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The foolproof way to break bad habits


Whether it’s swearing like a truck driver, biting your nails or drinking two to three (OK four to five) cups of coffee a day, most of us are guilty of a few less-than-desirable habits.

Have you been trying to quit a vice but finding it almost impossible to make the right changes?

Habits are responsible for up to 40 per cent of our daily actions, according to Duke University.

So it’s helpful to know they are formed because the brain is endlessly searching for ways to save effort.

Habits kick off with a trigger (say, feeling stressed), which leads to the routine itself (such as reaching for a coffee cup) and then the reward (enjoying that caffeine fix your mind connects to stress relief).

This doesn’t mean you can’t make the break. You just need the following five-step plan:

1. Ask yourself why you want to break the habit

When it comes to breaking bad habits, the best behaviour management techniques in the world won’t lead to success if changes are not rooted in the reasons you want to change, says Lysn psychologist Brettjude Fernandez.

“Additionally, the reasons why someone would like to change their habits are rooted in their core values and expectations of life; thinking about what matters most to you in life and taking time to understand your value system can help you start your journey,” says Brettjude.


2. Take small steps

Rather than creating a runsheet of all the things you’d like to change (stop smoking, start eating well, begin running 5km a day etc), personal trainer Della Stanley says focusing on one habit at a time is more likely to lead to success.

“Asking someone to completely eliminate all of the habits that are sabotaging attempts at reaching their goal may work for a short time, but it is ultimately not something many people can sustain,” says the owner of Dellafit.

Only after the first habit sticks should you begin reaching for new goals.

3. Identify your bad-habit triggers

Next time you catch yourself reaching for a cigarette or wine, stop and ask yourself what you’re feeling at that moment.

Are you stressed or anxious about something? Did you see something that reminded you to light up?

Identifying and understanding triggers will help you avoid them in the future.

4. Make the process fun

OK, that’s a rather big sell, but there are ways to make the habit-breaking process a little less painful.

You could consider fining yourself, adding $1 (or more) to a jar every time you break the habit and then donating a monthly amount to charity.

Or, if you’d prefer to incentivise it, you could reward yourself at the end of each month provided you keep to your new rules.

5. Replace bad habits with good ones

When author Charles Duhigg wrote his bestselling book, The Power of Habit, he insisted replacing old habits with new ones was the path to success – and Brettjude agrees.

“Habits are nothing but repetitive patterns of behaviour. More than wanting to change bad habits, we need to consider what we would like to replace them with,” he says.

This could mean switching to mocktails instead of cocktails or clenching fists rather than biting nails.

It could take weeks or in some cases months, for a new habit to be ingrained or a bad habit to be phased out.

But even if you keep falling off the wagon, dust yourself off and keep trying, advises Brettjude.

“Seek help, involve friends and family and just make a start,” he says.

“Keep re-engaging with your goals. The amount of persistence and focus you exert towards your goals are just, if not more, important than your thoughts and feelings about getting there.”