5 strategies for breaking bad habits

We all have bad habits. Sometimes I procrastinate and leave my work until the last minute. Take this blog post, for example, I have had plenty of time to finish this…but it’s 7.30am on the morning it’s due and I want to get it done asap… but having had over an hour of uninterrupted silence after getting up (which I spent on Facebook)…the kids are up. Drat.**update…finally posting this at 12.30pm.

This week I wanted to give you 5 tips to breaking bad behaviours/habits you might have. They may be ones which could harm your work/career like checking your email when you’re in meetings, turning up late to client visits, or take personal phone calls when you’re supposed to be focusing on your work. Maybe you let habits like watching too much television or excessive Internet surfing (ahem, Facebook) stop you or sabotage your efforts of working on your goals in the evenings and at weekends. (Caveat: There needs to be a balance so remember self-care too!)

What is a habit?

A habit is an acquired behaviour or thought pattern that you have repeated so many times that it has become almost unconscious. Habits can be both helpful and harmful and we engage in them without thinking. When we have good habits we create a positive, forward motion we don’t need to think about. The reverse is true for those bad habits we have. Remember that whether or not a habit is a “bad” habit depends on the context. For example, perfectionism can be a good habit in jobs where safety is important.

Breaking bad habits

Did you ever notice how many of our bad habits are enjoyable activities, which we want to repeat. (e.g. surfing the net instead of working). They are harder to break because, when we do pleasurable things, our brains release dopamine, a feel-good hormone which encourages us to do those things again, and thus the activity becomes a habit.

5 Strategies for Overcoming Bad Habits

Breaking bad habits takes time (an average of 66 days to be exact) and you’ll need to consistently engage in an alternative behaviour or thought pattern for it to become a new habit. This can seem overwhelming so I would recommend breaking it into manageable and realistic steps for you – remember it’s different for everyone and you may need a combination of the strategies below:

A conscious plan

You can’t just say “I’m going to stop wasting time surfing the Internet” and expect to succeed. You have to come up with a concrete plan to make this happen. Review your plan regularly, adding prompts and milestones as needed and focus on the most damaging habits first e.g. turning up late to work.

Tell others your plan so they can hold you accountable and support you when you need it.

Do what works for you

Some people find it effective to quit a habit all at once, while others have more success limiting the behaviour slowly over time. As such, it’s important to find an approach that works well for you. (This will probably depend on the type of habit you’re trying to break.)

Thinking about my Facebook habit….I use it a lot for work so deleting my account and going cold turkey isn’t going to work..so limiting myself for 5 mins an hour and then gradually cutting down to 5 mins in 2 hours, 5 mins in 3 hours etc using a timer/blocking app to help me keep track. I also have a day a week off social media.

Focus on Positive Behaviours

You can focus on or use positive behaviours to replace the bad habit e.g. making a conscious effort to listen to your colleagues instead of interrupting them or maybe offering to facilitate a meeting so you don’t check your emails throughout.

If you want to break a habit that will mean people perhaps notice a big change e.g. taking the opportunity to praise your team rather than criticise them then you might choose to be really upfront about it so that it doesn’t seem incongruent…and they will hold you accountable!

Put Obstacles in Place

Shawn Achor who wrote ‘The Happiness Advantage’ suggests putting obstacles in your way to help you break bad habits…so if you spend a lot of time looking at everything but your work you might want to take the opportunity to move desks so that people who are passing can see your computer screen.

You may choose to avoid specific individuals/groups, places, or situations that trigger the bad habit, if this is appropriate e.g. if you find yourself being drawn into conversations you don’t want to have and you know they happen during lunch with a specific group of colleagues, you might choose to avoid the canteen and eat somewhere else or go for a walk instead.

Reward Yourself

Do you remember that at the start of this article I mentioned that we enjoy our bad habits due to the dopamine hormone our brain releases when we do them? Well, when we stop we lose that feel-good surge so it can be helpful to reward yourself instead when you don’t engage with the habit and do something more positive instead. That way you break the habit and feel good for doing so! Win-win.

A note on rewards – choose something you truly want and will enjoy and try and give yourself them instantly or on the same day whilst you are breaking the habit…once broken you won’t need as many rewards – honest!

Of course, all of this requires self-discipline and willpower which for most of us will come in short bursts, and may be stronger when we first decide to make a change. This means watching yourself for slip-ups, and reminding yourself why you want to break the habit in the first place. Also, think about it from a different perspective e.g. starting something new and positive rather than stopping something fun.

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