Many of us find habits very hard to break. There are all sorts of articles and theories on the internet and in books and journals on why this is.
I have my own theory and that is, you have to REALLY, REALLY want to make the change. Sometimes, the pain of not breaking the habits need to be bigger than the pain of carrying on as you are. Once the pain is big enough, then breaking the habit becomes infinitely easier. You mind needs to be changed first.
For example, in my late teens and until the age of 21, I smoked cigarettes. Lots of my friends did, it seemed perfectly OK and being young, I never thought too much about the long term consequences. In fact, back then, I often wasn't thinking about too much other than what was happening in my social life at the weekend!
Then (age 21) I got pregnant with my first son. And I stopped smoking instantly. No withdrawal symptoms, cravings or difficulties in doing so. I stopped instantly. Though I (clearly) wasn't too worried about my own health at the time, the thought that I might hurt my unborn child was too painful for me to contemplate and the decision to stop came easily and effortlessly. This is why I believe that wanting something badly enough is the best motivation for breaking a habit.
I don't think I'm unique in this belief and I have witnessed other evidence. A friend of mine told me about her rock bottom moment with alcohol, how it made her turn to AA. She hasn't drunk alcohol since. Another friend saw a photo of herself looking older than she was, which led her to a new healthy diet and exercise regime - she looks ten years younger than her age today! Another friend quit drugs at the painful thought of losing a relationship due to the consequences which had started to impact others around him.
I'm not suggesting that any of my friends found it as easy to change their lives as I did with quitting smoking, but with each of them there was a defining moment involved. It was when quitting the habit or changing the lifestyle, became easier or more palatable than dealing with the consequences of carrying on in the same way.
For those of us who have not reached a defining pain point and don't necessarily want to wait!, here are my five top tips for breaking a habit an they all begin with the letter "R" to make them easier to remember!
So you want to run a marathon but you don't even own a pair of running shoes. Don't worry, as Nike said, you can do it! I was in the same position ten years ago and I ran a (OK it was a half) marathon. It took me 8 months to train and I did it by starting with a small, realistic goal. The small goal was to run around the block (about 1 km). I added a km to my longest training run, every couple of weeks building up to 18km a week before the 21km race. There is nothing wrong with having a big goal in mind, in fact, the bigger the better! (another blog post required for that topic I feel!) but for the most chance of success, it's good to be realistic in your time frame for achieving the goal, and to set a manageable mini-goal/s, given the resources and ability you currently have.
When trying to cut something out such as cigarettes, caffeine, sugar or sleeping tablets, cold turkey works for many but it's just one solution. Another way which feels more possible for many people is to REDUCE the item gradually. For example, if you want to stop smoking and you currently smoke 15 a day, cut down by 2 cigarettes a day each week. Within 2 months you will have reduced to zero. Even cutting down on a negative habit will usually bring big health benefits so consider this as an option if stopping altogether feels impossible right now. Slow and steady wins the race!
Habits are harder to break when they are associated with something, for example, if you always light a cigarette when you get into the car or you always have a biscuit (or a packet of biscuits!) with a cup of tea in the evening. When reducing or quitting a habit it's a good idea to have a REPLACEMENT activity ready and prepared in advance. e.g. keep chewing gum in the car and pop it in your mouth instead of a cigarette. Empty the biscuit tin and fill it with a healthier snack items such as mini bags of nuts, raisins or plain popcorn or even better, get out the crossword or Suduko instead of munching with your cuppa.
Rewarding yourself for breaking a habit can be very motivating. One example, if you go to the pub and stick to soft drinks, put the extra money you would have spent on alcohol into a jar when you get home. When the money has built up you can treat yourself to some retail therapy and feel good about doing so and for making healthy choices. Other rewards might include: going to see a new movie, spending a few hours (or a whole day) by yourself and doing whatever you choose (not involving the habit of course!), joining a club or taking up a new hobby you have always wanted to try, taking a long hot bath with candles and music, giving someone a massage, facial or manicure and asking them to return the favour, going somewhere new (restaurant, walk in the country, visit a new town, gallery, museum etc), planning a holiday... you get the idea! Write a list of you own favourite treats ready to reward yourself on a regular basis as you break your habit.
Finally, relax about the outcome. If you break the habit for while but go back to it, don't beat yourself up and resign yourself to failure. For example, if you eat healthily all week then succumb to pizza and ice-cream on Saturday it's not the end of the world! Instead of giving up, just start eating healthily again at the next opportunity. Small changes will add up to big changes over time but trying to get the end result too quickly is not realistic. Be more relaxed and kinder to yourself. Know that you can and will break this habit, reach your goal or carry on with a good habit.
A final note on breaking a habit. It's good to get into the mode of feeling what it's like to have achieved your goal or kicked your habit. Close your eyes and create a mental picture of yourself achieving your goal and really imagine being in the mind and body of the happy, healthy new you. To further help: write the goal down on paper, have a vision board with photos of you achieving your goal, put post it notes around your home, on the fridge or on your phone with reminders, motivational quotes and affirmations and tell others what you are doing so they can support you in quitting your bad habit or reaching your goal.
Imagine now that you have done it. You have quite the habit. How good do you feel? What's next?