The secret to breaking a bad habit

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No one wants bad habits. They can harm our health, impact our self-esteem and stop us from getting things done. Whether it’s biting our nails, spending too much time on social media or eating too many sugary snacks, we’ve all got a bad habit we want to break.

The big question is, how?

Conventional wisdom tells you to find an alternative activity, ideally a healthier replacement for what you want to stop doing. Apparently, breaking a habit works on the same principle as starting a new one: the Cue-Action-Reward loop.

So to break a habit you need to recognise the Cue, replace the Action and adjust the Reward.

This may work for some people as they can easily switch activities. They wait for the bus and instead of getting out their phone, they do a mindfulness exercise and feel calmer. Or when 3pm comes around, they choose fruit over a chocolate bar and feel better about their diet.

However for most people, this is not an effective way of breaking a bad habit. It puts too much focus on the habit you are trying to break.

Every time you get a Cue for your bad habit, that’s what you’ll think about. “Right, I’m waiting for the bus. I mustn’t scroll too much on social media so I’ll try a mindfulness exercise instead.”

Every day your thoughts are centred on what you can’t do, battling with self-discipline, willpower and motivation. If you give in and do your old habit, you beat yourself up and feel guilty. It’s exhausting and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work for most people.

But what if there was another way? A way to avoid all the difficulty and heartache?

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

Socrates had the right idea.

The real secret to breaking a bad habit is – don’t! Don’t put any time or energy into breaking your bad habit.

The most effective way to break a bad habit is to get involved in something new. Over time, the new activity will become an essential part of your life, leaving no room or desire for your old bad habit.

Unconvinced? Let’s see it in action.

Mandy knows she should stop smoking. She’s tried it all – gums, patches, meditation – but none of it has worked. Every time she wanted a cigarette and had to make do with gum instead, she resented that chewing gum. All she could think about was the one thing she couldn’t do.

So instead of trying to stop smoking, this time Mandy takes up swimming. She wants to get more active and joins a local club. Over the next few months, she really enjoys the weekly sessions and even signs up for a competition.

But when Mandy goes swimming after a night out with friends, she notices that her breathing is affected and that she’s not as fast. With a competition coming up, she decides to cut back on the smoking as she wants to perform at her best.

You can see how it goes. Mandy hasn’t tried to stop smoking – she’s taken up swimming. Gradually, swimming has become more important to her and she sees the impact smoking is having on it. She prioritises swimming over smoking – it no longer has a place in her life.

So if you want to break a bad habit, don’t! Find something new, put all your energy into getting involved and developing your skills. Eventually, your old bad habit just won’t fit into your new life.

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