of time. You’re not telling yourself to stop forever, and therefore, it feels much more doable than making drastic and lifelong changes. For a real-life example, mornings have notoriously been hard for me. A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to get a better handle on my mornings and thought that making my bed would be a good place to start (it only took 24 years, but I finally became a real adult).
I made a goal to make the bed for 21 days straight. Sure, I could’ve returned to my same slob-kebab ways after the few weeks were up, but by that point, making the bed was already a habit. Of course, the goal was always permanent change, but staying focused on a short-term accomplishment helped me keep the routine, while I was simultaneously building habits that were better than the sleeping-in-until-the-last-second-possible habit that I had going for me before. And if this strategy is good enough for Beyoncé, it’s good enough for me.
4. Leave reminders where you’ll see them
Sometimes we keep up bad habits because they’re hard to break, and other times we keep up bad habits because we don’t to remember to stop. If you want to stop mindlessly scrolling on Instagram, make your iPhone wallpaper a note that reminds you not to open the ‘gram every time you reach for your phone out of habit. If you want to stop snacking (when you’re not even hungry), leave a sticky note on the fridge or pantry door to remind you to drink some water instead. Whether you need a subtle nudge or an obnoxious reminder (my habits typically require the latter), use phone alarms, sticky notes, or signs to ensure you can’t act on the bad habit without seeing the reminder.
5. Get yourself an accountability buddy
So you’ve heard that working out with a friend will get you to work out more often, or that planning to eat healthier with your significant other will make you more successful. But when it comes to any habit, we sometimes need more than just ourselves to be accountable. If you want to break your caffeine addiction, ask your work wife if she would be down to do the same, or at least help you limit your daily cups of coffee. Knowing she’ll check in with you or see you drinking another espresso during a Zoom meeting will help motivate you to go for green tea instead.
PS, I speak from personal experience when I say there is nothing more motivating than knowing an entire social media following (no matter how big or small) knows you’re trying to break a habit. If there’s not one specific person you can ask to be your accountability buddy, post about your goals on social media, or text about it in your group chats. Just knowing other people are aware of your bad habit will help you break it.
6. Make unrelated good decisions
“Confidence” is the ability to keep promises to yourself. Mind-blow, right? Whether or not that lesson shook your world like it did mine when I first heard it, we often keep up with bad habits because we’re not confident or proud in other areas of our lives. We think, I already skipped my workout today, so why not order a pizza for dinner?, or Since my day is ruined from staying up late and watching Netflix, I’ll work on my side hustle another day instead.
These theoretical debacles may sound silly, but how many times have a couple of bad choices in your life snowballed into more bad choices? Making good choices (even unrelated to the bad habit) will not only make you feel proud of yourself, but will make you feel confident enough to overcome whatever bad habit is holding you back. Likewise, every time you replace any negative routine with a better action, you’re keeping promises you made to yourself, and therefore, building self-confidence.
7. Start fresh regularly
When you skip a workout, binge bad foods, stay up too late, or scroll through Instagram too long, it doesn’t make you bad; it makes you human. Habits are harder to break when we expect perfection. Any slip-up or “bad day” doesn’t mean you failed or are back at the beginning; it’s a normal part of the habit-breaking process. Get rid of the all-or-nothing mindset that one slip-up erases the progress you made previously. Give yourself a clean slate every day, every hour, or even every minute if you need to remind yourself that one unhealthy choice doesn’t negate all the other healthy choices. Rather than focusing on the goal of breaking the bad habit, remind yourself that anytime you just do more of what’s good for you, you’re on the right track.
8. Use visualization
Breaking bad habits is not just a physical, action-oriented process. After all, a goal needs to be more than just words on paper or an idealistic outcome. You have to see it to make it mean something. If you’re working on bad spending habits, don’t just picture yourself without the money issues, but visualize how your life would be different with more money. With any habit, visualize how getting rid of the bad habit would change your life. Will you have more time to start your side hustle or more money to feel financially stable? Will you feel more well-rested and energized to be able to accomplish the big project at work, or will you feel happier with less stress and anxiety?
Also, change your identity surrounding the bad habit. If you keep hitting snooze, maybe you think of yourself as lazy, or a night owl instead of a morning person. Instead, start telling yourself that you are a morning person and that you do wake up energized and active. To use one of my favorite quotes, visualize your best self, and then start showing up as her.
9. When you realize you’re making excuses, do more
One of the most valuable pieces of advice that I received when it came to my mediation practice is that on the days where you find yourself saying, “I have no time to meditate today,” then meditate for twice as long. We makes excuses when there’s no immediate reward and wants to stay with what’s comfortable. So if you find yourself saying, “I’ve had a really stressful day and need this Diet Coke,” that’s when you really need to drink extra water instead. If you’re telling yourself not to work out because your favorite leggings are in the laundry, add an extra five minutes to your usual workout time. Excuses are just stopping you from breaking bad habits, so counteract the excuse with even more motivation.
Quick side note: when trying to break a bad habit, excuses are more common than reasons (“It’s a stressful day, so I’ll stop drinking coffee tomorrow instead,” is an excuse). However, if you listen to your body and decide that it’s feeling too depleted to do an afternoon workout and a relaxing bath would be better for you, that’s a genuine reason, not an excuse. You won’t be able to instill good habits if you’re not intuitive with what your body wants and needs, so learn to decipher between reasons and excuses.
10. Surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you
You’ve probably heard the saying that you’re the sum of the five people you spend the most time with (and yes, that includes your competitive coworker or judgmental frenemy). If you’re trying to eat healthier but your friends don’t know kale from spinach, or if you want to go to bed earlier but your roommate keeps telling you to stay up later to finish the second season of The Politician, breaking these habits are going to be tough.
Your environment matters more than almost any other factor when it comes to habits, and the people in your life are what form the environment. Even if you can’t break up with the people who share your bad habit, spend more time with people who have habits you want to adopt. Ask the coworker who goes on morning runs to get a juice before work, or ask your sister what book she’s reading if she always reads before bed instead of watching TV. If your environment isn’t setting you up for success, reinvent it.
11. Remember the “why”
Sure, we all have goals we want to accomplish, but we often focus on the surface-level goal, rather than the end goal. For example, you might say your goal is “to go to the gym more.” But why do you want to go to the gym more? Is it to feel stronger, live a long and healthy life, or feel more confident in yourself? Those are much more motivating goals than simply going to the gym. The same goes for habit-breaking too. Why do you want to stop drinking coffee, stress eating, or being late? Identify your reason and remind yourself of the end goal every time you’re tempted to fall back into old patterns.