Click for parts one and two
When trying to implement permanent habit change, it will usually fall into one of two categories. Things I want to start doing, or Things I want to stop doing.
The title of this post is about giving up bad habits, so I'll start with "Things I want to stop doing".
1. Identify and measure the habit you want to eliminate. Be realistic about how much you engage in it. Think back over the previous few days to gauge how often it occurs. Do you smoke? Drink? Bite your nails? How much/how many per day? If you really struggle to identify frequency, I suggest you keep a log - although note that this may be an underestimate, as once we're aware that we're logging our habits, we are less likely to engage in them. You could also ask a partner or close friend to keep the log for you, if you're comfortable with that.
Your logs will come in handy later, as they are a useful way to measure progress.
Sometimes, this self awareness is enough to significantly shift the frequency of our habits. Logging our behaviour is powerful, as it requires us to make a conscious decision to engage in that habit rather than simply doing it mindlessly.
If you're like me, though, you probably need a little more help. Onto step 2.
2. Identify your triggers. Your logs may be useful here. Do you tend to smoke while you're on the phone? Do you drink after work? Do you eat fast food only at 3am after a big night out? Bad habits tend to occur in context, as part of a chain reaction - so identifying the trigger point is critical to making permanent changes.
3. Modify your trigger, which will break the chain reaction. You could physically change your environment so that it is difficult to engage in the habit (e.g. Taking all phone calls at your desk so that you cannot light up a cigarette). Avoiding the trigger is also helpful (e.g. Taking a different route home so that you avoid the favourite fast food outlet). You could also engage in a new behavior that is incongruous with the old habit (e.g. Painting your fingernails so that you can't dig into that family-sized bag of chips at 11pm).
Changing habits is really about changing the environment around the habit.
4. Take action. This is a tough step. And it won't be successful every time. Continue logging your behaviour, and identify the patterns that aren't working for you. You may have been unrealistic with some of your changes, like expecting yourself to go for a jog every time you want a cigarette. It is important, though, to recognise and celebrate your successes. If you managed to avoid the 3pm chocolate fix for three days in a row, identify why - and continue doing it!
The process of habit change can be difficult, particularly for habits that are long term or well-entrenched. Some habits are harder to break than others. One "slip" doesn't undo everything. In fact, "slips" are helpful in helping us identify what is and isn't working - as long as you learn something from the experience!!
Implementing new habits is generally easier, provided that you are consistent. I would suggest scheduling time for your new habit, just as you would an appointment, or you may like to establish a regular time for your new habit (e.g. Exercising for thirty minutes every day at 6pm after work). The important thing here is to schedule the habit and stick to it, particularly for the first few weeks. You might like to try a thirty-day challenge. I've done a thirty-day challenge once before for yoga, and three years later I'm still a regular practitioner. For 2013 I have plans to try other challenges, yet to be decided.... (stay tuned!)