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How to Break Any Bad Habit in 10 Minutes

This post was written by a guest author.

Perhaps you can’t stop yourself from chewing your fingernails to pieces when you watch TV every evening. Or maybe you have a bad 4 pm donut habit you keep promising you’ll drop but somehow never do. Whatever bad habits you’re trying to shift, you can use the following simple technique to weed out unhealthy, unproductive or just plain unwanted behavior. And the best part is you only need a few minutes.

Perhaps you can't stop yourself from chewing your fingernails to pieces when you watch TV every evening. Or maybe you have a bad 4 pm donut habit you keep promising you'll drop but somehow never do. Whatever bad habits you're trying to shift, you can use the following simple technique to weed out unhealthy, unproductive or just plain unwanted behavior. And the best part is you only need a few minutes.

How to Break Any Bad Habit in 10 Minutes

Step 1: Zoom in on the behavior

To begin, you’ll need to understand exactly what behavior you’re trying to get rid of. Take a piece of paper and write down the precise set of actions you want to remove from your life. This might seem simple, but be as obvious as possible.

For example, “I no longer have a cigarette every lunch break while at work”. Be specific, and write your sentences as though they’ve already happened. Psychologically, this shifts your focus onto solutions rather than the current situation you’re trying to move away from.

Step 2: Identify your triggers

Next, look at everything that comes before you slip into your bad habit. Even if you don’t see any causal connection, list down everything that precedes the behavior. To make sure you’re not missing anything, jot down:

  • The place
  • The people involved
  • The time of day
  • The emotions
  • The activities

In our example, you might note that you smoke a cigarette every workday, while in the office, at around lunch time. Smoking usually accompanies getting lunch or coffee, and you usually feel tired around this time and want a break and to socialize with colleagues.

You have just identified the triggers that instigate your bad habit.

Step 3: Identify your rewards

Now, fast forward to everything that happens after you engage in the unwanted behavior.

Look closely at the rewards that come with this behavior. These can be emotional, financial, social or purely physical. In our example, the reward is a feeling of relaxation and connection with a social group.

You have just identified the rewards that reinforce your habit and make it more likely that you’ll return to it again and again.

Step 4: Deactivate your triggers, reprogram your rewards

Now that you understand why and how your habit works, it’s time to dismantle it. Simply relying on willpower is unlikely to be effective. After all, your habit took a long time to develop, and it’s there for a reason. To get rid of a habit takes careful, considered effort to break down its causes as well as weaken its effects.

Firstly, go through your list of triggers and next to each one, write down a way that you can avoid it. Look at how you could deactivate the triggers in our example:

The place – make sure you’re out the office when people usually smoke
The people involved – socialize with another group of colleagues who don’t smoke
The time of day – schedule your break time later or earlier, or arrange to be in meetings during “smoke time”
The emotions – call your partner for a chat or take breaks to relax during the day, instead of smoking to relax
The activities – bring a packed lunch so that buying lunch doesn’t lead to a smoke break

Now, you don’t necessarily have to implement all these changes. Pick the most workable ones and go with those. Also, you don’t need to avoid your triggers forever, just for as long as it takes to break your habit and form new ones.

Getting rid of triggers won’t make the temptation disappear, but it will make it much easier to resist that temptation.

The next step is to actively make your old habit unpleasant while transferring rewards to another, different habit. It’s not enough to get rid of a bad behavior, you have to replace it. Look at the kind of reward your bad habit is giving you and find another source of those emotions.

In our example, you could find a hobby you really love and do that for a few minutes every lunch break. In this way, you attach new positive reinforcement to a different behavior. Simultaneously weaken the rewards associated with your old habit with negative reinforcement.

Perhaps you tell your colleagues that you’ll pay them each $5 for every cigarette you smoke. This adds an element of fun and gets everyone on board with your plan.

Repeat!

It only takes 10 minutes to write down your habit, zoom in on why and how you have it, and commit to making the necessary changes. The trick is to keep making those choices, over and over.

With this method, no willpower is necessary. Instead, try to understand the anatomy of your bad habit, and find smart ways to work around it. After a few weeks of this “hack”, your new habits will take root. You may be surprised at how easily bad habits can be dropped from your life, forever.

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