4 Tips to Help You Break Bad Habits

Biting nails, letting dishes pile up, and fast food binging — these are all habits that need to go. Habits, good or bad, can creep up on us before we know it. With some honest evaluation, you can root out the cause of your bad habit and replace it with a healthier one. These 4 tips will show you how!

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Understanding habit formation

Habits are a normal part of life, like your morning routine or route to work. But bad habits are formed just as easily as good ones: gradually.

“Understanding the biology of how we develop routines that may be harmful to us, and how to break those routines and embrace new ones, could help us change our lifestyles and adopt healthier behaviors,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, told NIH News in Health.

Almost all bad habits have one common denominator that makes them so tough to break; they are pleasure-based, releasing addictive dopamine every time you engage in the activity.

In a sense, a part of our brains is working against us when we try to break bad habits. “These routines can become hardwired in our brains,” Volkow said. And the brain’s reward center keeps us craving the things we’re trying so hard to resist.

But it’s far from hopeless. Read on to discover tips for breaking your bad habits.

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1. Acknowledge and disrupt

Before any changes begin, you need to identify and acknowledge your bad habit. Realizing and accepting that your behavior is harmful is the first step you’ll be making toward change.

Once you’ve acknowledged your bad habit, start to imagine ways to disrupt it. Habits can be linked in our minds to certain places and activities. Say you’ve been overindulging on junk food. You could develop a plan to avoid walking down the hall where there’s a vending machine. In the beginning, it may be painfully difficult to avoid tempting situations, but this is a necessary step.

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2. Replace with a healthier alternative

Now that you’ve taken steps to avoid your bad habit, it’s a good idea to substitute it with a healthier alternative. In other words: get rid of your old habit by forming a new one.

Are you a nail-biter? Invest in regular manicures. If you have a sweet tooth, replace processed food with healthier sweet treats, like dates, berries, and dark chocolate.

“It doesn’t work for everyone,” Volkow told NIH News in Health. “But certain groups of patients who have a history of serious addictions can engage in certain behaviors that are ritualistic and in a way compulsive — such as marathon running — and it helps them stay away from drugs. These alternative behaviors can counteract the urges to repeat a behavior.”

Base your new habit on the why of the bad habit, and make sure your replacement fulfills that need, but in a healthy way. The new habit should have a similar payoff — relaxation, escape, reward, satisfying a hunger — to the one your bad habit was providing.

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3. Be prepared for a slip

You’re human, and we all make mistakes. Chances are you will have a bad day. This doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s a setback. Expect this to happen, and be prepared with a relapse plan. If need be, re-work your approach.

To get back on track, try keeping a journal of your day — particularly your habits and what triggers them. Keep a calendar to help you stay on track. And, most importantly, forgive yourself. There’s no reason you can’t recoup and recover.

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4. Reward yourself

Breaking a bad habit is hard and can take time. Whether you choose many small rewards for positive steps or a big present for a big milestone, pick one that is unrelated.

The worst thing you could do is reward your no-soda month with a big bottle of coke, but a new outfit or healthy treat is definitely called for. That’s right… you earned it.

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