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How to (Finally) Break That Bad Habit

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJanuary 22, 2019

Some habits may be hard to break, but the problem may not be the habit itself but how you’re trying to break it. Not all approaches are equally effective. For example, the odds that you can stop late night eating through sheer will power alone are vanishingly small – but that doesn’t mean the habit can’t be broken!

If you’re determined to break an unhealthy pattern, here’s a plan that’s grounded in solid principles of behavior change:

Identify the habit you want to change. This step may seem obvious, but we’re often too vague about the changes we want to make. For example, “Late night eating” doesn’t specify which foods, what quantities, or the time of night. A clearer description could be, “Eating any sweets after 8 pm.”

Use positive language to describe your goals. Positive goals are more compelling than negative ones, as they emphasize the benefits of our new behavior and don’t reinforce a feeling of depriving ourselves. So rather than saying, “I’m avoiding fast food,” for example, try something like, “I’m eating life-giving foods.”

Recognize your triggers. When we understand the often subtle forces that drive our behavior, we can figure out the function of our habit—what need it’s trying to satisfy. The first step is to identify the thoughts, emotions, and circumstances that lead to our undesired behavior. For late night eating they might include, “Sitting in front of the TV,” “Feeling bored,” and “Being anxious about work.”

Identify the outcomes of your behavior. Write down the consequences of your unhealthy habits, including both positives and negatives. The downsides might be so obvious to you that it’s easy to ignore their benefits. For example, eating desserts at night in front of the TV might cause you undesired weight gain but also provides welcome distraction and an energy boost when you’re feeling tired and vaguely uneasy.

Plan for new ways to address your needs. Once you know what’s driving your behavior and what the outcomes are, brainstorm other ways to meet your needs—without the negative effects of the unhealthy pattern. For example, if you’re feeling anxious you might do an online yoga routine rather than heading to the snack cabinet.

Make the better choice easier. Knowing your triggers allows you to make changes that lead you toward a better option. For example, you might realize that having no clean exercise clothes discourages you from working out; if you buy a couple more outfits, you’ll be less likely to skip the gym because you haven’t done laundry. You can also make the worse choice less available, like buying only enough dessert for a single serving so it’s much harder to binge.

Be clear in how you describe your new behavior. The language you use will shape the mindset you bring to your efforts. For example, “I’m trying not to let my drinking get out of hand” leaves a lot of wiggle room, especially in the face of pressure from peers, whereas “Alcohol is no longer an option for me” is clear and decisive.

Be accountable. Tell others about the changes you’re making (remembering to use clear language), which makes you more likely to commit to your desired changes. You can also be accountable to yourself by keeping track of your progress—for example, you can download a free app that makes it easy to track your new habits.

Reward yourself. Building incentives into your plan can give you a helpful nudge to follow through on the changes you’re making. It could be a small reward like a nice cup of tea for daily victories, and larger rewards like a trip to the spa for bigger milestones. Make it something you know you’ll look forward to, and be sure to follow through on your promise to yourself to have the reward.

By understanding what drives your behavior, you’ll have many ways to break unhealthy habits—while ensuring that your underlying needs are met.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author with Janet Singer of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery and author of Retrain Your Brain: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple. Dr. Gillihan maintains a private practice in Haverford, PA, where he specializes in treating OCD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

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