Which bad habit are you trying to get rid of?
Smoking, drinking, phone addiction, overspending, biting your nails, using filler words while speaking or anything else?
You and I have some bad habit or the other. We’re not perfect, are we?
But here’s the problem: You make up your mind to overcome the bad habit, succeed for a few days but life goes back to square one soon after. You scratch your head and wonder if you will ever get rid of the bad habit you have.
That brings us to the million-dollar question:
- How long does it take to get rid of a bad habit?
- How to stop a bad habit in 8 ways
How long does it take to get rid of a bad habit?
You would have read or heard you can get rid of a habit in 21 or 66 days. But neither of them are true. Such figures are myths that have been busted in the past using psychology research.
Think for a moment. Do you think anything magical happens at the end of 21 or 66 days and your addictions disappear all of a sudden? Is it reasonable to expect to stop a habit permanently at the golden mark of 21 or 66 days?
To break a bad habit, it can take anywhere from an instant to forever. How long it takes depends on you, the habit and how willing you are to quit.
For example, a simple bad habit like leaving your clothes on the bed can be overcome in a few days or weeks without ever feeling the urge again. However, things work differently for habits that involve addictions such as drugs, nicotine, or alcohol.
Smokers who smoked like a chimney have quit overnight while those who smoked only a few cigarettes have smoked forever. Getting rid of a bad habit depends on your mindset.
If you think, the magic number 21 or 66 days will get rid of the bad habit for you, I have some bad news for you. You can easily slip back into the bad habit even after 21 or 66 days.
Ask a smoker or an alcoholic and he will tell you that the urge to smoke or drink again lasts for years. No doubt the intensity of the craving reduces over time making it easier to fight the urges. But do not assume you will never feel the urge again.
The temptation to return to your bad habit pops up now and then. How you react to the urge depends on you completely. Your reaction to urges decides whether you manage to get rid of the habit permanently or not.
How to stop a bad habit in 8 ways
You want to know the magic bullet to get rid of a bad habit. Unfortunately, I do not have one for you.
As human beings, think how different you are from the person next to you. Can you imagine the same technique helping you both avoid a bad habit? It is impossible.
Whoever tells you he has a formula for getting rid of a bad habit is lying.
That said, there are different ways you can try to get rid of a bad habit. While some may work for you, some may not. All of these or even none of these might work for you. There are no guarantees, but making an attempt to give up yields better results than never even trying.
Here are the ways using which people have got rid of bad habits. These may or may not work for you. As I said, no harm trying.
1. Introduce friction or make it easy
James Clear explains in his book, Atomic Habits about how many of our daily actions are due to our habits. You no longer think if your action is good or bad. You do it as a part of your routine. If you have to break a bad habit, you have break yourself out of this cycle. If you have to cultivate a new habit, you need to do the same.
When your brain senses you going against the routine, it fights back. To make the process easier for your brain, you must make it difficult to continue the bad habit and make it easier to start a new habit.
Let us take an example of cultivating a new habit of working out. Here is how you can make it easier:
- Pack your gym clothes the previous evening to make it easy to head to the gym in the morning
- Pick a gym close to your house to avoid the barrier of travel
- Make up your mind to work out only 10 minutes instead of aiming for an hour
When you are trying to get rid of a bad habit, add more friction to make the habit more difficult
- If you have a habit of snoozing, keep the phone or the alarm clock away from the bed
- If you watch way too much TV, unplug it off the socket and remove the batteries off the remote after using it
- If you want to reduce smoking, instead of buying a pack, go all the way to the store to buy one. If your country sells cigarettes only as a pack, smoke one and discard the whole pack.
The more friction you add between you and your habit, the more trouble your brain faces in succumbing to the bad habit. Similarly, the easier you make it to cultivate a new habit, the quicker your body will adapt to the change.
You can read more on how much our body hates change due to the change curve.
2. Mental Reminder
Sometimes to change a bad habit a simple trick like a reminder works wonders. To get rid of a simple bad habit, try using a mental reminder. This trick works best when the habit does not involve addiction.
For example, let us assume you have a habit of talking more than necessary during a meeting or you use filler words such as errr, ummmm, like during conversations.
Every time you make a mistake, mentally remind yourself that you slipped. You may not remember to remind yourself every single time, but make a conscious effort.
After a few days, you will notice yourself improving and doing less of the bad habit. Do not stop at this point. Keep reminding yourself whenever you make a mistake. Over time, you will get rid of the habit altogether or repeat it once in a blue moon.
Your brain has the power to convince the body to stop repeating mistakes. You need to trigger your brain to keep telling your body often to not make such mistakes. A self-reminder is one simple way to break a bad habit.
3. Pain/Pleasure association
Anthony Robbins speaks about the functioning of a human mind in his book Awaken the Giant Within. He states – Every single action in life is due to one of the two reasons – Avoiding Pain or Gaining Pleasure.
You eat lunch for pleasure, while you earn money to avoid the pain of being homeless. The reasons might vary from person to person. For example, you might eat lunch to avoid the pain of being hungry while I might eat lunch to gain the pleasure of eating food.
Irrespective of the reasons, anything you and I do in life is associated with either gaining pleasure or avoiding pain.
To get rid of a bad habit, you can either:
- associate massive pain with the consequences of continuing the bad habit
- associate great pleasure with the life that follows if you get rid of it
You can even do both of them.
This trick is effective when it comes to stronger addiction habits and overcoming procrastination. For example, to get rid of a bad habit like smoking, you can associate the pain of suffering from a disease. Imagine how your loved ones would shed tears of grief around you. You must associate pain around something which means a lot to you.
If your spouse matters the most, imagine how hurt your spouse would be if you continued smoking and suffered from a chronic disease. If success in life matters the most to you, imagine how badly would your career be ruined if you end up in bed.
You can even associate pleasure by imagining the long years you and your spouse can spend on a scenic island with a margarita.
The trick lies in making the association strong, visual and full of details. Go all guns blazing when you associate pain or pleasure. The stronger the association, the higher the chances of getting rid of the habit.
4. Identify triggers and stay away
Every habit has an associated trigger. Charles Duhigg explains how the habit loop works in his book, The Power of Habit. A trigger is an event, behavior, place or thought which leads to an action or bad habit.
For example, a smoker feels like smoking after lunch or while he is around a group of friends who are smoking. Another person might spend a lot of time on the phone while they are seated on the commode.
Every bad habit has some trigger or the other. You have to identify your trigger. Whenever your bad habit comes into the picture, ask yourself, what caused you to do so? You will find the trigger.
By the way, one habit can have multiple triggers as mentioned in the smoking example. You must identify as many triggers as possible. The simple next step – avoid them all, which is easier said than done.
When you are in the early days of breaking the habit, you must avoid the trigger altogether because of the strong urge you feel. Smokers must stop going to the smoking zone to accompany their smoker friends, alcoholic must stop socializing in bars and phone addicts must leave their phone uncharged. If you do not, chances of slipping and embracing the habit again are higher.
Over time, when the urge weakens, you can proceed to a bar without drinking or enter the smoking zone without taking a drag.
You can read more about the process of identifying cues and triggers using the habit loop here.
5. Plan what will you do if you fail
Most people manage to get rid of a bad habit for a few days. One slip and things go haywire. Some people return to their old habits while others go deeper than ever into their habits after the short quitting period.
Such relapses happen if you do not plan for failure. During the process of getting rid of a bad habit, slips can occur. If you get back to old ways after the first slip, you might need weeks, months or years to attempt breaking the bad habit again.
For example, smokers and alcoholic return to their usual quota when they slip once after months of quitting. Tell yourself that if you slip once, the next day you go back to your quitting ways.
Just because you took a few drags in a pub with your best friend does not mean you have to start smoking a pack again. Just because you smoked yesterday does not mean have to smoke one a day for the whole week. Just because you smoked while drinking this time, does not mean you have to smoke every time you drink.
Telling yourself that you will not relapse back to the old habit helps in maintaining control even when you slip.
A word of caution: Do not use the preparation of failure as the reason for the slip. For example, because you know you have prepared yourself to not smoke even if you slip, does not mean you can take a few drags today and stop tomorrow. If you are planning to slip, you are lying to yourself. A slip is valid only if it was completely unexpected where you give in to urge of the moment after a fight.
The best way to remain quit is to not fall back into your habit again. However, if you do slip, you start again the very next moment.
6. Keep yourself busy
Whoever said that the idle mind is a devil’s workshop, nailed it. The more time you have at your disposal, the more likely you are to indulge in a bad habit.
A lazy day turns into a reason to smoke more. A free evening with no work the next day ends up in a night of drinking. Being home alone makes a pizza taste better.
If you keep yourself busy, your mind keeps itself occupied. The thoughts of indulging in a habit reduce.
When you quit a bad habit, try to engage yourself in something you love. For example, if you wanted to learn the guitar from the beginning of time, start learning the instrument.
The busier you are doing something you love, the easier you will find to stay quit. Your thoughts do not run astray while you are occupied.
7. Use Visual, Informational Reminders which tell you how long you have remained quit
As human beings, we are visual animals. We like to look at and feel things. A habit becomes easier to develop when you associate a visual real-life thing to it.
For example, a few years ago I was trying to cultivate a habit of reading, I had kept 2 glasses with pebbles in them. Each pebble indicated 15 min. My target was to move 4 pebbles from one glass to another by the end of the day. Every time I finished 15 min of reading, I would look forward to move the pebble from one glass to another.
You can use a similar visual indicator like :
- sticky notes which say day 1, day 2 etc
- circling a calendar
- a simple excel sheet
- using an app which tells you how long you have quit smoking
- a chart paper on the wall with one tick per day you stay quit
Heck, you can even invent your own visual indicator.
Create and use your visual reminders to help you track how long have you remained quit. These seem like minor tricks that will not impact your habit, but they do make a difference.
8. Reward yourself for quitting a habit
Find ways to reward yourself for working on a bad habit. Do not wait until you get rid of the bad habit completely to reward yourself.
For example, if you are getting rid of the habit of regularly eating pizza, reward yourself the end of every week you avoided pizza. You do not have to shower fancy rewards on yourself such as a pair of shoes or sunglasses. If you do, you might run out of money before you run out of urges.
Find more economical ways to reward yourself which makes you happy.
You can reward yourself with a scoop of ice-cream instead. Fitness lovers would argue that eating ice-cream instead of pizza defeats the purpose. Two reasons why rewarding yourself with ice-cream works because:
The purpose is to get rid of the habit, not worry about calories now unless you make ice-cream a habit.
You are rewarding yourself once a week instead of pizza thrice a week. The difference in calories is paramount.
Non-materialistic rewards such as 1 hour of extra sleep are equally effective.
The frequency of rewarding yourself can vary for each habit. To give up pizza, rewarding yourself once a week might work. For quitting smoking, rewarding yourself once or even many times a day could help you stay quit.
Strike a balance such that you are neither rewarding yourself too frequently nor rewarding yourself once in a blue moon.
If you are wondering how to stop a bad habit, it is time you change your approach. You must understand the psychology of breaking bad habits. Getting rid of a habit is more in the mind than in the body. The urge to succumb to the habit starts in the mind. Your body only reacts to the urge in your head.
Keep working on your bad habit little by little. When you fail, try again. If you failed during the first attempt, do not consider yourself a failure. Trying and failing is a step ahead of not trying at all.
To give up a bad habit, you have to convince yourself in your mind first. Your body will follow.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.