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Break Bad Habits!

Cartoon depicting bad habits. Credit Nina Paley

Habit is a trigger word for some

Habits are nothing more than routines absent of conscious thought. That said, they are an essential part of all of us powering just under half of our daily behaviours and actions. Without these unconscious behaviours, we would have to actively think about making our first cup of coffee each day or the route to our usual workplace. Habits tend to get a bad rap because they are typically linked to something we want to change about ourselves. Any habit, good or bad, can be tough to change!

Let’s focus on “bad habits”, as these are often the ones we seek to change (or are told we should change). They might range from nail biting to procrastination or derailing ourselves when learning a new language. Why do bad habits occur in the first place? According to research by James Clear (Atomic Habits), they are generally triggered by two things: stress or boredom.

And the million-dollar question is: how do we break bad habits?

Break bad habits

Before we can break bad habits, we need to first understand what needs the habit fulfils for us. That may sound counterintuitive, but it is true, everything we do satisfies a need within us. To change it we need to understand which needs are being met by the habit, so that we can choose an alternative that still satisfies them.

Needs range from basics such as food, water, shelter, touch, and warmth to needs that hold meaning for us such as learning, understanding, hope, attachment, connection, affection, stability, creativity and self-worth. Of course, there are many more needs we all have.Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helpfully identifies and organizes them.

Needs now identified; we can now develop an alternative habit that is “healthier” while still fulfilling our needs. So, how do we find other ways of meeting our needs while remain aligned with what matters to us (meaning, our values)?

Three specific steps for changing habits

  1. Determine what triggers the habit
  2. Do something different
  3. Quiet the inner voice trying to sabotage us

Habit Triggers

Triggers can be as simple as the end of the workday, sitting in front of the TV, hearing certain words (also referred to as trigger words), being in a place holding strong memories, reliving past experiences, or having thoughts. Triggers are quite personal. 

Emotion triggers and stress triggers are the ones we most commonly think about, they tend to result in a person having unwanted thoughts, behaviours or feelings. Triggers can happen without conscious thought, just as they can occur with full awareness.

A couple of common workplace triggering examples:

  • Uneven workloads – seeing others coasting by when we have overloaded days is a significant stress trigger.
  • Office conflict – employees falling out with each other and leaving others feeling compelled to uncomfortably choose a side.

A couple of common personal trigger examples:

  • Boring tasks – tasks that lack intellectual challenge evoke feelings of boredom at the very idea of working on it. The stronger the feeling, the more likely we avoid starting the task.
  • Difficult tasks – challenges like learning a new language are inherently more difficult to do than other things. This often results in pushing the difficult task off in favour of easier ones. 

Doing something different

Doing something different can be quite literal – rather than defaulting to a nice glass of wine to wind down after a stressful day, we could go out for a walk with a loved one or choose a cup of herbal tea instead of a glass of wine. 

We could also break tasks down from momentous ones into smaller chunks, allowing us to see micro-successes along the way. Another strategy could be applying the 10-minute rule – a common strategy in politics to give time to backbench members to put forth their case (or oppose what is being tabled in the house). What could we do in 10 minutes on the task we face?

Turn the trigger on its head. If a task we face is boring, turn it on its head to make it more fun or if a task is difficult, turn it on its head to make it easier by accepting the help of others. 

Quieting inner voices

We are more inclined to give in to our bad habits if we listen to our negative self-talk (also known as our inner voice). This is because negative self-talk inhibits our ability to believe in ourselves. So, we say “stop” to ourselves to cut negative self-talk off in its tracks. For example when we make a mistake – we abruptly cut off the voice that berates us for being a failure, or being so stupid (or some combination of similar chastising thoughts). In our head, we may say something like: “Stop….mistakes are a great opportunity to learn and learn from this I will”.

Final Thoughts

Habits are nothing more than straightforward processes. They are the outcome of repeated action in the same context such that we do it without thinking about it. If we approach habits with this mindset before we know it good habits will become as instinctual as the bad ones – making it easier to change what we do in favour of constructive alternative habits.

And for a smile today, enjoy Ed Sheeran‘s artistic take on “Bad Habits”!

Your turn

Sign in to the Community Member Area or comment below to share your advice with others on how you break bad habits in your personal or professional life.  

Give it a try!

Cartoon credit: Nina Paley

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