Forming new “good” habits are part of any health journey, and something I spend a lot of time on with my clients. But the more common question I get is “how do I quit doing X?” Ah, stopping a bad habit can be even harder to do than creating a new one. Bet that’s no surprise to anyone! 🙂
Why We Form Habits
To learn how to stop a bad habit, we need to first understand why and how we form habits. What makes us grab our phones to scroll social media for the 50th time in a day or look in the cupboard for something sweet after every single meal?
Our habits become our habits when they meet 3 criteria:
- There’s a consistent prompt/trigger (for example, a phone notification)
- They’re easy to do (open an instagram app)
- We’re motivated to do them (dopamine hits from viewing funny videos or seeing comments on your social post)
“Breaking” a Bad Habit
So we use this information to form new good habits, but what if we want to “break” a bad habit?
Instead of calling this “breaking” a bad habit, researcher B.J. Fogg, who created the Stanford Behavioral Lab, says we should really be calling this “untangling” a bad habit.
For example, if we have the “bad” habit of eating too much junk food, we need to break this down (untangle it) into every action we take surrounding that bad habit and tackle each action one by one. So first we want to list all the scenarios when we eat “junk food”, and start with the one we think would be the easiest to change.
Then we want to examine the 3 criteria I mention earlier, in this order:
- What is your prompt or trigger? Can it be changed or eliminated? Addressing the prompt is often the easiest way to stop this habit. So maybe if you eat cookies every night after you sit on the couch to watch Netflix, you switch up your nighttime routine and read a book in a different part of your house instead.
- Can you make this habit harder? How? Maybe you don’t buy junk food. It’s a lot harder to drive to the store at 8 pm for treats than it is to open your freezer.
- Can you lower your motivation to do this? How can you lower your motivation to eat junk food? Maybe eating more of your nutrient-dense food at dinner so you feel full at night. Often this is the hardest one to change and so is reserved as the last step to try.
If none of these work for your bad habit, try one of these:
- Replace it. If all the above fail, replacing your junk food with a healthier option can work. Just make sure it’s something you’re still excited to eat, rather than something that feels like a punishment. Remember the motivation piece is crucial to habit formation! So, instead of Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups, eat dark chocolate chips and all natural (no sugar) peanut butter.
- Lessen it. Sometimes it’s easier to cut back rather than stopping something completely. Instead of saying no more candy, you limit it to just one time per day instead of your usual three times per day.
I hope that gave you some good ideas to try! My suggestion is to start small. Think of one habit you’d like to drop, label all the times you do this habit, and choose one of these times to tackle. Then go through the steps I’ve outlined here to see how you can change it.