Perhaps you have a bad 4 pm donut habit you keep promising you’ll drop but somehow never do. Or maybe you can’t stop nibbling your fingernails when you watch TV. It stops now! Whatever bad habits you’ve been holding onto, you can use the following simple technique to weed out unhealthy, unproductive or just plain unwanted behavior. And the best part is it only takes a few minutes.
Step 1: Zoom In on the Behavior
To begin, you’ll need to understand exactly which behavior you’re trying to get rid of. Take a piece of paper and write down the precise set of actions you want to remove from your life. This might seem simple, but be as thorough as possible. For example, “I will no longer have a cigarette every day on my lunch break.” Be specific, and write your sentences as though they’ve already happened. Psychologically, this shifts your focus to solutions rather than the current situation you’re trying to move away from.
Step 2: Identify Your Triggers
Next, look at everything that comes before you slip into your bad habit. Even if you don’t see any causal connection, make a list of everything that precedes the behavior. To make sure you’re not missing anything, jot down:
The people involved
The time of day
In our example, you might note that you smoke a cigarette every workday, in the office, at around lunch time. Smoking usually accompanies getting lunch or coffee, and you usually feel tired around this time and want a break and to socialize with colleagues. That’s step two! You’ve identified the triggers that instigate your bad habit.
Step 3: Identify Your Rewards
Now, fast forward to everything that happens after you engage in the unwanted behavior. Look closely at the rewards that come from this behavior. These can be emotional, financial, social or purely physical. In our example, the reward is a feeling of relaxation and connection to a social group.
You have just identified the rewards that reinforce your habit and make it more likely that you’ll return to do it again and again.
Step 4: Deactivate Your Triggers and Reprogram Your Rewards
Now that you understand why and how your habit works, it’s time to dismantle it. Simply relying on willpower is unlikely to be effective. After all, your habit took a long time to develop, and it’s there for a reason. It will take some time to kick the habit, so be patient.
First, go through your list of triggers and next to each one, write down a way that you can avoid it. Look at how you could deactivate the triggers in our example:
The place – make sure you’re out of the office when people usually smoke.
The people involved – socialize with another group of colleagues who don’t smoke.
The time of day – schedule your break time later or earlier, or arrange to be in meetings during “smoke time.”
The emotions – call a friend or family member to chat or take breaks to relax during the day, instead of smoking to relax.
The activities – bring a packed lunch so that buying lunch doesn’t lead to a smoke break.
Now, you don’t necessarily have to implement all these changes. Pick the most workable ones and go with those. Also, you don’t need to avoid your triggers forever, just for as long as it takes to break your habit and form new ones. Getting rid of triggers won’t make the temptation disappear, but it will make it much easier to resist that temptation.
Step 5: Starting Fresh
The next step is to actively make your old habit unpleasant while shifting rewards to another, different habit. It’s not enough to get rid of a bad behavior, you have to replace it. Look at the kind of reward your bad habit is giving you and find something else that can make you feel the same.
In our example, you could find a hobby you really love and do that for a few minutes every lunch break. In this way, you attach new positive reinforcement to a different behavior. Simultaneously weaken the rewards associated with your old habit with negative reinforcement. Perhaps you tell your friends or close colleagues that you’ll pay them each $5 for every cigarette you smoke. This adds an element of fun and gets everyone on board with your plan.
It only takes 10 minutes to write down your habit, zoom in on why and how you have it, and commit to making the necessary changes. The trick is to keep making those choices, over and over. With this method, you can try to understand the anatomy of your bad habit, and find smart ways to work around it. After a few weeks of this hack, your new habits will take root. You may be surprised at how easily bad habits can be dropped from your life, forever!