How to Break Bad Habits

You might have been doing this every year since you’ve realized that you might be doing something counter-productive. You begin the New Year’s Day with a goal, something far and away from your present reality, like the washboard abs hidden under your belly fat only to notice months later that you’ve stopped short of your goal a few weeks into the execution. Whatever, it happens. Keep trying. You are in charge of the direction your life will take. You have to live with yourself 24/7 and you should enjoy yourself on your terms. As far as your control is concerned, your thoughts and your body are the accumulation of your decisions. Only you are capable of creating the self you have always denied yourself.

There is plenty of information online and in print about how to create a better you, and this article certainly cannot cover it all. However, these are some of the insights I have gained in intentionally breaking and building habits over the year. Whether or not you feel like New Years resolutions make a difference (they don’t), it is always timely to improve yourself. You have nothing other than time and you probably have a few ways that you may be wasting it.

Some people who begin the process of habit building or breaking (the two usually go hand-in-hand) start by setting an intention. Intention setting is simply the process of giving attention to a desire you would like to fulfill, otherwise known as prayer. The idea is that overcoming a daunting task–like going to the gym three times a week–feel easier when you can beseech your higher power to assist you with it. Some people like to include a ritual with their intention setting, and there are plenty of online spiritual blogs that can give you ideas for how you would like to practice them. Or not. Remember, habit formation is, by definition, personal. You decide what you include in your process of becoming who you want to be.

You may want to change one thing or several things about yourself. However many habits there are and whatever they may be, choose one to dedicate most of your effort to changing. Habits require both time and willpower to change, and the human willpower is depleted (fear not, it replenishes itself and deepens with practice) every time you deny yourself a harmful, pleasurable activity or engage a beneficial chore. So, take your time. You’re in this for the long haul.

Although a bad habit can definitely be formed overnight, they are, unfortunately, not broken overnight. In order to fight the feelings of discouragement that might arise from facing an intimidating goal (limiting your consumption of stimulants or depressants, hitting the gym when you would rather be catching up with American Horror Story: Apocalypse), you might track your progress with a simple calendar, or a more involved system like a bullet journal, which encourages you to include daily planning and creative self-expression along with your habit tracking. (If all that sounds like too much work for you, feel free to use whatever method you like most to track your progress). Beth Swarecki on Lifehacker.com has an excellent introduction to bullet journaling, should the method interest you.

That said, expect to slip up. Nobody’s perfect. If that were the case, you wouldn’t be setting New Year’s resolutions in the first place. In tracking, you may find a day (or days) where you go hard on the chips or hit the snooze button on your alarm until you wake up panicked at how little time you have to get to work on time. However many times you find yourself regressing into the habits you are trying to break, pick up where you left off. Forgive yourself and keep going.

Reflect on your process. Reflection helps you become aware of what is and is not going well in the process. You can record moments when you exercise self-control in moments of temptation as well as moments when you indulge in excess. Both instances give you the information you need to identify triggers and adjust your strategy to continue being successful in your habit making/breaking. For example, you might realize that you need to distance yourself from certain spaces (the living room or a laptop computer if you stream too much Netflix content) or honor your boundaries with certain friends (declining frequent invitations to dinner when plenty of food sits in your refrigerator waiting to be cooked).

            And finally, seek support. Friends, therapists, family, or lovers, if you got ‘em. Make sure to ask the right people who will respect your boundaries when you need them to, tell it to you straight when you need to hear it, keep quiet when you need to whine, and hold you when you’re melting down. You likely formed these habits to hide or defer uncomfortable and painful feelings that you may never have felt strong enough to face before. It’s part of the process. Rage, or bawl, if you have to. Just remind yourself that you’re learning how to move on and into a more self-contented you.