7 Ways To Break A Habit

Habits are a very precious asset. They allow us to drive cars or ride a bike, to speak new languages or to predictably behave in society. But they can also become a burden. Or, even worse, an addiction. Think about smoking and you’ll understand what I mean. Knowing how to break a bad habit will free precious time and resources.

Here’s a list of 7 proven methods for breaking habits. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

1. Cold Turkey

That’s my preferred method, but it doesn’t always work as expected. Breaking a habit cold turkey requires a lot of raw energy. Usually, I start breaking a habit cold turkey after a painful event generated by that habit. For example, I quit smoking after a huge party which of course generated an awful hangover. I felt so bad the next day that I instantly decided to quit smoking for good. And I did it without any effort. Or so I felt, like I didn’t make any effort. Fact is I never had another cigarette after this event.

Breaking a bad habit cold turkey is one of the most empowering ways to handle habits. Because you don’t use any external support you gain enormous power over it. You’re actually become the master of that habit, commanding it to stop. And if you manage to create a successful history of abruptly breaking other habits, you’ll find it easier to do it again. It builds confidence and experience. But it’s also one of the most unreliable ways to break a habit. You may not have enough energy for it or you’ll lack the external support for that. Use with caution.

2. Find A Higher Stake

Sometimes, you do something because you’re simply setting for less. And you don’t event know that. When I was younger I had a gambling problem. I used to practice my risk taking capacities against randomness. Beating a slot machine seemed a worthy enough experience for me. That gambling problem ended the moment I found a bigger challenge: creating my own company. My risk taking capacities found a higher stake. Now I was risking my money, my employees money and a lot of other things on the side. All of a sudden, gambling was nothing.

Replacing the current stake of your habit with a bigger one always works. We’re designed to grow and evolve. And our habit management system knows that. So every time you’re able to offer a new target to this habit management system, it will adapt very fast. If you smoke because you’re bored try crosswords or learn a new language. If you’re constantly late at work, try joining the Marines. And if you’re spending too much money, train to become a stock market broker.

3. Start A Parallel Habit

This method works by pressuring your focus span with more and more habits. It’s like squeezing too many groceries into one bag: at some point, the bag will crash. For instance, if you have the habit of watching television at night, try getting your laptop closer and start checking email. It seems like instead to break one habit, you’re creating another one. That’s an illusion, because you’re not creating a habit, you’re pressuring your focus system with more stimulus.

At some point, your focus will break. You won’t be able to enjoy tv, nor to understand something from your email. And, surprisingly enough, you’ll ditch both activities and settle for something new. Perhaps a walk in the park or some small gardening. Crowding your habit horizon with new and demanding activities will weaken you sooner or later and you’ll end up getting rid of all the habits involved. It’s a little bit awkward, I agree, but it works.

4. Delegate It To Someone Else

If you don’t have enough power to break up with your habit maybe it’s time to bring somebody else in to help you with that. Find somebody who’s willing to help and give him power over your habit. You can do this in many ways. For instance, you can empower that person to perform some sort of physical action upon you every time you’re caught in that nasty habit. Every time you see me smoking, you can pinch me. Or kick my ass. Or just make fun of me.


It requires some extra work and an extra person but it’s effective. I know a case of somebody who just couldn’t quit smoking. He was quite a visible person in his town so after he tried many commercial products and attended many self help workshops, to no result, he decided to put a huge billboard with his picture on it and a very clear message: “If you see me smoking, I’ll pay you 100.000 dollars”. Last time I heard he never had a cigarette since then. 100.000 dollars is a pretty big sum.

5. Pay Yourself Out Of It

Give yourself small rewards. Every time you’re avoiding that habit, mark the moment with a positive action. Yes, it’s a bribe, but desperate situations needs desperate solutions. And you don’t have to give a huge bribe, small amounts, but enough to remember them. In time, you’ll create a new brain connection, based on pleasure, which will replace the old connection. There is a danger however, and as you may imagine, that would be replacing the old bad habit with a new bad habit.

But you can avoid that situation with elegance, by choosing the appropriate reward. The trick is, in the beginning, you can control the reward. Don’t settle for something you know you will create an addiction, focus on something constructive and useful. For instance, instead of having a drink every time you need a cigarette, you could just read two pages from a book. Yes, that could lead to a reading addiction. Being addicted to books is far more rewarding than smoking or drinking, anyway.

6. Isolate From People With Similar Habits

You have no idea how much the environment is influencing you. Sometimes, all you need in order to get rid of a nasty habit is to change the environment. The need for social acceptance – or should I say complacency – is so strong that we’re sometimes doing things we wouldn’t even imagine doing in difference circumstances. So, isolating yourself from people with identical habits will definitely help. And you don’t have to be very vocal about it, start by ignoring.

Don’t go out “for a few drinks” with the same gang. Don’t smoke your 10 minutes break with the same smokers you use to. This is one of the most difficult ways to break a habit because it actually touches your social network. But before making any assumptions, rest assured that your bad habits are pressuring your social life in a far more unpleasant way. Losing a few friends will not kill you, but drinking your life day after day will surely do. If you have the power to realize that what keeps you together is just sharing the same bad habit and nothing more, then half of the journey is done.

7. Keep A Time Log

Write down everything you do during a day. If you can do it every hour that would be awesome. Be sure you’re properly equipped so you can do this even when you’re on the road. Have pen and paper with you. Put hourly phone alarms. And then do this for a whole week. And then, after the first week, do it for a full month. This habit in itself is a pretty difficult one, I admit, but it’s really, really beneficial. Most of the time you won’t need a full month to spot your time holes. It will be obvious in the first week.

Now, after keeping this time log, do the math. How much time are you really living and how much time are you on auto-pilot? If you spend more time on auto-pilot than on actual living, then you have a problem. Now, write the results down, with the total of your time holes really standing out and stick it in very visible places: on the fridge, on the door, on the ceiling of your bedroom. At some point, seeing day after day how much time are you really losing, you’ll end up that habit.

***

Do you have any preferred way to get rid of bad habits? Would love to see it in the comments.

Translations of this article: Italian.

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29 Responses to 7 Ways To Break A Habit

  • Hey Dragos.

    Regarding #7, I installed RescueTime as recommended by David Turnbull in a guest post of his, and it logs computer time and shows what you are doing, and I sure was able to see where my time was going, which is an eye-opener when you haven’t done so previously. Your point about logging offline time as well would be on that same useful wavelength, because we quickly find out where our problems are.

    About isolating from people with similar habits, I have recently done so in a few ways, and it has a high impact, because when you are with a group who has a certain focus or basis about their group, and you are trying to do something which doesn’t match the ethos of the group, they will do all they can to stop you from changing that quality. It is sort of like how folks at a party don’t like the person at the party that doesn’t drink, because they want everyone to be in the same state as them, and can feel self-conscious if someone is not in an uninhibited state like them. In any example of group influence, you can do no better than to leave the groups that don’t match your desired change as quickly as possible. They will barely notice you are gone, which is a good thing for focusing on the new habit.

    Number 3 sounds cool the way you described it.

    Great post D. Roua.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..A Hello Video With A Booming Introduction =-.

    • I also used something similar to RescueTime, it’s called Slife, pretty enlightening too. As for group policies, it’s much more important then we realize and far more difficult to cope with that we expect. We tend to get validation from other people and when those people are into bad habits we”re locking into those bad habits too.

      Thanks for the nice words :-)

  • Nice post. I haven’t seen the idea of starting a parallel habit before. I can see how that might work and I’ll have to try it sometime. Certainly, since the dawn of the laptop I’m watching a lot less tv but I haven’t given up both!
    .-= Carmen´s last blog ..Nomading Families Talk About Life and Education – Round Table Discussion Part II – The Atkins Family =-.

    • Well, maybe you should try to squeeze in some phone talking or reading. Maybe that will stretch your focus :-) On the other hand, I’m totally aware of the fact that his COULDN”T work for everybody, that’s for sure :-D

  • I know it is the toughest of them all for many people, but I think going Cold Turkey is the best way to change a habit. It is definitely tough not weaning off what anyone is used to but I think people let it become to much of a mind game. We should all just quit that bad habit and move forward. The more we dwell the harder quitting will be.

    David Damron
    LifeExcursion
    .-= Dave – LifeExcursion´s last blog ..How to Become a Minimalist When You’re Poor =-.

    • This is why I listed in the first place myself. Just dealing upfront with the problem and solving it is a huge time saver. Glad we share the same vibe here :-)

  • I found the 6′th one to be really important in my experience. That’s how I ended up changing my friend circles in the last years. The people you interact with constantly can be like a vacuum: they draw you into your world.

    Really practical article.

    Eduard

    • I’ve been there myself more than once. As a matter of fact, I think I changed my friend circle every 4-5 years. Lately, I just hang around every now and then, trying to share only what we have in common.

      • it happens naturely i think. we dont need to start ignoring certain friends because the 5year mark is up, but with time, most people grow in different ways and our friend needs change with that. some friends grow with us which is lucky :)

  • Hey Dragos!

    Like the post man! I think it is hard for most people to go cold turkey willingly. I have heard stories of people who successfully did that, but most who tried failed.

    I like the idea of starting a parallel habit:)

    Cheers!
    .-= Diggy – Upgradereality.com´s last blog ..Be True to Yourself – Tyler Durden Style =-.

    • Glad you like the post, man :-) And yes, people really need social support most of the time in order to go through difficult stages (and breaking up a habit is a difficult stage). This is why going cold turkey is so rare, IMHO.

  • Hi Dragos,

    Thanks for your excellent post, to which I would add…

    OVERWHELM THE HABIT

    Habits have such a huge impact on your level of personal productivity that I have little patience with those that don’t fully serve your purpose and specific goals.

    A method that has worked very well for me is to overwhelm the habit, dominate it, inundate it, conquer and crush it by COMBINING powerful methods such as the ones you mention.

    Combining or ‘stacking’ habit-breakers such as ALL of the one’s in your list takes complete control of your brain’s amazing potential – uses all of it’s intelligence and power.

    This also works incredibly well for installing new, positive habits such as exercise, learning a foreign language and getting highly organized.

    Using this full-force method, I have also found it takes me much less time to successfully eliminate a negative habit/install a positive habit.

    Best of life to you and your readers,

    Robin
    .-= Robin Dickinson´s last blog ..Your greatest advantage on and off-line =-.

    • Kudoz to that, Robin. Full-force will most likely blow the habit away. I don’t know why but this approach reminds me of some MythBusters shows I saw lately ;-) Maybe habits are just self-imposed myths, after all, and all we need is to find a MythBusters team for them ;-)

  • Great post Dragos! I working chnaging my habit of going to bed too late at night, it is very stubborn and doesn’t want to go:) Your advice will definitely help.
    .-= Lana-DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..Relationships Advice – Other People Are Just Mirror Images Of You =-.

  • I must say that I’m very interested in #3. I can imagine how it will work. I’ll be sure to give it a try. Thanks for the post Dragos.
    .-= Karlil´s last blog ..Being Independent: A Guide To Self Date =-.

  • In the past I’ve used a piggy-back tactic to install positive new actions by attaching them to already existing habits.

    I hadn’t thought of getting rid of negative habits using a similar method, but now, thanks to your post and tactic #3, I have a couple of ideas.

    And with a success track record in the past I feel quite confident to easily implement this as well.

    So thanks in advance. :-)
    .-= Marko´s last blog ..It’s Not Just About the Money =-.

    • That sounds like a very interesting idea, attaching actions to already existing habits. Sounds a lot like anchors to me. But with a twist. Can you tell me more? Thanks :-)

      • Yes, in a way it’s like using an anchor. Not strictly in the NLP sense or as outlined in your article.

        It works best with skill or activity based habits you want to implement – not so much with habits you want to get rid of. And you need at least 1 already established habit that you are going to use to attach the new action to.

        Being a musician I’ve developed a strong routine of practicing. Whenever I want to implement a new habit or develop a new skill, I link it to my practice routine. I prepare everything as much as possible, so that IMMEDIATELY after practicing I can launch into the new activity.

        If my new habit is to exercise more, I’d prepare the equipment in advance and I’d maybe even do my music practice in my jogging outfit, so I’d be ready to get going.

        For brushing up on a language, I’d have my material (language tapes, books) ready to go, etc…

        I just want to be able to immediately launch into the new activity right from the already established habit. This carries over some of that energy and combats the inertia and procrastination factor.

        After3-4 weeks when I feel that the new habit is established, then I’d ease off on it and check it out disconnected from the old habit. In most cases that’s long enough. If I sense the danger of some slacking, I’ll put it back to the piggy-back style, just to be sure.
        .-= Marko´s last blog ..The Advancing Guitarist by Mick Goodrick — Review =-.

  • This is a wonderful post. I especially like #6. People have to remember you are who you hang out with.
    .-= Bunnygotblog´s last blog ..Halloween Recipes: Abracadabra =-.

  • I really enjoyed this post Dragos. I have definitely experienced habits that I have had a tough time breaking out of. I especially like finding a higher stake. I am currently going through that. I had a habit of going to my job, collecting a paycheck, and living a passionless life. Now that changes have been made, and I am no longer at my job, I have to start taking action. Now if I slack off, I am only hurting myself. Thanks for the post!

  • I also used a timer logger (an addin for Outlook called Qlockwork, http://www.workingprogram.com)

    That showed me that I was actually prompting myself to repeat my bad habit! It showed me my bad habit was checking my email all the time. I realised I had email alerts that popped up to prompt me to “behave badly” by looking at my emails, so I turned them off.

    My tip would be: find out if you are being prompted or encouraged by something to repeat your habit and then get rid of that prompt. I guess that’s a bit like avoiding friends with the same habit.

  • Excellent article and suggestions Dragos. Well done!
    .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Irrational Decisions – Anchoring and Arbitrary Coherence =-.

  • Thanks for the article. These techniques are good advice and can be helpful. One can also get like 24 hour help breaking or changing habits at http://www.coaches247.com/node/208?2121345022=1. Operators support your habit goals 24 hours a day live by phone and email and can help you break any habit. The techniques applied are common sense – the unique part is being able to call a personalized coach any time for motivation, willpower, and self-control. They keep your progress reports and provide an environment of 24/7 accountability. Soon you build your own strength… and success.

  • [...] everything in your life, from eating to making love. And then give your consciousness away to those habits. Live outside new challenges. Sleepwalk from the second you wake up to the moment you go to bed. [...]

  • The idea of a parallel habbit is an interesting idea, I would also add that you have to really want to stop a habbit. A lot of people talk about quiting something, but then make no effort to take any of the logical steps you suggested.
    .-= David´s last blog ..Break Free and Leave the World Behind =-.

  • If you need approval, support, etc. to quit you’re addicted

  • It’s that time of year again! It’s time to focus on self improvement with an effective New Year’s resolution. Unfortunately it’s also the time when most people make promises to themselves that don’t work because most of us don’t know how to break a habit and keep it that way. For those that do, getting into the holiday spirit is a lot less stressful.

    Why do most New Year’s resolutions fail? One reason is because the resolution wasn’t planned properly. Maybe it wasn’t attainable. Or maybe you didn’t commit the time necessary to achieve your goal. Follow this simple step by step guide on how to break a habit to help you succeed with your New Year’s resolutions. When you are with your loved ones this Dec 31st, you’ll be able cheer “Happy New Year!!” with a little extra confidence! :)

    Read the full article here: http://www.squidoo.com/how-to-break-a-habit

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