Let’s face it, we all have an innate desire to improve our lives in one way or another and our habits are intrinsically linked to the quality of our lives. However, with a plethora of self-help information available online, breaking bad habits is easier said than done.

Everything we do as part of our daily routine is a habit. Whether it’s starting the morning off with a cup of coffee and the news, or checking email as soon as we log into the computer at work, we engage in behaviours every day and when we do so, we’re mostly on autopilot. Some of these habits (like turning off the lights when we leave a room) are good things, but others (like spending too much time on social media), not so much.

All habits are the product of our subconscious mind; psychological shortcuts that allow us to save energy and solve problems, based on information we already have. Just as establishing habits is about doing them repeatedly and making them part of your routine, breaking ‘bad’ habits requires the same commitment. Habits become hard to break – especially if they bring us more pleasure than pain - because they are deeply wired through constant repetition into our brains.

So how can we change what we know or believe around our behaviour? We’ve put together some simple strategies that, when practised repeatedly over time, can certainly get you on track to breaking those bad habits.

Practicing Mindfulness

Being more mindful of the little decisions we make on a daily basis, whether that’s what snack we’re going to eat, or when we’re going to spend time on our phones can help to recondition those automatic responses we’ve weaved into our brains. When we find ourselves attracted to the bad habit, the mindfulness approach says to ask questions of ourselves around the action, that consider reason and consequence. “Why am I staying up to watch another episode? What will be the impact of this choice tomorrow?” Or “do I need or only want another piece of chocolate and what are my other options right now?”

Transforming bad habits with new approaches

Forming new habits that prompt us to replace our bad habit with something else, will help to remove the alluring triggers from our lives. It’s hard not to engage in mindless phone scrolling for example if we don’t have something else to do. This is a habit that afflicts many of us and has become one of the most difficult to break. If we’re trying to break the habit of spending ‘too much’ time during the day on the phone, a solution would be to put a new routine in place around our peak phone use times, then work out how to build phone time into our daily routine. Deciding to charge the phone in another room is a great first step. Going for a walk first thing each day instead of reaching for the phone not only breaks one habit, it impacts positively on the whole day’s activities. Allowing ourselves a set block of phone time such as while we’re eating lunch, or for 30 minutes after dinner sets a new routine and changes the environment, the old routine was part of, which inevitably changes the outcome.

Setting achievable goals

Going cold turkey never works - when we try and change too many things at the same time, it puts us under too much pressure and inevitably sets us up to fail. The best-laid plans end up in chaos and we find ourselves back at square one. Trying to break one habit at a time, provides a more manageable approach to making the change. Setting realistic goals will build confidence as achievements are made one by one and we build a foundation to continue to practice good habits. Want to run every day? Start with a 10-minute walk and build up to running week by week. Want to drink more water? It starts with one glass and ends overtime at 8 or more. This foundational approach allows us to start with small manageable steps that build up to achieving the goal.

 Planning to succeed

The mind is the primary driver of our habits, but we can contribute to our own success too by planning ahead and putting strategies in place that promote action. Putting a jug of water and a glass on the kitchen bench prompts us to drink more because some of the work is done. Choosing a good podcast and setting out exercise gear the night before helps motivate us to choose the action we thought about the night before. Setting reminders on our phones to do things, buying alternative versions of foods we love, or pre-planning activities that will divert us from those we want to change, are all simple but effective strategies that support us to break bad habits.

Being persistent and patient pays off

Having the expectation that the rewards will come quickly is a fool’s game. Just like it takes time to put on weight from making poor food choices, it also takes time to reverse that action. Thinking about changing habits as a psychological exercise – training our brains – rather than bad habits being a deficit of our personalities, is key. Being patient with the outcomes turns it into a less personalised project. Just as when the habit was formed - the brain needed time to register the repetitions and make connections to the new behaviours - the same applies to lay down the memories of the new habit or behaviour.

 If after trying the tactics above we are still finding it hard to break bad habits, it might be worth considering some professional support. The right personal trainer can help keep us on track with fitness goals, and a good therapist can help unravel the sources and triggers for habits. Sometimes an external professional is the extra bit of help required, to offer insight along with the accountability we may need to break bad habits once and for all. While all habits are not created equal, remember that the overarching goal is the same - breaking bad habits allows us to have more control in our lives and be proactive rather than reactive.