It’s difficult for most of us to acknowledge a bad habit or, even worse, an addiction. So I was a bit surprised when someone recently told me they wouldn’t change their diet because they were addicted to junk food.
A bad habit is a consistent pattern of behavior that negatively impacts oneself or others. As a severely bad habit, addiction often requires therapeutical intervention.
If the person I spoke with is genuinely addicted to junk food, I’d recommend counseling. However, for help with overcoming garden-variety bad habits, I’ve come up with a three-step system.
How to Get Rid of Bad Habits, Rule 1: Replace
My calling coffee a bad habit might offend some people (sorry, Katie!). But this year, I decided to end a morning coffee routine I’d enjoyed most of my adult life.
In my earlier post on forming new habits, I mentioned a study that emphasized preparation as the key to success. The same goes for breaking habits. Bad dietary habits usually develop because of environmental triggers.
Imagine someone who’s been starting their day with Kellog’s Honey Smacks (57 grams of added sugar per 100 grams) and whole milk and washing it down with a liter of Mountain Dew.
When they wake up in the morning, the easiest thing to eat is what they ate yesterday.
They walk into the identical kitchens they walked into yesterday morning. Open the same cupboard, find the same cereal box. Open the same fridge and grab what they’ve always grabbed.
This behavior is habitual. The first thing we must accept about how to get rid of bad habits is that we must replace them with new ones.
We do this by changing something about the environment. Say, replace the box of cereal with oatmeal in the cupboard, the whole milk with soy milk in the refrigerator, and the Mountain Dew with berry-infused water.
When the next morning comes around, grab the replacement!
By becoming entirely plant-based, I’ve replaced the big cholesterol-filled omelet I used to eat every morning with fruits and vegetables.
My breakfast now looks like this:
- First, I down five to 10 handfuls of leafy greens like spinach, arugula, kale, or mixed greens.
- Then I eat hummus with carrots, celery, or bell peppers.
When my family’s ready for breakfast, I make everyone a big smoothie with fresh bananas, frozen berries, powdered greens, ground flax seeds, and unsweetened soy (or another nut) milk.
What about coffee? The two big cups I used to have each morning sometimes triggered a headache later in the day. And a 2003 study indicated that I wasn’t the only one.
Nearly all of its participants reported no more headaches when they gave up coffee.
Further, a 2020 study found a strong correlation between coffee and other addictive behaviors.
After deciding drinking coffee was a bad habit in my life, I did more than just stop it. I planned to replace it with green tea starting on January 1, 2021.
Not everything about my environment has changed. I still smell the wonderful aroma of my wife’s morning cup. But instead of joining her, I head straight for the boxes of tea.
In other words, I decided that getting rid of my coffee consumption habit required replacing it with tea.
Do you have a bad habit you’d like to break?
Then ask yourself:
“The next time I’m in the same environment or situation that triggers my bad habit, what will l replace the bad habit with?”
How to Get Rid of Bad Habits, Rule 2: Refocus
For many years, I had the bad habit of whiling the hours away scrolling through Facebook or Instagram. What was causing it?
and other psychological stressors.
It’s easy to avoid thinking about what makes us uncomfortable, and a bad habit is often our primary avoidance strategy.
Social media was distracting me from my emotions.
I wasn’t alone. Research on boredom and stress since Covid-19, found that an increase in social media use was directly correlated with psychological distress.
We develop many of our bad habits to escape facing our inner turmoil. So, what can we do about it?
When tempted to follow a bad habit, refocus on our emotions. Focus our attention and curiosity on what’s really going on inside.
Simply appreciating and validating our emotions, often diffuses them, so we no longer feel the need to turn to distracting behavior.
My goal is to refocus on my emotions. To do that, I must be willing to explore their underlying cause. In my experience, the most challenging part of refocusing is asking, “What’s behind these feelings?”
In such situations, I find taking a few deep breaths helps.
I also read:
- Language of Emotions: What Your Feelings are Trying to Tell You by Karla McLaren
- The Choice: Embracing the Possible by Edith Eger.
Both books helped me understand and embrace my emotions no matter the situation.
One of the results of being able to recognize and analyze stress and boredom was that I found it much easier to stop bad habits, such as social media scrolling.
Except for a few work-related searches, I haven’t scrolled through social media since before Covid-19!
I’ve also experienced more emotional equilibrium, than at any other time in my life.
Do you have a bad habit you’d like to conquer?
Can you use the temptation to give in to a bad habit as a reminder to refocus on validating your emotions and addressing the underlying issues?
How to Get Rid of Bad Habits, Rule 3: Reward
Through my teens and early 20s, I was in great shape. However, by my mid-30s, I’d lost my impressive physique. The washboard abs of my youth had disappeared under a pinchable layer of fat.
Having my family members see me shirtless was embarrassing.
The reward for eating sugar, fat, and salt is instantly gratified tastebuds. The reward for choosing healthier foods usually takes longer.
I needed motivation for making food and fitness decisions that would reward me later.
The marshmallow study first conducted in the 1960s found that when given a choice, most preschoolers aged 3 to 5 ate a single marshmallow immediately, rather than wait for a larger but delayed treat.
Long-term follow-up of these kids revealed that the ones who delayed their gratification were more likely to:
- handle stress more effectively
- have higher SAT scores
- have healthier weights
- have more positive relationships
- be more socially responsible
I wish I’d been like the kids who waited for the bigger reward. But I was in my 40s before I finally got a grasp on how to get rid of bad habits and succeed with good ones.
Bad habits give us temporary rewards now. Good habits tend to provide us with longer-lasting rewards in the future.
In becoming entirely plant-based, I struggled most with giving up cheese and butter. The saturated fat and salt weren’t helping my weight-loss goals.
So, to beat my desire for instant gratification, I concentrated on the bigger reward of getting back in shape.
A quick look in the mirror or glance at my tummy was all the reminder I needed to realize sacrificing the temporary reward for the long-lasting one was worth it.
I completely gave up cheese and butter nearly three years ago. When I go shirtless nowadays, all I get is “Oohs” and “Ahhs” from my wife and kids. I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, and I couldn’t ask for a better reward!
Do you have a bad habit you’d like to stop?
“When my habit tempts me, is there something else that can remind me of a better reward in the future?”
Figuring out how to get rid of bad habits is essential for our health, the health of our families, and our society. Addiction to junk food is a global problem.
It’s time for us to take steps to:
- Prepare in advance to replace our bad habits with good ones.
- When tempted, refocus our attention on the underlying feelings triggering the bad habits and validate them.
- Look forward to better rewards instead of yielding to instant gratification.
The person who commented to me about his addiction to junk food is a friend. If he brings up kicking it the next time we speak, I’ll ask him to consider these three steps: