Before we talk about how to break a habit, thought, let’s break down what a habit is in the first place.
Put simply, a habit has a few personality traits (note: this is NOT an academic or clinical definition of a habit, and that’s OK for the purposes of this discussion):
- A habit is something that has become an integrated part of your life.
- It should have a trigger, an action/emotion that catalyzes said habit to happen.
- It should be second-nature, to the point where you don’t think about having to do said habit much.
- It may be a part of a routine or a routine itself.
It’s probably easier to talk about habits if we have one specific we’d like to break in mind. Let’s take the one I hear about the most often: Snacking. (And I don’t the once-in-a-while, I’m-on-vacation-so-I’ll-have-this-special-cookie snacking.) Does snacking fit the above criteria:
- Yes, snacking can be easily integrated into your life if snacks are readily available.
- Yes, snacking likely has a trigger and I’ll focus more on that below.
- Yes, snacking can be pretty second-nature; people frequently use the term “mindless” next to “snacking”.
- Yep. It can totally become a routine part of the day.
Now, I think simply saying, “I’m going to break this bad habit by doing this thing instead,” may be cheating you out of a very important part of the process. Yes, you have to figure out how you’re going to break the bad habit but first wouldn’t it be interesting to find out WHY you’re engaging in it to begin with? I would argue that until you know why you’ve got this habit, finding a more beneficial habit to practice in its place may be like putting a bandaid on a wound that actually needs stitches.
- Start with either an index card you can carry around with you or a note-taking app on your phone. Now, track each time you snack. When you start, you don’t even have to write down what you’re snacking on; just write down the date and then a checkmark (or my favorite: the taco emoji) every time you eat something outside of your main meals.
- If the above feels pretty easy to do, add in more details like what the snack is, the time(s) of day your habit is happening, etc.
- If THAT feels pretty easy, start adding some more notes: What happened right before you snacked? What are you feeling before you snack? What are you feeling after?
Now let’s say you’ve just gone through this exercise for a few days or a week (or more). Are you seeing any patterns? Are you snacking around the same time every day? Are you being cued by certain emotions? Is there a particular food you’re craving? Are you feeling anything physical before you eat your snack?
Here are the most popular triggers I’ve heard for snacking (does any of this sound familiar?):
- Stress. It’s after lunch, you’ve got deadlines, you’ve got meetings. Something might be going on at home. Or you feel like you have zero down-time in the day and are always go-go-go. Snacks might create a momentary distraction to cope with this stress.
- Boredom. You’re just boooored. Snacking is just something to do.
- You feel hungry. The tummy’s rumbling, you feel empty or you feel unsatisfied from what you ate at lunch. A snack might make that go away.
Those few triggers above are each pretty different, right? But now you can see that knowing what’s triggering your habit can help you start to figure out which more positive, beneficial habit you can practice in its place! What might help you cope with stress? If you’re bored, what habit could you create to help you get out of your boredom? What can you do earlier in the day to prevent you from feeling hungry or dissatisfied a few hours after a meal?
So I’ll leave you with this for now. If YOU are someone who feels like they have a bad habit they want to break, try the above and let me know what you find out!