The Modern Time Crunch

Finding peace in this whirlwind world.

A Plan for Breaking Those Bad Habits

A thoughtful action plan is needed to help you achieve the goal.

So the holidays are over and now you’re working on getting rid of those bad habits you’ve resolved to eliminate. They’re negatively affecting your health or emotions and are therefore negatively affecting your performance. They might be health-related (such as smoking, eating too much sugar) or purely behavioral (such as procrastinating).

Perhaps they’re being a bit more stubborn than you expected. Not the best circumstance you start off the new year, and you’re frustrated at not performing at your highest possible level.

Don’t despair; there are solutions. A desire to reach your goal is key, of course, but it is only one ingredient needed to break a bad habit; what you also need is a thoughtful, logical action plan that takes into account the behavioral psychological realities of the challenge.

A good, though partial, action plan should look something like this:

Know your triggers. For most people it is stress or boredom. Humans instinctively reach for something to soothe it, and it often takes the instant-gratification form of sugar, alcohol, nicotine or (these days) distractions like social media.

Train yourself to be mindful enough to know when you are entering your danger zone (i.e. feeling stressed out, tired, bored, etc). Becoming more conscious of your mood and the likelihood of lapsing will help you to act with intention instead of habit.

When you realize you’re in the trigger zone and the impulse has struck with a vengeance, have a plan in place to defeat it. Make it difficult for yourself to indulge those impulses. For example, disable your internet connection before trying to write or read so that the temptation to visit Facebook or espn.com is simply not an option. While you’re at it, hide the remote control, and then throw out the candy and leftover holiday cookies. Make it difficult or impossible to reach for that yummy sugar rush.

But it is not enough to simply enough try to “break” a bad habit; the process is much more effective when actively replacing it with a good habit. If you’re addicted to nicotine, try chewing gum to address the oral fixation, but avoid replacing food for the cigarette. Remember, this isn’t just a habit you’re trying to kick; it’s a lifestyle adjustment. Cultivate a new way of being.

Social support should be a critical element of your plan as well. Most tasks are easier with a partner, and we often need some social support to make it through the process of kicking a lousy habit. Join up with someone facing a similar challenge. Having a partner to lean on will provide a sense of moral support.

But more than camaraderie, partnership will provide accountability. Having a partner to whom you are accountable can inspire more motivation than any well-intentioned New Year’s resolution. Celebrate your progress together. It can transform a difficult process into an inspiring challenge, and sharing the adversity will likely result in a stronger friendship. If no one you know is interested in joining up, try looking at meetup.com; there are plenty of support groups for just about every situation.

Also, it’s important to accept the fact that there will probably be backsliding. It’s only human to slip up when you’re are triggered. Assume it will happen at some point (most likely in times of stress or fatigue).

Realize that beating yourself up about it will only be counterproductive, resulting in lower self-esteem and motivation. Have a plan in place to deal with backsliding when it happens, such as seeking support and promising yourself to get right back onto the trail again. This sort of attitude will allow you to get back on track faster, and with less stress.

In future posts I’ll flesh out these items further, but hopefully this short list will give you something to start with as you kick off your new year.

 

Former journalist James Ullrich is a psychotherapist in Seattle.

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