8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones

As humans, we’re all creatures of habit and routine, and while some of these habits are good for us, others can have negative consequences for our mental and physical health. Many people use the start of the New Year as a chance to commit to developing new, positive habits or break up with old ones. However, changing or developing a habit or a behaviour isn’t something that happens overnight, and it can take time and determination.

The good news is that the journey to breaking an unhelpful habit and adopting a healthier one, can be incredibly positive. Watching your life becoming steadily better, as a result of the time and effort that you’re putting into working on yourself, can be very satisfying. And once you start reaping the benefits, you might feel compelled to make positive changes in other areas of your life too.

At a time when most of us are feeling frustrated by the current climate, and are struggling to feel in control of our lives, honing in on habits that we want to quit, change or develop, can offer us hope, and give us something positive to focus on.

Unhelpful habits that you want to change or quit could be anything from smoking or drinking, to spending too much time on your smartphone. While habits you might want to adopt could include things like doing daily exercise, reading more, or getting up an hour earlier each morning. Often, leaving a negative habit behind and forming a positive one go hand in hand, as breaking a negative habit is often much easier if we have a positive one to replace it with.

If you’re looking to make 2021 the year for positive personal growth or change, then have a read of the article below, where we’ll explain more about how to break unhelpful habits and form positive ones.

What are habits and how are they formed?

A habit is a behaviour that we repeat regularly or routinely, and have ‘settled in to’ – so much so, that we usually do it subconsciously. Many habits are formed early on in life, such as brushing our teeth before bed, or eating dinner in the evening, while other habits might develop in response to different situations that occur throughout our lives. These habits can often stick with us even after the situation that triggered the habit in the first place has passed.

For instance, we might develop a drinking habit during a particularly stressful time, but continue drinking even after the original cause of the stress has been resolved. Or, as we’ve seen over the last year, many gym goers have gotten into the habit of running outside, or doing home workouts while the gyms have been closed, but have stuck to doing these things, even once the gym reopened.

Experts say that habits are formed during a three-part psychological loop, which begins with a cue or trigger (for example feeling anxious), which prompts us to perform an action (usually something which we feel will relieve that anxiety), which then leads to a reward (a feeling of relief, or an easing of these anxious feelings). It is this reward factor that leads us to want to continue repeating a behaviour. If we repeat this action enough, it will become a habit, which means that our brains will work out how to carry out this action in ‘autopilot mode’ so that they can become more efficient at reaching the reward. We will then typically find ourselves carrying out the action, with little or no conscious thought. This is when we know that it has become a habit.

How long does a habit take to form?

The length of time a habit takes to form will often depend on its complexity. For instance, it might take less time to for the action of putting your seatbelt on when you get in the car to become routine, than something like getting up an hour earlier – as to start with, getting up earlier can require additional determination and willpower.

A 2009 study published in the European Journal of Social  Psychology, suggests that it takes 18 to 254 days for a person to form a habit. This means that the best way to go about forming a habit is usually not to focus on doing something for a set number of days, but to keep at it, until you realise that you no longer have to force yourself to put your trainers on to go out for a run, or to put your phone down after picking it up to scroll through social media for the 20th time that day. Often, you won’t even notice that a behaviour has become a habit, because habits are formed very gradually.

8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones

1. Identify unhelpful habits and work out what your triggers are

The first step in changing an unhealthy or unhelpful behaviour is to identify and acknowledge it, and work out what triggers it in the first place. It can sometimes be difficult to admit to yourself that a behaviour that you repeat regularly is damaging your health, or preventing you from moving forward in life – or even from enjoying life. It can also be uncomfortable to reflect on what triggers the habit in the first place, as this can sometimes show us that there are larger issues in our lives that need addressing. However, once you identify your triggers, you can start taking steps towards removing these triggers from your life as much as possible, and developing new, healthier habits.

For instance, if you realise that you have an online shopping habit, brought on by stress and anxiety, then the next step would be to start looking at the ways in which you can reduce this stress and anxiety, so that you don’t feel the need to shop online to feel better. You could also consider what you could do instead of shopping to manage any feelings of stress and anxiety if they do arise.

When you’re considering which unhelpful habits or behaviours you’d like to change, it can be helpful to write them down, as this can offer you clarity to and give you a chance to have a brainstorming session about what your triggers or cues might be.

2. Consider which positive habit(s) you want to adopt

Not everyone who is looking to form a new habit is looking to replace an unhealthy or helpful one. It’s possible that you could also just be looking to try something new, or boost your wellbeing. For instance, you might feel that incorporating some mindfulness or meditation into your morning and/or evening routine could help you feel more connected to life, or to feel calmer at the start or end of a busy day. Or maybe you used to enjoy reading, and would really like to get back into the habit of reading daily.

If you’re looking to break a negative habit, then often it’s much easier to replace this habit, than to concentrate solely on eradicating it from your routine. Breaking a habit can require a lot of conscious effort, and isn’t always easy, so having a positive alternative that you can turn to instead, can be a real help.

For instance, a person might find that they turn to sugary or fatty foods when they’re feeling low, because this offers them comfort and distraction. If they’re looking to break this habit, then they could consider what behaviour they could adopt instead when they feel low. For instance, rather than reaching for sweets or a large glass of wine, someone might look to get into the habit of putting their feelings down in a journal, going out for a long walk, or listening to some music that helps them to relax and unwind instead. It’s much easier to fall back into a negative habit, without a positive alternative to turn to instead.

Try noting down a few behaviours that you could use as an alternative to whatever unhealthy behaviour you’re trying to avoid. When replacing a negative habit, it can sometimes take a bit of trial and error to find something that sticks, but once you find something that helps you, and that feels positive, it will be much easier to turn it into a habit, and make it stick.

3. Cut out as many triggers as possible

If you’re trying to break an unhelpful habit, then as well as having a positive habit that you can replace it with, it can also help to work on cutting as many triggers for this habit out of your life as possible. For example, if you’re looking to break your coffee habit, but are struggling because you’re exhausted by an overwhelming work schedule, then perhaps it’s time to look at whether you’re taking on too many hours at work, and not getting enough rest.

Or if you find yourself feeling anxious and biting your nails every time you scroll through the news on your phone or see a news headline on TV, then maybe it’s time to limit the amount of news you expose yourself to each day, with the aim of reducing your anxiety levels.

Often negative habits can be key indicators of larger issues in our lives, and tackling these can help to boost our happiness and wellbeing in the long term, and avoid developing new unhealthy habits.

4. Start by setting yourself manageable, realistic goals

When we decide that we want to change our lives for the better, this can leave us feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future. This optimism, although positive, can sometimes lead to us trying to tackle all our goals all at once, to get results as quickly as possible. Whilst this isn’t always a bad thing, it can sometimes leave us feeling as though we’re standing at the bottom of a mountain, wondering how to start climbing. This feeling can be overwhelming, and might result in us either: deciding to stay the bottom of the mountain, or beginning to climb and then slipping, and staying wherever we land.

In order to make sure that we’re able to continue climbing and working towards forming new, positive habits, or quitting unhelpful ones, it can help to take things at a pace that feels manageable and sustainable. For example, if you’re looking to read more, but find it hard to stay focussed on a book for long periods of time, then committing to a 900 page novel on a really complex topic, might not be the best place to start. Instead, you could try starting with a 200 page novel on a topic that really interests you and will get you engaged, but that won’t leave you feeling overwhelmed or out of your depth. It can also help to try reading two or three pages a day to start with, rather than telling yourself that you need to finish an entire book within a few days or a week. Chances are it won’t be long before you naturally feel yourself wanting to read more than just a couple of pages at a time.

Or, if you’re looking to make exercise a habit, but it’s something that you feel you really have to motivate yourself to do, then consider starting off by doing 10 minutes a day, and building it up slowly. This way, you’re less likely to experience burnout, and are more likely to create a sustainable, long term habit that sticks.

5. Surround yourself with likeminded people who are striving for similar goals, or who live a similar way to the way you want to live

It can be much easier to stick to a new habit, or to quit unhealthy ones, if we surround ourselves with likeminded people, who share similar behaviours. For instance, if you’re looking to be more active, then surrounding yourself with people with similar fitness goals and interests can help you to stay on track, and make repeating these behaviours easier. You could even buddy up with a friend or family member, and commit to motivating one enough to exercise on certain days every week.

Similarly, if you’re looking to stop a behaviour, such as smoking, then spending a lot of time with someone who smokes, can make kicking your own habit more of a challenge – as everytime they light up a cigarette, you might feel tempted to do the same. While, it’s not always possible to avoid people who have habits that you’re trying to give up, it can sometimes help to let them know what your own goals are, so that they can help you by avoiding doing anything that might tempt you to join in – like offering you a cigarette, or smoking around you.

6. Remind yourself that habits are learned behaviours, which can be changed at any time

It’s easy to see breaking a negative habit, or developing a new, positive habit, as a journey to becoming a new person entirely. This can sometimes add a lot of pressure to the process, which can hinder your progress.

The reality is, you already have it in you to be someone with the positive habits you want to develop, or someone without the unhelpful habits that you want to drop. For example, if you’re trying to give up smoking, then it’s a case of returning to being a non-smoker (which you will have been at some point in your life), not of becoming a different person. While this is often easier said than done, it can be comforting to remind yourself that you know you can live without certain behaviours, because you’ve done so in the past.

When it comes to forming new, helpful habits, it can be useful to look at the process as simply expanding or adding to all the positive habits that you already have – no matter how large or small these are. For instance, perhaps you find cooking healthy meals from scratch a bit of a chore, but are keen to turn it into a habit. So, rather than thinking that you need to become a new person to be able to achieve this, try to look at all the other positive habits you already engage in daily or weekly. Perhaps, you’re great at getting up early and getting moving in the morning, or maybe come rain or shine, you’re out twice a day with your dog, making sure he or she gets the exercise that they need. Your current positive habits can hopefully help you to realise that you’re capable of developing a whole host of other positive habits too, without completely changing who you are.

7. Visualise yourself succeeding, and be kind to yourself if you hit a few bumps in the road along the way

One of the things that often puts us off of breaking negative habits or forming new ones, is telling ourselves that we can’t do it, or convincing ourselves that it’s unachievable. Then if we have a set back – where we don’t stick to our new routine, or we engage in an unhealthy habit that we vowed we wouldn’t, we beat ourselves up and worry that our hard work has all gone out the window. These thought processes can actually then cause us to become demotivated and steer away from positive habits, or to continue to engage in old negative habits, because we lose self-belief and start to doubt our abilities.

However, spending a few minutes each day visualising yourself succeeding can be very powerful, because it increases confidence and helps us to believe in a positive future outcome. The more we believe in ourselves, and our ability to achieve what we set out to, the more likely we are to put the work in to achieve it, and to keep repeating that work until we get to where we want to be.

8. Repeat, repeat, repeat

The only way to form a new habit or replace an old one, is to keep repeating the positive action that you want to become a habit. It’s not uncommon for people to become disheartened if they feel they are still having to put conscious effort into the action after some time has passed, and to assume that the process isn’t working. But often, a habit is formed very steadily, and we might not notice it’s even happening at first, so it’s important to keep at it.

It can also take time to completely let go of negative habits, even when replacing them with positive ones. You might find yourself having moments of weakness, where you feel tempted to return to your habit, and you might even give in to this temptation at times. If this happens, try to accept what’s happened and move on, while continuing to practice your new, positive habit. Changing old habits is entirely possible, as long as you don’t give up.

Final thoughts…

Having habits makes us human, and we all have them – both good and bad. However, it can be helpful to look at areas of our lives where our unhelpful or unhealthy habits are keeping us from reaching our full potential and getting the most out of life. Or, where developing additional, positive habits, could enrich our lives even further, and improve our health and wellbeing.

At a time when the future feels uncertain, one of the most helpful things that we can do is to focus on what we can control in the present. Because habits are behaviours that are repeated so regularly that they become conscious, they have the potential to have a significant impact on how we feel day to day – whether we’re inherently aware of the impact that they’re having on us or not. So, thinking about the different ways that we can make these habits as positive as possible can only be a good thing, and could help us emerge from lockdown feeling happier, and healthier.

Are you going through the process of breaking an unhelpful habit, or forming a new one? What has your experience been like so far? What habits are you looking to change? Join the conversation on the community forum, or leave a comment below.

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