How to break a bad habit

I would be willing to wager that at some point in your life you've wondered how to break a bad habit. Whether it's quitting smoking, going through the drive-thru after work or falling asleep on the couch every night during Jimmy Fallon, we all have something — or several somethings — that we'd call bad habits...things we'd like to change about ourselves or our lives, but every time we try, we fail — sometimes miserably.

Usually, we chalk those failures up to a lack of willpower or self-discipline. We put people who've lost large amounts of weight in a category that doesn't include us — or we expect them to pack on the pounds again, when their willpower fails and they inevitably reach for the donuts at work meetings, another slice of pizza on Fridays, an extra cocktail during happy hour.

But what if it wasn't all about willpower or being lazy and undisciplined? What if it had something to do with the way we're wired? And, more importantly, what if breaking a bad habit — or creating a better, more healthy habit in its place — were more simple than we've always thought?

Several recent books (and the forthcoming "Better than Before" by Gretchen Rubin) have presented detailed — albeit differing — perspectives on the topic of habit forming, and I have found the research nothing short of fascinating. Not only that, I have taken what I've learned in the past few months and actually made several positive lifestyle changes, some of which I never thought were possible before. For example:

  • I now wake up every morning and, after recognizing the cue (in this case, a set time on the clock each day), I sit down to meditate for 11 minutes. Right now it's a Kundalini meditation I'm working on, which I will switch up after 30 days, but the general practice has been ongoing and is much more consistent and stable in my life than ever before.
  • Before my morning meditation, actually, I do 10 to 12 minutes of oil pulling while I'm getting things ready in the kitchen for the start of my day. This is crazy to me on so many levels — never did I think I'd be able to tolerate swishing oil around in my mouth, let alone for 10 minutes at a time, and I never would have imagined how attached I'd get to this one 'keystone habit' that has transformed noticeable aspects of my health and wellness.
  • Later on in the day, while my kids are napping — which I used to do, right along side of them — I get up, turn on my Yoga Studio app, and I practice for 15 to 30 minutes, 3 to 5 days a week.

I've made small changes to my daily housekeeping routine, my nightly wind-down ritual, even things like when I write and where I shop for groceries is slowly evolving (hopefully, for the better). Some habits have had a big impact, and some have only been modified slightly — but it's no small feat that in a short period of time, I've incorporated new habits and broken "bad" ones that all affect my health and happiness.

In a nutshell, Duhigg's theory stipulates that most of what we do on a daily basis is just one long string of habits we may not even recognize as such — for example, the order in which you shower, brush your teeth, drink your coffee and drive to work. You probably do all of those things in the same order every day, without giving it much thought. At the root of why, how, where and when you perform each action, he states, is a habit loop, consisting of a cue, a routine, and a reward. (Personally, my favorite "reward" example he uses is eating a piece of chocolate after you exercise!) As I mentioned above, the cue could be a set time, or it could be something you see, somewhere you go or any other number of events or triggers. The routine is what follows: You see your running shoes by the foot of the bed, so instead of skipping your morning workout, you lace up and go out for a jog. The reward could be that delicious piece of chocolate, fitting into your jeans a little more comfortably or simply the runner's high.

Although I'm just beginning to explore the tip of the habit iceberg, I have found that large chunks of this theory hold up when put to the test of action and application. The alarm goes off, I scoop out some coconut oil for my oil pulling and swish it around for 10 minutes, and as a result I have whiter teeth and clearer skin. Reward! I look at the clock a short while later, notice it's time for meditation, and after my 11 minutes are up I feel more calm and collected, grounded and ready to face the day. That is a significant reward that lasts for hours.

It's simple, but it's not easy — I still haven't figured out what it is in my usual breakfast that leaves me feeling less than spectacular in the morning and what I can substitute without sacrificing caffeine and deliciousness. I may be getting more laundry in the wash, but I haven't quite figured out how that translates to folding it and putting it away more quickly and efficiently. I also don't think it's logical or fair to erase the concepts of willpower and self-discipline from the discussion. Is there a "habit" for saying no to the special Argentine cookies your co-worker surprises you with one day after lunch? Is there a reason why some of us are more affected by stress and anxiety and therefore it's more difficult to maintain reasonable levels of discipline and consistency? I suddenly feel like Brene Brown, author, speaker and shame researcher, after her Spiritual breakdown Awakening — there is so much to learn, about ourselves, our lifestyles, even our relationships.

If you'd like to continue exploring the concept of breaking bad habits and replacing them with healthier alternatives, subscribe to the blog below and leave me a comment about something in your life that you'd like to look at through the lens of habit formation. We can work together to establish your patterns and isolate what's really going on.

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