Bad habits, even the seemingly innocuous ones, can have a detrimental impact on your life without you even realizing that it’s happening. The wasted time and energy can slowly add up, trapping you in a cycle of behaviors that can range from harmless-but-irritating (biting your nails, checking your phone too frequently) to the addictive and potentially harmful (drinking too much, watching porn).
The tricky thing about bad habits is that, generally speaking, we know that they’re bad. We know that smoking will eventually kill us, that eating the wrong food is making us fat, that not working out will hurt us in the long run, and yet we continue to indulge in these behaviors anyway. So then the question then becomes why? Why do we do something that we know is destructive and why can’t we stop ourselves?
Experts say that part of it comes from a lack of coping skills. If we haven’t developed the ability to combat the ups and downs of everyday life, then we will eventually turn to these other habits as a means of getting by. “For people who really truly have great coping mechanisms for the ups and downs in life, their habits, bad habits, are incredibly tiny,” says counselor and life coach David Essel. “For the rest of us who don’t have good emotional coping skills? Bad habits are about the only way we know, or we’ve learned, how to deal with the challenges in life.”
A lack of coping skills, however, is only part of the problem. The other issue is a much tougher obstacle to overcome: the subconscious mind. The problem with habits driven by our subconscious is that that part of our mind has no way of differentiating between a habit that is healthy and a habit that is unhealthy.
“The subconscious mind reacts on patterns,” Essel explains. “it doesn’t care if they are healthy and or unhealthy, all it knows is whatever you do on a regular basis in order to deal with boredom, insecurity, anger, rage or resentment, whatever mechanisms you use to try to cope with these emotions, the subconscious takes that pattern of repetition. And keeps you moving forward in life in unhealthy ways.”
Now that we have an idea of where our bad habits might be coming from, what steps can we take to combat them before they completely take over our lives?
Write down your bad habits
When it comes to breaking bad habits, the pen is indeed mighty. Writing something down on paper forces our brains to accept it as real, making it much harder to dismiss. So write down not only the habit, but also the disadvantages it causes, whether it be to your health, your finances, or your time. This technique serves as a means of retraining our brains and changing our thinking. “Writing down the hazards of bad habits on paper creates a feeling of disgust about that habit and the person starts moving away from it,” explains Professor Abdul Samad motivational speaker, author, and life coach. Similarly, you should write down the good things that will come from leaving that habit behind.
Keep track of your behavior
You may think that you’re aware of your habit and how much you indulge in it, but it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’re underestimating yourself. Using a simple system such as adding a tally mark on a piece of paper or something more complex such as an app (Lift and Strides are good habit-trackers) can help you to really see how much you’re indulging in bad habits while also steering you towards new ones. “The simple act of keeping track can have a tremendous impact on your awareness,” says clinical psychologist Ashley J. Smith, “and, what’s more, the very act of tracking a behavior changes it!”
Be your own backstop
A lot of our habits, especially the seemingly innocuous ones such as phone-checking or nail-biting, happen without us even realizing it. Nonetheless, you need to try and pause before you indulge in a habit. “If you catch your fingers approaching your mouth to chew on them, stop,” says J. A. Plosker, author of The Nobody Bible: Uncovering the Simple Wisdom in Ordinary Life. “Think about what you’re about to do and why. Identify the behavior and the feeling around it. Breathe. Put your hands down.” Yes, you may end up biting your nails anyway, but, per Plosker, you’re at least creating a space for a ‘break’ to occur.”
Reward (or punish) yourself
Creating a system of cause-and-effect around your habits can not only help eradicate bad ones, but it can also help to generate newer, more healthy ones as well. Willpower will only take you so far. Instead, give yourself a reward when you resist your habit or tell yourself that you won’t be allowed to do something you enjoy until you engage in something healthy or positive. For instance, tell yourself “I can’t watch my favorite Netflix show until I exercise for at least an hour today.” As punishment for giving in to a bad habit, Jones suggests giving a donation to a charity or organization that you hate. “Imagine how motivated you would be to stop smoking if every cigarette meant you paid the political party you despise?” she says.
Thinking that we’re strong enough to resist a temptation is admirable, but not always realistic. So try and give yourself some distance, if you can, between yourself and your habit. If you find yourself checking your phone at work or at home, move it to a different room or put it in a drawer. If you physically need to get up to check it, you might be less inclined to reach for it every few minutes. “Even just adding one extra step to your routine can be a great deterrent,” says Steven Handel, a writer for self help publication The Emotion Machine. “And the more boundaries you add, the more difficult it will be to do the habit even when you really want to.”