Productivity

Why Starting Small Is the Best Way to Break Bad Habits

Illustration: Aliya Ghare

It’s the start of a new year—and, this time around, an entirely new decade. Everybody’s talking about the resolutions they’re hoping to stick to. But, instead of implementing something new in your routine, you’re hoping to do the opposite. You’re eager to let go of some baggage and bad habits that drag you down.

Maybe you have a lifestyle change in mind, like finally quitting smoking or saying goodbye to those weekly fast food indulgences. Or, perhaps you’ve set your sights on a habit that’s more work-focused, like stopping procrastinating or overworking.

No matter what you have in mind, experience has taught you this: kicking a bad habit to the curb is an uphill battle, and it’s going to take a lot of effort, commitment, and even some frustration to pull this change off. 

Don’t panic yet. While habits are brutal to break, they aren’t impossible. In this article, we’re digging into everything you need to know about your bad habits—including why they’re so enticing and some of the best ways you can bid them adieu once and for all. 

Why Is Breaking Bad Habits So Darn Tough?

If bad habits were easy to break, nobody would have any, right? We’d all eat healthy, make it to the gym at least three times per week, and maintain an adequate work-life balance.

Unfortunately, that’s not reality. But, what is it about bad habits that makes them so enticing—even when we know they’re, well, bad for us? There are a few things at play here. 

1. Bad Habits Are Comfortable

Even if we know they’re detrimental, there’s a comfort level associated with bad habits. They’re sort of like our brain’s version of autopilot. And, when you’ve repeated a behavior for a while, it becomes a part of your routine.

That makes it that much harder to cut it out. Sometimes rote learning just takes over and you default to that behavior—before you even realize what’s happening. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 40% of the time, we aren’t even thinking about what we’re doing. We’re just falling back on habitual behaviors. 

So, putting an end to a habit requires a lot of conscious thought, a high degree of alertness, and self-imposed interruptions into your seemingly automatic thought processes. 

2. Bad Habits Are Still Socially Accepted

Everybody knows a diet filled with grease and sugar is bad for you. Lighting up those cigarettes isn’t doing your organs any favors. Increased stress levels from constantly overworking are wreaking havoc on your emotional, mental, and even physical health.

Yet, so many people still stick with those routines—and much of that is because those behaviors (while negative) are still largely socially accepted. 

There are an estimated one billion smokers on earth. 30% of people worldwide are obese or overweight. 91% of employees admit to feeling somewhat burned out. 

That means these bad habits don’t necessarily bring along a stigma or sense of isolation that you’d think they would. In some cases, they actually offer a sense of community.

“We get a sense of belonging that is important to us. We can see ourselves as part of a social structure; it’s very hard to change a behavior if it is still accepted socially,” says Dr. Cindy Jardine, an assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada about the research on bad habits she conducted. 

“For instance, stress is bad for us, yet we wear it as a badge of honor. It is seen as a socially desirable thing to be overworking. We don’t seem to have the same respect for people who work a 40-hour week.”

3. Bad Habits Offer Some Sort of Reward

Every single behavior has some sort of payoff for us—otherwise we wouldn’t bother doing it. But, when it comes to something that we know is negative, what’s the benefit there?

Well, put simply, bad habits feel good in the moment. That greasy cheeseburger, while not aligned with our nutritional goals, tastes good. Working overtime, while not compatible with our ideal work-life balance, makes us feel accomplished.

This immediate reward reinforces something that psychologists call the habit loop. Your brain connects that instant gratification to the behavior, which reinforces the automatic process of you doing it again. Before long, it becomes one of those things you start doing without any conscious decision-making involved. 

4. Bad Habits Cause a Battle in Your Brain 

From a purely scientific perspective, there’s a lot that goes into bad habits too. We’ll spare you the detailed neurology lesson, but here’s the rub: your brain’s circuits for goal-directed or habit-directed actions compete for control in the area of your brain that makes decisions.

Basically, your brain is at war with itself about whether to make choices with your end goal in mind or to rely on learned and reinforced behaviors.

And, if we know anything, it’s that science (particularly when it’s related to how your brain is hardwired) can be tough to beat. 

So…How Can You Break Your Bad Habits (and Make The Change Stick)? 

Obviously, you have your work cut out for you when it comes to ditching your bad habits. So, how do you actually make it happen? 

Many experts assert that the best tip is surprisingly simple: start small. 

Breaking a bad habit can feel daunting and endless, particularly if it’s a behavior that you’ve indulged in for a while. Kicking it to the curb in one fell swoop feels like a major life change.

But, splitting it into smaller chunks makes the entire process more manageable. For example, imagine that you want to put an end to your bad habit of overworking. Rather than setting yourself up with the unrealistic expectation of immediately hacking your workweek down to a reasonable number, set a goal of leaving the office by 5:30PM two or three days per week.

Once you’ve mastered that? Add another day. And then another. You’ll wade into that life change slowly, rather than trying to adjust to unfamiliar circumstances all at once.

There are a couple of reasons that this approach is so effective. The first is that a dramatic change can be stressful, but these tiny changes have a better chance of sneaking under the radar of your stress response. 

“Simplify any change you make to where it goes under your stress response,” explains Jenny C. Evans, author of The Resilience rEvolution, in an article for Lifehacker. “To the point where you think, ‘That’s so easy, it’s stupid!’ Then you’ll be able to make successful long-term changes.”

Additionally, starting small also offers more opportunities to reward yourself. Rather than needing to wait until you’ve made the major life change in its entirety to feel gratified, you can stop to celebrate when you leave the office on time for a week or stay away from your cigarettes during a stressful day. 

That all ties back to something called the progress principle, which asserts that of all of the possible things that can boost our emotions and perceptions, the most important is feeling as if we’re making progress in meaningful work. 

So, once you’ve dominated one small change, the snowball will keep rolling and that momentum will build on itself. 

3 Other Tips for Kicking Your Bad Habits to the Curb

Starting small can make a big difference. But, it doesn’t hurt to have a few more strategies on your side. Here are a few other tips to help you break your bad habits once and for all. 

1. Know Your Habit Triggers

While your brain can kick into autopilot, there’s usually some sort of event or emotion that serves as a trigger for a lot of your bad habits.

For example, do you overeat when you feel stressed? Or, do you have the tendency to pile too much work on your plate whenever anybody asks you to take something on?

If you aren’t sure what causes that behavior to strike, spend some time preparing before diving in and changing that habit. Keep a journal or dedicate some reflection time to pay close attention to that habit and identify the moments when you find yourself defaulting to that routine. 

It’s far easier to change a behavior if you know what serves as the impetus for it. So, see if you can spot any trends in the root cause of that bad habit. That way, you can change how you respond to those triggers—or even do your best to avoid them altogether. 

2. Find a Greater Reward

There’s probably one major reason you want to part ways with a bad habit: you know that it isn’t good for you. But, as the previous research demonstrated, that knowledge alone isn’t always enough inspiration to ditch bad behaviors—particularly those that are still socially acceptable.

You need a greater source of motivation than simply avoiding something that’s bad for you. Find something that actually resonates with you.

Maybe putting an end to your overworking tendencies because you know stress is detrimental doesn’t really make a difference to you. But, stopping overworking so you have more time to invest in your hobbies strikes a chord. Go with that!

Beyond drawing a line to a greater purpose, you can also identify smaller rewards and incentives to keep yourself on track—like treating yourself to your favorite dinner when you’ve left the office on time all week.

Worried that you’re bribing yourself to do something good, when you should be able to muster up that motivation on your own? That’s not exactly true. Rewards aren’t a replacement for your autonomous motivation (the fancy name for motivation that comes from internal sources)—they actually serve as a supplement to it. 

Research has found that “small rewards can help foster autonomous motivation and serve as a tool for behavioral change.” 

3. Show Yourself Some Kindness

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: breaking a bad habit is tough work. That means you aren’t going to do it perfectly. It’s a harsh, but true reality of making a positive change.

You’re going to need to be prepared to be patient and show yourself some kindness and forgiveness when you have a slip up.

If and when you fall off the wagon, resist the urge to beat yourself up. Several studies have shown that type of negative self-talk can increase your stress and decrease your self-esteem (and that certainly won’t help you).

Instead, step back, reflect on what happened, and ask yourself a few questions:

  • What happened that made you return to that bad habit?
  • How did you feel after indulging in that bad habit? 
  • How can you avoid something similar happening in the future? 

That’s a far more productive use of your time and mental energy, and will hopefully help you take steps forward—as opposed to spiraling into a cycle of self-loathing (and ultimately returning to that same habit for comfort). 

Goodbye Bad Habits, Hello Fresh Start

Turning the calendar page to a brand new year is a time when we all start thinking about a fresh start. But, rather than setting a traditional resolution for yourself, why not try kicking one of your worst habits to the curb?

We get it—it’s way easier said than done. However, it’s certainly not impossible. You just need to set yourself up for success. 

Start small by identifying tiny changes you can make to ditch that bad habit in pieces. Then, implement the other strategies we discussed here, and you’ll be well on your way to a habit change that actually sticks.

And the best news? You’re bound to be more successful than those who set resolutions. Those are said to have a failure rate of about 80%. 

 

BY CHARLOTTE GRAINER


 

This article is part of our series on change: why do we care so much about it, what do we get wrong about it, and is it really as great as we make it sound?

In our series, we’ve chronicled personal change, change in the workplace, and a handful of experiments on changing behaviours. In so doing, we hope to elucidate why we care so much about change.

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By On January 6, 2020