Do you ever find yourself making the same mistakes over and over? Or getting stressed about the same sorts of things, time and again? It’s hard to learn what we want to change if we aren’t in the habit of reflecting on our lives – but even if we are, we need to have the courage and clarity to get rid of bad habits.
Just getting rid of a bad habit out of the blue, on our own, isn’t easy: but it certainly can be easier if we take practical steps to remove some of the factors around why we keep making the same mistakes. (And by “mistakes” I don’t only mean morally bad decisions, but also behaviors that leave us feeling exhausted, stressed, or unhappy because they don’t serve the major priorities we’ve set for our lives.)
Here are 5 practical steps to help you get rid of bad habits, with clear examples of how to follow them easily.
||ONE|| Make the Bad Habit Difficult
Let’s say I suspect that I have an insensitivity to gluten and would like to find out if that’s the reason I often get stomachaches. Obviously, I need to remove gluten from my diet for a while to test my hypothesis. Only, I keep trying to do this but failing, in part because I love all things bread. My first step might be to simply stop buying any bread products. If they aren’t in the house, I can’t eat them as easily. Make the bad habit difficult.
||TWO|| Pay Attention to Behavior
But once I take some time to reflect further, I realize that every time I’ve tried to go gluten-free, and been partially successful, Friday Night Pizza Night trips me up. Oh sure, I try to eat only 2 slices instead of 3… but I just can’t eat a salad when the rest of my colleagues are celebrating the end of the work week with cheesy slices of gluten-y goodness.
Now I have a choice: I can either keep going to Friday Night Pizza Night and keep eating gluten when I say that I don’t want to, or I can stop. If I stop, there are consequences, of course – I will miss out on a Friday night with my colleagues. Is it worth the trade off for me? So far, my behavior has shown that it isn’t. I’d rather choose gluten over missing out on my social life.
||THREE|| Adjust the Consequences
So, knowing that about myself, the next question is, can I in any way adjust the consequences? Could I ask my colleagues if they would be willing to go to a restaurant that serves gluten free pizza? Would they be willing to try a sushi night instead? And if they aren’t, can I “treat” myself on a Friday night in some other way that is strong enough to replace the bad habit with something good? Taking yourself out of the situation of having to even make a decision about engaging in a bad habit makes things a lot easier.
||FOUR|| Crowd Out the Bad Habit With Something Good
This is really key: we often stick with bad habits because we like them. They’re familiar and easy and comfortable. It’s not enough to just get rid of a bad habit: we have to crowd it out with a good one. The process of getting rid of bad habits then, needs to involve making the new, good, habit easy and comfortable and eventually, familiar.
For something to become familiar, we need to be exposed to it a lot. Are there new kinds of foods that don’t have gluten (rather than just not-as-good gluten substitutes) that we might come to really enjoy? It’s time to make them part of my routine in an easy way. Try take out of a new gluten-free cuisine. Buy pre-made. Take baby steps to just get used to something new. (Later on, I can do the hard work of learning to cook brand new foods habitually.) Borrow a gluten-free cookbook from the library and just look at pictures of what I might want to try. Anything to make this new cuisine familiar.
||FIVE|| Take Ownership to Integrate Your Mindset and Actions
Don’t expect change overnight (although your approach may depend heavily on whether you are an abstainer or moderator). Our actions both follow from and form, the mindset we have around our habits. The most effective thing you can do is make sure that your daily mindset is clear, so that your actions reinforce your priorities and your priorities make the decision about action easy to achieve.
If going gluten free is truly a priority for you, the best mindset you can have around it is to identify it to yourself and others as a purposeful choice. Instead of saying “I can’t eat gluten” (which implies that someone or something else won’t let you), say, “I don’t eat gluten.”
By switching from “can’t” to “don’t”, you’ve taken ownership of your own priority. You may want to add why, to remind yourself of the reason behind your decision: “I don’t eat gluten because I don’t want to feel sick.”
Then, when you are put in a decision making position – “should I have that delicious slice of pizza or not?” – you can take ownership of the decision easily because you already have. “I don’t eat gluten because I don’t want to feel sick.” No outside force is stopping you, causing you to want to be rebellious. (“I can’t, but I might just sneak it anyway.”) You’ve taken charge of an aspect of your life that is yours to decide about.
Ultimately, that’s what getting rid of bad habits involves: taking ownership of our choices (the ones we make daily and the ones that may have led to a cycle of addiction that abandons decisions). Habits begin as a choice, turning into a series of actions, which we then stop thinking about. If we want to get rid of bad habits, we have to take those same steps with something good: make a choice for good, and turn that choice into a series of actions, which you can then stop thinking about. Through creating circumstances that favour the good to outweigh the bad, we can make bad habits difficult and good habits easy. Bad habits don’t arrive by themselves; they won’t leave that way either. The choice to get rid of them is yours to make.