Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nine Ideas for Breaking Bad Habits

Do you have any bad habits you'd like to break? You know the ones, where you know you really shouldn't be doing it, but it feels good so you do it anyway. Or it doesn't even feel good, but you don't notice you're doing it until your fingernails are down to nubs, or you've just spent the last 5 hours watching YouTube clips.

I realized when reading a blog post about productivity-killing habits that one of my biggest unproductive time sucks is reading political blogs. With a lot of the blogs I read, I feel like I'm learning something useful, but while that may have been true once with political blogs, it no longer is. I read them now purely as a spectator sport, and it wastes a lot of time. I've decided to break the habit.

Breaking habits is hard! And like dealing with procrastination, it's less a matter of brute force than of figuring out the right tricks. Here are nine ideas I've come up with for trying to break bad habits.

  1. Notice and acknowledge that you have a bad habit.
  2. This is an important first step. Until I'd realized how much time I was spending reading things that add essentially no value to my life, I didn't even know there was something I'd want to stop.
  3. Don't blame yourself.
  4. If you blame yourself for your habit, failing to break it becomes a personal failure. This can be demoralizing, and lead to giving up after the first sign of a problem. Instead, give yourself permission to start where you are. Its okay to have bad habits; everyone does. Like everything else about being human, working with them is a gradual process replete with setbacks. That's okay.
  5. Start noticing when you're engaging in your habit.
  6. Trying to stop doing something is impossible if you don't even notice when you're doing it. Make a goal just to notice every time you're engaging in your habit. You don't have to try to stop yet, just noticing will be a big step forward. In my case, I already knew I read political blogs on my train rides, but what I've started to notice is how I flip to them all the time (similar to checking email), and how that shuts down my thinking.
  7. Quantify the short and long term consequences.
  8. Understanding both the positive and negative impacts the habit has can make it clearer both why you do it and why you want to stop. Biting nails is a great example of this. Short term, it feels satisfying and can reduce stress. However, longer term it makes you more likely to get sick, your hands look bad, and there's a lot of things you can't open.
  9. Change contexts.
  10. For many habits, there are external environmental cues that trigger them and can be removed or reduced to great effect. If you always read political blogs while sitting on the couch, go to a different room when you're working from home. Or if you always eat too much junk food when you watch football with your buddies, try inviting them to go hiking instead.
  11. Raise the barriers.
  12. Its a lot easier to exert will power to reduce your habit when you're energized and thinking about it than later when the urge strikes. If you have a bad habit of eating whole bags of potato chips, you can go a long way towards curing it by getting rid of potato chips in your household and not buying more. Then when you have the urge to munch, the barrier of having to go to the store will reduce your likelihood of giving in.
  13. Find alternatives.
  14. This is one of the classic ways of fighting a habit. Instead of eating chips, chew some gum. Instead of biting your nails, buy a toy to fiddle with. Yes, you need to be careful not to create a new bad habit in place of the old, but substituting in less problematic things for your habit is a good stepping point. For me, I'm trying to substitute for some of my blog reading with writing, and also reading a wider range of blogs that I find 'useful' instead of hopping over to the political sphere.
  15. Celebrate small victories.
  16. If you've been biting your nails for years, you shouldn't expect to be able to stop cold turkey. Instead, celebrate holding off an extra five minutes before lighting up, or reducing your daily quota each week. A great place to look for small victories is in some of the other ideas on this list. Still biting your fingers to nubs, but starting to notice more when you're doing it? Celebrate that! Don't wait for improvements in the habit itself, just paying attention and being motivated to work on it is a victory.
  17. Recruit friends and family.
  18. You don't have to go it alone. Especially in the early stages of habit-breaking when you don't even notice when you're doing it, having friends to help point it out can be extremely helpful. Later, when your energy starts to flag, they can encourage you and remind you why you're breaking the habit. The best thing is that they can help celebrate the victories; the more the merrier!

We'll see how it goes breaking my political blogs habit. I've been trying for the last three days or so, and while have been doing pretty well at avoiding them, I gave in a little yesterday morning. Do you have any other tricks I might try? Write them down in the comments!

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