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How to Break the Bad Habits That Hold You Back in Life

“You'll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success if found in your daily routine.” ~John C. Maxwell

We all have bad habits. The problem is that many of our habits are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even notice them anymore. If we do, we make excuses to hang onto them.

If you’ve tried to change your habits to no avail, maybe it’s time to try something different. The steps below will help you succeed.

1. Become aware of the status quo.

Does this sound familiar? You set your mind to do something good for yourself. Maybe you tell yourself that you’re going to make better use of your time or lose weight. You’re excited and committed. You set a goal, and you plod ahead.

A few days go by, and you’re doing great. Then something happens to make you fall off the wagon. You feel like a failure. Your goal seems impossible. You go back to your old ways.

This cycle happens over and over again.

Your first mistake is setting a goal without becoming fully aware of your current situation.

You have to define the problem before you can even contemplate a solution.

Instead of jumping straight to change, start by noticing what is going on now. Do this for a week.

Some questions you can answer during your observation include:

  • What is your bad habit?
  • How do you feel when you’re engaging in your bad habit?
  • How do you feel when you’re not doing it?
  • Do you typically do anything before or after the bad habit?
  • Is there a behavior or emotion that brings on the bad habit?
  • Why do you want to break this habit?

It's not enough to simply read these questions, nodding and telling yourself that you’re going to make an effort to think about them over the next week.

The best way to approach this exercise differently is to take notes. Write in a journal every night, or keep track of the answers to these questions every day on your smartphone. Call a friend to let them know what you observed every day.

The best part of this step is that you can’t fail. You’re not trying to meet a goal; you’re just observing.

The current bad habit I’m trying to fight with is watching too much TV.

I’m telling myself that after work I need to do X, Y, and Z, but I end up watching new episodes of my favorite TV series, then a movie on Netflix. Bam! All evening is gone, and I didn’t do anything productive. From time to time, it’s great to have a free evening and just do nothing, but it shouldn’t be most evenings during the week.

2. Use visualization.

Goals are great. You can’t get to where you’re going if you have no idea what your destination is. However, a goal needs to be more than words on paper to be meaningful.

Many people never achieve their goals because they don’t have a clear picture of what they'll do when they succeed.

Someone who is trying to break the habit of spending frivolously may have trouble staying away from shopping because they don’t have a specific plan for what they’ll do with the money they save. That person may not have visualized the rewarding feeling of saving money in the first place, so the rewarding feeling of shopping wins out.

Instead of just setting a verbal goal, feel the outcome with every part of your being. Visualize what your life will be like when you break the habit. What will your daily routine look like? Will there be different people in your life once the habit is broken?

In addition to visualizing the logistics, try to access the emotions you’ll feel when the habit is broken. Will you feel excited, calm, or balanced? Sit with those emotions for some time every day. Conjure them up so that you begin to adopt the motivation for change throughout your body and mind.

What do I see for myself? Working more on my website, changing my job, going to the gym, spending more time with my family and close friends, and feeling more fulfilled and happier with my life.

3. Recognize when you're making excuses.

Everyone makes excuses, including me.

  • I still have time. I’ll start doing it tomorrow.
  • I did enough this week. It can wait few more days to be done.
  • I don’t have time to do it today (because I wasted it playing games).

The most common excuses in the book? “I can't” or “I don't want to.”

What you really mean is, “I don’t do that now, so it seems too hard to change.”

Change is hard, especially when you haven't yet been rewarded. Change means work.

This takes us back to steps 1 and 2. If you are aware of what you’re doing and what’s not working, you can get a better sense of what will work.

Step 1: You notice that you’re starving at work every day at 11:00, and because you’re so busy, you gorge on sweets as soon as you get a chance and feel awful after that.

Step 2: You visualize yourself wearing your favorite suit comfortably all day long once you lose weight and having consistent energy throughout the day to come up with novel ideas at work. This leads to a promotion.

Going through step 1 and two allows you to push past your excuses every time they flood your brain. You know what you want to change and how you’ll feel once you’ve made the change. Now it's just a matter of challenging the voices that tell you not to do it.

I see myself as a consultant in one of the best companies in the world, traveling around the globe for different projects, solving issues for my clients, improving their solutions. I know that I cannot achieve it sitting in front of the TV watching next episode of Breaking Bad.

4. Be consistent.

Research shows that you have a better chance of breaking a bad habit if you’re consistent. If you tell yourself that you’ll go to the gym on Monday mornings, Tuesday evenings, and Friday afternoons, you’re more likely to lose momentum than if you go every day.

Although it may not be realistic to do something every day for the rest of your life, it helps to set it up this way while you’re breaking a habit.

Maybe you want to stop eating sugar. If you let yourself have a little treat every night, this habit can easily expand into eating a larger treat every night, and before you know it, your sugar cravings are triggered at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Make the change small enough that you can do it every single day. Although researchers say that the length of time necessary to change a habit differs from person to person, it averages from twenty-one to sixty-six days.

If you can make a small change every day for that long, you can begin to play around with flexibility after you feel like the bad habit has been broken.

I don’t watch as many movies as I watched in the past, and in the last couple of weeks I've made tremendous progress regarding my future and prospective job. From time to time I allow myself a lazy evening in front of the TV, but I don't fault myself for that since I've broken the habit and now do this in moderation.

5. Have a plan.

Just like you can’t reach your destination if you don’t know what it is, you’ll have more trouble if you don’t have a map to show you how to get there.

If you can’t find a program that’s already out there to help you break your bad habit, make your own plan. Write it down.

When you leave room for guessing or experimentation, you’re less likely to succeed.

When you’re creating a plan, if you set guidelines for what happens when you cheat, want to take a break, or fall off the wagon, you won’t have to speculate about how you’ll get back on the path to your goals. A plan can help you kick start the healthy habit when you’ve gotten off track.

Going back to step 1, if you know what typically sets you off toward failure, you can work that into your plan too.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, but you know that you always want a cigarette after you eat dinner, make specific plans for what you are going to do during and after dinner instead. Maybe you’ll eat in a different location to break the association. Come up with several options for rewarding things to do after dinner to keep you distracted and occupied. Think of a treat that you can give yourself every time you follow that plan, like a candlelight soak in a sumptuous bubble bath.

The great thing about having a plan is that you know where to start again if you do veer off the path. You know you start again because you’ve started before. Every time you hit an obstacle, you may have to start over, but at least that starting point will become more and more familiar.

When you’re breaking a bad habit, remember not to see every step away from the plan as a failure. The way we learn is by making mistakes.

Imagine what happens when a musician learns a new piece of music. That musician doesn’t just pick up the sheet music and play through it flawlessly; she goes through a few measures, makes a mistake, and then goes back to the beginning.

With time, she’ll continue to play a few more measures. As she does this, she'll solidify the earlier behavior until the entire piece of music is embedded in her cognitive and muscle memory.

The same process applies to breaking a bad habit. The bumps in the road are part of the process and will only make your eventual success sweeter.

What bad habit are you going to bust by using these steps? I told you mine. Now it's your turn!

About Szymon Pelechowicz

Szymon is the founder of Love Meditating, a meditation-yoga blog dedicated to provide honest advice and information. He aspires to help his readers achieve inner peace and tranquility, sharing personal tips learned through both years of experience and thorough research. Check out lovemeditating.com to learn more and visit him on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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  • Hi Guys!
    Did you struggle with some bad habits in the past? Maybe you are, right now?
    Love to hear it! 🙂

  • Siddharth Karunakaran

    TYPO IN CAPS: “…and in THE last couple of weeks…”
    I really enjoyed this article and it came at just the right time. My bad habit is web addiction, in particular, Youtube. I really want to play my music a lot more and this article should help with that. Thank you so much for the article.

  • Hi Siddharth,
    The most important thing is to admit that you have a bad habit. I think that you will be able to lower the amount of time spent on Youtube and have more time for your music.

    Good luck!

  • Hi Szymon,

    Curious to know if you have read any books on habits?

    If you haven’t and would like to, might I recommend a few to you?

    Hooked – Nir Eyal
    The Power of Habit – Charles Duhigg
    Making Habits, Breaking Habits – Jeremy Dean
    The Now Habit – Neil Fiore
    Changing For Good – James Prochaska

    Some of these are better than others but they all do a good job of explaining how habits are made, altered, and changed.

    Good luck.

  • I find what really starts to make a difference is when you learn how to meditate on the emotional impulses behind the habit that compel you to act or talk in a certain way. The more you develop non-reactive Observer consciousness the less power the impulse has to convert into action and when you stop feeding it it loses power and eventually resolves. We tackle OCD and addictions in the same way.

    Boulder Center for Online Mindfulness Therapy

  • Dariya

    Hello Szymon!)
    Thank you for such a useful article!!!
    Of course, the majority of us struggle with some bad habits. As for me I’m on my way to overcome spontaneous overeating (it’s much better than it was a year ago, but still needs some improvement) and the main bad habit I observe for a long time is spending too much money with no saving at all:( Unnecessary spending( So I hope I’ll fix it soon 🙂

  • The making excuses component is especially true. When you find yourself procrastinating it’s good to ask yourself ‘why?’. You’ll find that the excuses are normally quite weak and can be dealt with.

  • Melissa Joking

    Great article, much to think about. Ironically, my bad habit is obsessively following politics or cultural problems. Overwhelmed so I’ve started incorporating more positive articles instead when on computer.

  • Jason Oman

    AWESOME! Thx for sharing this, Joel! Anything that helps develop more winning habits is GOLD! 🙂