By now, you’ve learned most of what you need to form a new habit like exercise or meditation or writing daily … but what if you want to quit a bad habit?
Luckily, most of the concepts are exactly the same, but there are some additional complexities. It’s because of this that I don’t recommend learning about changing habits by starting with a bad habit. Start with the easiest version of the new skill, and only progress to harder versions after practicing for awhile. So start with small, daily, positive new habits for at least your first few attempts with this habit method before trying to quit a bad habit.
That said, pretty much all of the skills are the same, just with the added difficulty of having a really strong urge to do the bad habit. Quitting smoking turned out to be the hardest habit I’ve ever changed, because overcoming the urges to smoke was so difficult I almost didn’t make it. Be ready to face similar urges with your bad habit.
But it’s doable. I’m living proof that anyone can change their bad habits, as are thousands and thousands of others who’ve done it. I overcame those strong urges, and all the rationalizations for smoking that I used for years to justify the habit. If I can do it, you can. I’m not special.
Why make a change
Why quit cigarettes or all those sweets you’ve been eating? Isn’t life short and meant to be enjoyed? Don’t you deserve a treat?
Yes, these are the justifications I gave myself too. And they’re a load of bull.
Life is short, so why waste it on pure junk? Those things don’t make you happy — if anything, they made me less and less happy about myself. I’ve been happier once I gave up those habits and learned to be healthy and trustworthy to myself.
Eating healthy food is a treat. Living smoke-free is pure bliss.
But the biggest reason to change is that you love yourself. You don’t need to harm yourself to find happiness and contentment. Taking care of yourself is a form of self-compassion, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll feel good about how you’re loving yourself.
The steps to quitting a bad habit
So let’s say you’re ready to quit … what do you do?
Try these steps:
- Have a deeper Why. When things get tough, you’ll ask yourself, “Why am I putting myself through this?” And you should have a good answer. Be ready with answers for all your mind’s weaseling. For me, quitting smoking was for my kids — if I didn’t quit, they’d probably smoke as grown-ups. So I didn’t want them to be plagued with bad health. That was a powerful motivator for me. For others, you might do it to support the health of other people you love, or yourself.
- Make a commitment. If you’re ready to quit, commit to starting your quit 3-7 days from now. Mark it on your calendar and tell everyone about it. Make this a big deal in your head, so that you’re fully committed. One of the biggest mistakes I used to make was thinking it would be easy, so I didn’t fully commit. Tell the world, and count down the days.
- Get some accountability and support. Tell all your friends to hold you accountable and to ask daily for updates. Create a blog just for this change, and share it with everyone you know on social media and elsewhere. Join an online forum about quitting this kind of habit, and ask for their support. Get an accountability partner who you give regular updates to, and who you have to call if you are getting a really strong urge (no smoking until after you call them). The accountability will cause you to pause before you give in to an urge, and the support is there for when things get tough.
- Understand your triggers. Every habit is triggered by some event. For me, I would smoke after stress, eating, drinking coffee, a meeting, drinking alcohol, or being around other smokers. I found this out by carrying around a notebook and pencil for a couple of days and making a tally mark in the notebook each time I smoked. Then I wrote down the triggers in the notebook for a day or two — if I smoked, I’d look at what happened just before the urge to smoke. This helped me to be more aware of the triggers, some of which you don’t realize you have. The same applies to eating junk, shopping, chewing your nails, playing video games, watching videos or TV, etc. … each of these habits is triggered by something else. Write those down in a document titled, “Quit Plan.” Put the date of your quit, your accountability system, your Why, and the triggers on this document. (Note: I’ve created a Quit Plan template — see the Appendix.)
- Know what need the habit is meeting. We have bad habits for a reason — they meet some kind of need. For every trigger you wrote down, look at what need the habit might be meeting in that case. For stress, obviously the habit is helping you cope with stress. Same thing for smoking after a meeting. For some of the others, it was helping me socialize. A bad habit can help you cope with bad feelings, such as sadness, loneliness, feeling bad about yourself, being sick, dealing with a crisis, needing a break or treat or comfort. Write these needs down on your Quit Plan, and think of other ways you might cope with them.
- Find replacements. For each trigger, find a replacement habit. For me, I had meditating and doing pushups for stress, taking notes after a meeting, reading with my coffee, talking with my wife as I drank wine (or friends if I were having beer), journaling after I ate. These replacements should meet whatever need the bad habit was meeting, ideally, for that trigger. Write these on your Quit Plan.
- Have reminders. What will you do to remember to do your new habits? Put up visual reminders everywhere, especially around where the trigger happens.
- Try gradual reduction. When I quit smoking, I went cold turkey and didn’t allow myself a single cigarette. But more recent research supports the idea of gradually reducing your bad habit: instead of drinking beer all day, cut back by a beer or two for a few days, then another beer or two. Try eliminating one trigger at a time. This method of Slow Change lines up well with the gradual method of creating a new positive habit.
- Learn from mistakes. If you do mess up (and we all do), be forgiving, and don’t let one mistake derail you. See what happened, accept it, figure out a better plan for next time. Write this on your Quit Plan. Your plan will get better and better as you continually improve it. In this way, mistakes are helping you improve the method.
- Watch the urges and delay. You will get urges to do your bad habit. These are dangerous if you just act on them without thinking. Learn to recognize them as they happen, and just watch them rise and fall, without acting. Delay yourself, if you really want to act on the urge. Breathe. Drink some water. Call someone for help. Go for a walk. Get out of the situation. The urge will go away, if you just delay.
That’s a lot to do in one habit change, which is why you don’t start learning by quitting bad habits. If you’ve formed several new positive habits, you’ll already be good at some of these steps, so you’ll be more prepared to take this on.
There are two areas of importance that we should discuss a little more — negative thoughts, which we’ll talk about in the next chapter, and the need that the bad habit is meeting, which we’ll discuss in this next section.
How to cope
Why is it that it’s so difficult to break the bad habits that stand in our way?
Most people aren’t aware of the simple reason: We don’t know how to cope with stress and boredom in a healthy way.
The bad habits we’ve formed are often useful to us, because they help us deal with stress and boredom. Consider some of the bad habits that fit this bill: smoking, procrastination by browsing the Internet, eating junk food, drinking, addiction to TV or video games, compulsive shopping, biting nails. All of these habits fill a strong need: they are ways to cope with stress and/or boredom. We have formed them as coping mechanisms, and they stick around because we don’t have better ways of coping.
So if we replace them with healthier ways of coping, we get rid of the problems of these bad habits, and start getting the benefits of better habits.
Some ideas for dealing with stress and boredom:
- Do pushups, pullups, squats.
- Practice yoga/meditate.
- Play with friends/kids.
- Create, write, play music, read when we’re bored.
- Learn to enjoy being alone, instead of being bored.
- Take a daily walk and enjoy nature.
- Deal with finances, clutter, paperwork immediately, in small steps, so that it doesn’t get stressful.
- Take control of a situation: make a list, get started in baby steps.
- Learn to be mindful of your breathing, body tension, stressed-out thoughts.
- Get some rest.
- Learn to savor healthy food that you find delicious.
- Slow down.
- Take a hot bath.
- Learn to live in the present.
Each habit above will help you cope with or prevent stress or boredom. If you replace the bad habits with these, your life will be less stressful and healthier. You’ll have less debt, less clutter, less fat, less disease.
But perhaps a more important tool for coping is to sit with the pain of dissatisfaction, boredom, stress. See that it is a passing cloud, and accept that the pain actually isn’t that bad. You can sit with it without running away and give it some mindful space. You can stay with this discomfort, and wait for it to pass.
It’s OK to have painful or uncomfortable feelings. If we realize that they’re not horrible and that they’re impermanent, we don’t have to cope with them in unhealthy ways. We don’t have to add to our suffering by using bad habits to avoid the pain.
Mission: Assess your coping
I don’t recommend you start tackling a bad habit yet, but it is worthwhile to consider what you use to cope with stress or boredom. If you have a negative coping mechanism, think about other ways to cope that you might try, and pay attention to what you do the next time you get stressed or bored.