How to Break 11 Common Bad Habits for Good
Bad habits afflict us all. But whether a particular fixation is annoying (whining), drains precious time (procrastinating), or could actually hurt someone (like the person you’re talking about behind their back), there are effective tricks and techniques anyone can use to nip their behavioral vices in the bud.
Of course, serious habitual behaviors (deeply rooted and/or particularly harmful habits) might require a few years, and even some bona fide therapy sessions with a mental health professional, to break. But it absolutely can be done—and psychiatrists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists agree that recognition is the first step toward breaking any bad habit. So if you’ve noticed and acknowledged a certain behavior you’d like to change, you're already on the road to developing better habits—and a lifetime of good posture (instead of slouching), manicures (in place of nail-biting), and trusting friendships (free of petty gossip).
The Habit: Always Running Late
Why you might do it: The nice reason? You’re a pleaser and an overdoer, packing too much in. But the not-so-nice explanation? Deep down, you may think your time is more important than others’ time (or at least it comes across that way to the people you always keep waiting). Either way, you lack some essential time-management skills.
How to break it: When someone asks you to do something, don’t accept right away. Say you’ll get back to them, then decide whether you truly have the time. Also, figure out which tasks always seem to make you late. Maybe it’s drying your hair in the morning: Time yourself to see how long it takes, then allot enough time (read: more time) in your routine. Tricks: Set your watch five minutes fast and build in time for unexpected delays. And always call ahead if you’re running late. Not only is it gracious, but the shame of making repeated calls might also be the incentive you need to be punctual.
RELATED: 8 Habits of Highly Productive People
The Habit: Procrastination
Why you might do it: It’s a strategy for managing the anxiety of having to complete a task. Avoiding the task gives you temporary relief, but, of course, feels terrible in the long run.
How to break it: Recognize that when you procrastinate, others may think you don’t care about getting that task done—and that’s worse than completing something less than perfectly. A good trick to get you started: Hold yourself accountable and bring in a friend. Make a check out to an organization you don’t support and give it to a friend to hold. If you don’t finish the self-assigned task by a certain date, have her mail the donation. If you make yourself accountable for the consequences, it will motivate you to wrap up the task. Doesn’t sound like the strategy for you? Try one of these other smart ways to break your procrastination habit.
The Habit: Disorganization
Why you might do it: You may be a visual processor. You like to be surrounded by a mess because it’s stimulating―and it reminds you to do your work. But it backfires since you waste time searching for things. Plus, it can really aggravate anxiety; a cluttered space can truly lead to a cluttered mind.
How to break it: Separate papers into a pile you need to do and a pile you can think about doing. Use folders or boxes in different colors. “One of my clients has 12 clipboards hung up in her office: six for current projects and six for those she may get to later,” says life coach Lynn Cutts. “She’s still being visually stimulated, but her stuff is organized.” Set up a system that works for you, and start with basic steps, like putting your keys in the same place every day. For more ways to keep clutter at bay, read the 20 best organizing tips we’ve learned over the past 20 years.
The Habit: Fidgeting
Why you might do it: You have excess energy, perhaps from the surge in adrenaline caused by consuming too much caffeine or sugar, and it has to come out somehow. Just ask that pen you keep clicking.
How to break it: If you’re a large-triple-latte drinker, cut back. To control energy peaks and troughs, it’s also important to get enough exercise and sleep. And try converting the movement of your hands and legs into isometric exercises: Put your hands in your lap and concentrate on gently pushing your palms together. For your legs, place both feet flat on the floor and then push down. Do these subtle exercises until the need to fidget subsides.
The Habit: Smacking Gum
Why you might do it: It’s another oral fixation that serves as a security blanket when you’re nervous or anxious.
How to break it: Actually, a fast and effective solution to busting this habit is to switch to hard candy—although that’s not so easy on your teeth. If you really don’t want to give up gum, have a friend stop you every time she hears you doing it. When she points it out, keep smacking long enough to hear yourself and recognize how loud and irritating it is. Pretend you’re someone else who has to listen (and watch) you smacking your gum. Not great, right? You might just be embarrassed enough to stop. When you hear yourself doing it, make a note of it, and then stop. Every time you choose to stop, your brain rewires to make not smacking your gum the default. Eventually, with a little effort, you won’t do it at all.
The Habit: Slouching
Why you might do it: You may have slouched when growing up because you were self-conscious or taller than others or developed breasts before your peers, and the posture stuck. Or you might just be tired and stressed (understandable).
How to break it: Take dance lessons, Pilates, or yoga to strengthen your deep abdominals and upper-back muscles (these muscle groups can grow weak when underutilized, but are essential to maintaining healthy, pain-free posture). Starting with a super-simple shoulder-shrug exercise―think of touching your shoulders to your earlobes―is an even easier way to combat slouching. Do 10 shoulder rotations forward and 10 rotations back to bring awareness to your posture and remind you to stand and sit tall. Regular physical activity really helps combat the mental and physical fatigue that can contribute to slouching.
The Habit: Phone Obsession
Why you might do it: Don’t be too hard on yourself—smartphones are purposely designed to steal your attention and keep you hooked. To be honest, we’re all starting at a disadvantage. But your phone fixation may go deeper: an irrational anxiety over not being able to check texts, news, social media, the internet in general. You’re petrified of missing something important or being left out. Or you’ve simply fallen victim to the temptation of instant and endless entertainment, information, and communication at your fingertips—and you forget to actually look up, make connections, and just be.
How to break it: Giving up your iPhone forever probably isn’t an option, but there are ways to keep your screen time in check. Set rules for yourself, such as: no phone at meal times (even when you’re dining solo); keep your phone far from where you sleep; do a time audit of how long you spend on certain apps; summon the willpower not to look at it the minute you feel the urge or get a notifications. If you need to, turn off notifications for the most distracting or enticing apps. Also, think of how unpleasant it feels to be with someone who would rather look at their phone than look at you, listen to you, talk to you. That’s how you make others feel when you whip out your device in the middle of a coffee date.
The Habit: Nail Biting
Why you might do it: This particular compulsion is often used to derive comfort and relieve stress and anxiety.
How to break it: First, note when you bite your nails, and what circumstances trigger your nail biting, and then try to substitute another action into which you can direct that energy. Low-hanging fruit might be to keep a stress ball nearby to play with when you feel the urge. Be vigilant about keeping your nails short and well filed. You can also try painting your nails with special polish that’s meant to deter nail-biters. Wear gloves (yes, really). Splurge on manicures so you not only want to avoid chewing the bitter polish, but ruining a luxurious coat of color and clean set of cuticles.
The Habit: Whining
Why you might do it: You don’t feel confident that you have the power to request something or make a change. As a kid, you probably whined when you didn’t get what you wanted, and it paid off―but you’re not a kid anymore.
How to break it: As an adult, you’re in for a rude awakening if you think complaining will get the same results. If your partner or friends say something about your whining, take note. Instead of grumbling like a teen, state what you want by making a direct (but polite) request. For example, instead of ruining an evening out by complaining that you got stuck at a table next to the kitchen, politely ask the waiter to reseat you. If you can't do anything about it—or aren't willing to do anything about it—it's not worth griping over (so don't).
The Habit: Gossiping
Why you might do it: You try to take the focus off your own flaws by exposing those of others. But a person who gossips by habit doesn’t truly believe they're good enough on their own. Gossiping can also feel really good in the moment—to vent about someone or something, to bond with friends or coworkers, to make yourself feel better.
How to break it: Become exceptionally attuned to what you choose to talk about. Use your conversations to share your experiences, such as discovering a new restaurant or your latest vacation. Brush up on current events, music, TV shows, or sports to give you something else to discuss besides other people. If the topic moves toward talking about other people, make an effort to say only nice things about them (or neutral, if you can't think of anything). Plus, you never know who could be in earshot of your conversation. If you’re complaining about a coworker, be aware that her best friend might be the woman directly behind you on the train. Gossiping also makes you seem untrustworthy. You may even lose friends and professional contacts when people realize you’re a gossip.
The Habit: Perfectionism
Why you might do it: Your parents, who were probably perfectionists, had high expectations. You define yourself by what you do and how well you do it, yet nothing seems to get done.
How to break it: Train yourself to care less. Yes, really. Deliberately do a poor job when performing a small chore―one that has no professional or personal impact, like doing the dishes or making the bed. You’ll start to realize that the consequences aren’t so dire. Set time limits for tasks, and use an alarm. There won’t be any room in your schedule for that “one more thing” to make it perfect. Finally, just for fun, do something you actually don’t excel at. Take a drawing class, even though you didn’t get the family’s doodling gene. Play a game of shuffleboard, despite never having played before. Don’t keep score, just try to enjoy learning something new. It’s kind of nice to have the pressure off when no one (especially you) is expecting you to be perfect.
Five Basic Steps to Breaking Any Bad Habit
Finally, if you have a nagging habit that isn’t on this list, know that you have the full ability and agency to break it. Many of the above tricks apply to a variety of habits. Here are five fundamental steps to quashing problematic behaviors, courtesy of Cherry Pedrick, RN, coauthor of The Habit Change Workbook, a step-by-step program rooted in cognitive-behavioral techniques.
1. Know when your habit shows up. Identify habit-prone situations. Record how often and where it presents itself.
2. Know the consequences. List the advantages and disadvantages of keeping—or changing—your habit.
3. Know an alternative behavior. Develop a competing (better) response that you can employ instead of falling back on your old habit.
4. Know your goals. Make a plan with short-and long-term goals, and reward yourself when you reach them.
5. Know you're human. Don't beat yourself up if you fall back into your old ways. This is a natural part of change and can take several attempts to get into a good groove.