At the start of 2020, I decided to make a few changes in my life. These aren’t big changes mind you, mostly just the breaking of a few bad habits. While I have had a various amount of success, the process of habit-breaking itself has taught me a great deal.
Before I share this newly found habit-breaking wisdom, I should note that not everyone will find success in my methods. In my research for this article, I found this list, which takes a full-on different approach to habit-breaking. My tips on habit-breaking worked for me, but they might not work for you. Still, I do hope you find some nuggets of wisdom in my experiences.
With that said, here are my tips on habit-breaking. Just remember, your mileage may vary.
Care about breaking your habit!
This tip almost always determines if I’m successful or not at breaking any given habit. If I don’t care about a habit, I mean really care about breaking a habit, I tend to give up a lot easier.
By caring about a habit, I don’t just mean “I should do that” or “I know breaking that habit” will benefit me.” Those are fine motivations for some individuals, but for me, these motivations are just don’t motivate me enough. If I truly want to break a habit, I must want to break the habit. My reasoning must be more than just theoretical knowledge. For me to truly care about breaking a habit, I must acknowledge tangible ways this habit hurts me or those I care about.
Here’s a great example of truly wanting to break a habit. I slam the trunk of my partner’s car all the time. While I know I shouldn’t slam the trunk because it will eventually damage the car, that theoretical knowledge is not enough motivation for me to stop this habit. In fact, the lock on her last car was damaged because of constantly slamming the trunk shut.
These theoretical facts are great, but the facts don’t make me want to change. What does make me want to change is the fact that I care about my partner, and I care about her possessions. By looking at the impact my trunk slamming has on my partner, I gain the want to change.
Habit-breaking requires awareness of the habit.
Before I break a habit, I have to be aware that of the habit. Habits involve subconscious and automatic responses. Let’s look at the trunk slamming habit again. When I close the trunk of my partner’s car, I don’t automatically think about it – I just do it. Heck, I’ve been slamming vehicle doors and trunks my entire life. I remember my dad getting mad at me for slamming the door of the family car when I was a kid. Before I could break my habit, I had to be aware of my automatic actions.
One moment that made me aware of the habit of slamming the trunk came when my partner’s dad was riding in the backseat. As I instinctively slammed the trunk, he mentioned how hard I slammed it. A few days later, I talked with my partner, and she confirmed that I slam the trunk every single time. Wow, uh, oops! I knew I needed to change, and so I told her to ALWAYS tell me when I slam the trunk from that point forward.
Now, every time I slam the trunk, my partner says one word to me
(in a kind and soft way): “gentle.” This is exactly how I need to be reminded. Kind, and gentle. If my partner screamed at me, I might not want to change.
Within a few weeks of my partner saying “gentle” after I slammed her trunk, I started to catch myself. As I got into her car, I started to say “gentle” or “I closed the trunk too hard” before my partner could say anything. This is progress – this means I am starting to notice my automatic and subconscious actions.
Experimentation is part of habit-breaking.
Once I started catching myself after the fact, It wasn’t long until I noticed myself before I slammed the trunk of my partner’s car. Oh, but this is far from the end of the war. The war had just begun.
One thing I also had to – I don’t know my own strength. This is probably why I started slamming vehicle doors and trunks, to begin with. I realized I must overcompensate when I want to be gentle, or else I might break something. Thus, when I started to catch myself before I slammed the trunk, I would close the trunk as gently as I could. Of course, I would close the trunk so gingerly, the latch wouldn’t catch the trunk. How frustrating!
It would always take me two tries to close the trunk. Unfortunately, my second attempt to close the trunk would still be too hard. It took me quite some time to find the balance between slamming the trunk and closing the trunk too lightly. I had to experiment quite a bit. Heck, I’m still experimenting.
How does Balance help in other habits?
Most people don’t have a trunk slamming habit they’re trying to break. Most people’s habits are things like eating before bed or drinking too much during the weekend. Finding a balance through experimentation is just as important in these types of habits. More importantly, one must find their limits.
Let’s take the habit of eating before bed. Say you go to bed at midnight, and you want to stop eating after 8 PM. That means there will be four hours between your last bite of food and your bedtime. Can you handle four hours without food? When do you start to feel hunger twinges, and will those twinges bother or tempt you to fall back into your habit of eating before bed? Again, you can only know the answers to these questions by experimentation. Maybe you can handle the twinges, or maybe you will find yourself raiding the fridge a half hour before bed.
If you realize that your endgame is unrealistic, you will need to adjust your goals. Perhaps, instead, you should say “I won’t eat after 9 PM.” Maybe for you, that’s a more realistic goal.
Building a tolerance
One change I said I would make in 2020 is to build a bit more of a tolerance to spicy foods – while building tolerance is not a habit, it does follow similar rules. My partner likes a lot of spicy (to me) foods, and I’m a bit of a wimp. This means our choices in food can get quite complicated. She wants spicy, and I can’t handle it. While she’s more than accommodating, for my needs, it’s only fair that I also accommodate her food preferences if I can.
I’ve failed thus far at this 2020 goal, as my spice tolerance remains about the same. However, the other day I had an epiphany on the subject. I had not set any realistic and concrete goals. We were eating at a BBQ place, that carries several sauces – all varying in spiciness. I decided that instead of going for the hottest sauce, I would make a goal of being able to handle the middle-grade spice by the end of the year. This is an obtainable goal.
Back to eating before bed. Say you’ve adjusted your goal – you will not eat after 9 PM. If you’re successful, keep up the good work. However, your initial goal of 8 PM might not be out of reach. Maybe you just need to build a tolerance to your hunger twinges. Experimenting will help you build this tolerance. After a month or so of the 9 PM food curfew, start moving your food curfew back in ten-minute increments. Move your food curfew back to 8:50. When you get used to ten minutes of hunger twinges, move your food curfew to 8:40. Repeat these steps in ten-minute intervals, and pretty soon you will find you’re no longer eating after 8 PM and the twinges no longer bother you. Congratulations, you just built your tolerance!
The Road to habit-breaking is long, you will regress!
As I hinted before, I have not quite broken myself of the habit of slamming the trunk of my partner’s car. Just the other day, I slammed the trunk without even thinking (until after the fact). As I got into the car, I noted how hard I slammed the trunk. At that moment, I was tempted to give up on this particular exercise, I’ll just regress into my old habit. I still feel tempted, even now, however, as tempted as I am, I know I need to keep trying. I know I need to keep progressing, despite the setbacks. And hey! I still caught myself after the fact. That’s still progress!
My point – don’t berate yourself if you regress in your habits. If you have a momentary lapse into an old habit, just move on. If you’ve got a habit, chances are you’ve developed this habit over the course of several years, even decades. Your subconscious still has that habit on file, and it will until a similar (and hopefully a healthier) habit takes its place. That takes time, but it will happen if you keep trying.
Celebrate and reward your habit-breaking!
In my research for this article, I found something I want to try. I want to reward myself when I accomplish even the most minor of milestones. I want to celebrate as I progress in my habit-breaking. After all, a dopamine rush to the brain, associated with a good job is sure to provide some sort of positive reinforcement.
I encourage you all to do the same thing. Go to that restaurant you like, see a movie, or do whatever will give you a happy little dopamine rush when you notice progress in your habit-breaking. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, maybe do something simple. Tell your partner to commend you. Heck, commend yourself if that’s what works for you. Just celebrate in a way that works for you. After all, you worked hard to achieve that progress. You deserve a treat.