I looked at his journal entry and it hit me like a brick to the head. Finally! The missing piece in the “how to break bad habits puzzle”.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Back up a bit with me, will you?
Let’s face it. The year has started, the first quarter is about to go in its last month and you’re right where you were on January 1st.
You’re sick of it. You swore this was the year you’d stop. But you didn’t.
What am I talking about? You tell me!
Bad habits come in many forms, shapes and sizes. The point is you swore you’d get rid of one of them. And you didn’t. Because it’s tougher than it seems.
But you’re not alone. Last year, after having kicked this habit before, I started nail biting again. It’s not as bad as it used to be, but it still happens. When it does I immediately cut that nail, because I never bite when I just cut my nails. Then I focus on the task in front of me again.
(can you spot the culprit?)
Needless to say, the process will continue right through 2016. And 2017, 2018, 2019, and so on. No wonder only 8% of people stick to their New Year’s Resolutions. It’s hard! As depressing as that statistic might be, it’s about to change.
How do I know? Because this year, you’ll do better.
Thanks to the 3 step process I’m about to show you.
Even though it’s bad I started nail biting again in 2015, this year also brought me the solution to quitting it. After coaching over 200 people, I found a pattern.
(stats don’t lie)
All of my clients, who were successful in breaking a bad habit, for example quitting alcohol, went through this pattern in one form or another. I’m not saying it’s the end of the line. But it’s a damn good way to start. Ready to learn how to break bad habits? Ready to kick ass this year?
Here. We. Go!
Table of Contents
- Step 1: Make your environment as temptation-free as possible
- Step 2: Make it through the first 7 days (even if you fail)
- Step 3: Focus on the positive replacement
- Recap: How to break bad habits in 3 steps
Step 1: Make your environment as temptation-free as possible
The first day is always the hardest.
Guess when it’s toughest to not have a candy bar, resist a cigarette or shake your head when asked out for a drink?
About 24 hours after you’ve had the last one.
It’s easy to console yourself with “I’ve had one today already.” but the next day, when you haven’t, it’s pretty hard to justify delaying your precious gratification.
A lot of people come into coaching with a great amount of resolve, which is great, but it’s not enough.
Your willpower is finite, so don’t try to enter the ring with your bare hands (or self-control in that case).
Instead, let your willpower slowly build up as you progress. In the beginning, rely on willpower as little as possible.
You do that by simply removing temptations wherever you can. Just like Odysseus tied himself to the ship when things got serious, you need to do the same.
(no temptations, no willpower needed)
As an example of a bad habit, I’ll use drinking in this post. Here are some ideas for a temptation-free environment for that in particular.
Once you’ve made sure you’ve set up your environment in the best possible way, it’s time for step 2.
Step 2: Make it through the first 7 days (even if you fail)
The second step, when learning how to break bad habits, is making it through the first 7 days.
I don’t mean making it through the first 7 days without failing. Don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend racking up a 7 day streak before leveling up in any sort of way, but no one said this needs to happen your first week in.
What you do need to do is survive an entire week where you’re giving your absolute best to break your bad habit.
For no alcohol that means no secret beer trades in the employee parking lot with a co-worker. No chocolate truffles. And no sniffing on text markers.
The difference between success and failure of your first week is entirely in your mind.
Develop the mindset of successful people
If you give up on day 3, jump to the conclusion that “you’ll never change” anyways, and go back to having 3 beers a night, that’s when you know you lost.
But if you really put in your best effort, only to find your spouse surprising you on day 6, announcing that she got a huge raise at work, dangling an ice cold, open beer in front of your nose, and you give in to an unfortunate environment, does that mean you failed?
No, it doesn’t. As long as you get up the next morning and start right over. That’s all that matters.
The battle people lose when they quit the coaching less than one week in is not a battle with the habit.
It’s a battle with their mind.
The truth is very few people can truly let go of a bad habit from one day to the next. For over 90% of all people it’s a gradual process and chances are you’re one of them.
Therefore, the importance of the first week lies not in making it work, but in creating the mindset of making it work eventually.
That’s how winners think and that’s how to break bad habits.
So even if you fail, don’t ever give up during the first 7 days.
Minimal success + maximum encouragement
The two major factors I’ve seen influence this are:
- Having some kind of success, no matter how minor.
- Getting plenty of encouragement, positive feedback and confirmation.
Succeeding with your habit change, in whatever major or minor way, creates traction and momentum.
Here’s what you can do to help with that first part:
Make a strong commitment going in. This is why your resolve is great. It can be enough to get you through those first 24 or 48 hours, and even if you fail right afterwards, you’ll have a new achievement in your bank.
Create mini rewards. Sticking with the example of drinking: if you usually have drinks every night, then allow yourself a big fat pizza after the first 24 hours of being sober. Giving yourself an incentive, some form of gratification, will make it easier to get up and running.
Meticulously track yourself. Count the minutes, if you have to. Each time that timer takes another turn, you can feel the sense of proudness about your new sober behavior rise.
Regarding the second half of the equation, getting encouraged from others will eliminate your brain’s worst weapon: doubt.
It’s the first ace up your stupid brain’s sleeve and you know it ain’t pretty.
“What am I doing this for? Who am I trying to prove something to? Ah, one can’t hurt, right?”
These are the kinds of ugly monologues that will inevitably happen in your head and getting positive reinforcement from other people is by far the easiest way of eliminating them.
Get a coach. If your coach does his or her job right, they will not only ask you the right questions (“Do you really think drinking will make you feel better in the long run?”) at the right time, but also give you plenty of encouragement.
I usually send a lot of motivational quotes, commend my clients for every bit of progress and wish them a successful day.
Ask a friend to be your accountability buddy. This is the same as getting a coach, except that it’s free. If your friends know you well and have a good feel for this, they’ll do just as great a job as a coach.
However, they might not be as professional or reliable as a coach. But if they truly have your best interest in mind, they’ll help a great deal.
Surround yourself with motivation. Watch a motivational Youtube video every morning (here’s a recent favorite of mine a client sent to me), plaster your fridge, wall and door with post-it notes of inspirational quotes and change your desktop wallpaper (I like this one).
As in step 1, design your environment the way you need it to be. Don’t chicken out with “I have no friends and I can’t afford a coach”.
This is your responsibility, after all.
Remember: Minimal success + maximum encouragement = successful first week.
Once you’ve made it through the first week, it’s time to stop obsessing over what not to do and start thinking about what to do.
Step 3: Focus on the positive replacement
Had I been lazy when you asked me how to break bad habits, I would’ve just said: Replace them with better ones.
Lucky for you I’m one ambitious S.O.B. (Success Obsessed Blogger of course), so here it goes in full detail.
In November I couldn’t get past why one of my clients kept failing. He did great. He designed his environment really well. He tracked his habits every day. He had me for encouragement and feedback.
But somehow he kept failing.
He had been trying to kick this bad habit for several years now and he sent me all of his old journal entries to go through.
Note: I’m very grateful for his trust in me, which is why I won’t discuss any details about his habit here, in order to respect his privacy. We also make an agreement as coaches.
I looked for patterns. What did he do differently when he was successful, compared to when he wasn’t?
Halfway through one entry caught my eye. When I read it a lightbulb went off in my head.
That’s it! The missing puzzle piece!
When he was most successful, he was much more focused on the positive replacement for his bad habit, than on NOT doing the bad habit.
In hindsight it made perfect sense.
When you’re trying to break a bad habit, eventually it has to make way for a better habit.
Switch from a negative to a positive feedback loop
In the first few days you have to pay attention like a fox to not accidentally slip into your bad behavior.
But once you’re more aware of your behavior and you’re in the mindset of changing it, obsessing over your bad habit will only leave you stuck in a vicious cycle.
You’ll constantly try to catch yourself, wait until you finally do and then tell yourself “I knew I would do this again.”
This is called a negative feedback loop, where bad begets worse and the longer you’re stuck in it, the worse you’ll get.
What you need to break a bad habit is a positive feedback loop. Remember when you thought:
“Once I stop drinking I’ll finally do X?”
That’s what you should focus on after the first week.
For example, here’s the difference between a negative and a positive feedback loop for drinking alcohol.
Negative feedback loop:
- Monday: I really hope I don’t drink this week. I better not. But that cocktail party on Wednesday could be dangerous.
- Wednesday: I don’t know if I can make it through that party tonight without drinking. But no more than one!
- Thursday: Dammit! I knew I would go overboard again. How could I? I just suck at this. I suck, I suck, I suck!
Positive feedback loop:
- Monday: I’ll do my best not to drink this week. I mean it. I don’t even have time. I want to run today, on Wednesday, and on Friday. But that cocktail party on Wednesday could be dangerous.
- Wednesday: I don’t know if I can make it through that party tonight without drinking. So I’ll make a plan. I’ll drive there myself so I have an excuse not to drink!
- Thursday: Okay, so Shelly gave me a ride after work and my excuse went to hell, so I had a few cocktails. To make up for it I’ll run today AND tomorrow. Also, next time I’ll go running INSTEAD of going to the party in the first place.
Entirely different right?
Here’s what a positive feedback loop looks like, generally speaking.
Good habits to focus on for your positive feedback loop
I’m sure you already have an idea what you want to do once you kick that bad habit you’re fighting right now.
But maybe you can level up your habit game even further, and start playing in the major league.
Gretchen Rubin talks about “The Essential Seven”, which are the habits most important to develop for most people.
They come down to:
- Following a healthy diet
- Exercising regularly
- Building wealth by saving and spending consciously
- Being happy through enjoying life and living in the moment
- Being productive and not procrastinating
- Simplifying life to stay clear and organized
- Building better relationships with other people
If you’re trying to quit caffeine or junk food, why not combine it with starting to cook more at home?
When you’re handing over the beer bottle, why not use that newly found time in the evenings to start working on a side project?
And so on.
So if you feel stuck in a negative feedback loop, pick one of these, stop beating yourself up and start focusing on the positive!
Recap: How to break bad habits in 3 steps
I know this was a lot to process, so I’ll sum it up real quick.
Step 1: Make your environment as temptation-free as possible
Step 2: Survive the first week and use minimal success + maximum encouragement to develop a great mindset
Step 3: Pick a great good habit to focus on in order to get out of the negative feedback loop, and into a positive one
Ta-da, that’s how to break bad habits in 3 simple (yet not easy) steps.
But wait, there’s more!
I’ve created an even more in-depth system to help you implement this, as a step-by-step plan on coach.me, that lets you go through this exact pattern, one day at a time.
You will be taken through:
- Deciding on a bad habit to break
- Setting up your ideal, temptation-free environment
- The first week to create a great mindset with strategies like mini rewards, maximum encouragement, and more
- Picking a new, good habit as a replacement
- 3 more weeks to really make sure you keep focusing on the good habit and stay inside the positive feedback loop
I thought so!
You can check it out here: