Seize the new year and the opportunity for a fresh start by tackling those bad habits. Going cold turkey is one option, but I prefer to have a plan. I’d like to be less attached to my phone and I dread the challenge. Start with this expert advice you’ll need to disrupt your habits in small, manageable ways.
Find the Trigger
Good and bad habits are simply behaviors you’ve engaged with that have become routines. Try to hone in why you bite your nails or look at your phone too much. Are you bored? Do you feel anxious you’ll miss an email? Knowing your triggers won’t make them go away, but it does give you a way to recognize some of your most automatic reactions and consciously associate new reactions.
Replace Instead of Reform
If there’s a bad habit you want to break, come up with an alternative behavior you want to do. Action is much easier to manage than trying to resist. Want to stop consuming too much sugar? How about start with, “I will drink water with dinner instead of soda.”
According to B.J. Fogg, author of Tiny Habits, what you need to do is break down a desired behavior into tiny, specific habits that you can actually achieve and build from there. Instead of saying “I’ll read instead of looking at my phone,” you say, “I’ll open my book before I go to bed.” If you read anything, that’s a bonus.
Follow the 20-second Rule
Habits are so automatic, that actually pausing the habit for a moment can create a disruption you need. When you know your trigger and you are about to engage in a habit, tell yourself to hold off for 20 seconds. Then try to prolong it for extra credit. Eventually work up to a longer amount of time. Sometimes the urge will lessen and you’ll find something else to do instead.
Incentives are Good, Rewards are Better
Prizes you give yourself for accomplishing your goal of breaking a bad habit are really nice, but your brain works better if you can come up with a reward that is almost instantaneous with your replacement behavior. These don’t have to be elaborate rewards; they can be as simple as smiling and giving yourself a literal pat on the back.
Stop Criticizing Yourself
Habits are hard to stop! You’re not a robot – you’re human – and it’s ok to love yourself after you make a mistake. This isn’t a one-time event, and it’s not all or nothing. If you’re trying to break a bad habit and you’re making progress, then you’re winning.
A friend you can trust as your cheering section can be much-needed support on your journey as you break a bad habit. When you’re first making plans, let your friend know what you are doing and ask them to be on your side. While it can make you accountable, a friend is even more valuable in encouraging you and reminding you of how far you’ve come.
Get a New View
Changing your environment or the context of your habit can help a lot. Habits are associated with routines, and the spaces you spend time in can become its own trigger. While I can’t change my house, I can put my phone in another room before I go to sleep, or just avoid keeping it in my pocket within easy reach.
But, how long does it take to break a bad habit? There’s no one answer for everybody, and the range can be anywhere from 18 days to nearly a year. It depends on how long you’ve had the habit, how often you engage in it and how strong the reward is. Don’t let this discourage you, take it as a sign to be patient with yourself. No matter how long it takes, once you succeed you’re going to love the results.
Mariko is a high school English teacher who has three children, illegible handwriting and an obsession with mail-order artisan ice cream. She lives in Hawaii, but she makes a point to eat her way through big cities as often as she can.