This article is a short guide to how to quit a habit that isn’t helpful, as opposed to forming a new habit. The two main differences are that when you quit a habit, you must-
1) face an additional struggle against the urges to do the old habit, and
2) create new, positive habits for each of the triggers of the old habit.
Table of Contents
When to attempt to quit?
Most people make the mistake of trying to tackle a quit too early when they still haven’t gotten good at forming habits. This is a good way to set yourself up for failure, and then to feel bad about it. It’s like attempting to build a house before you’ve learned to hammer and saw.
I recommend forming new, positive habits at least three times before taking on a quit. Even better would be to have five successful new habits under your belt before trying to quit a habit, if you have the patience. This would give you the skills and confidence you need, and quitting a habit would be much easier because of it.
The biggest recommendation is not to take on a quit if you’re still struggling with forming habits. Creating a new habit should seem fairly easy, like something you know how to do. If it does, you’re ready to quit something.
Making Mistakes, Guilt from Failing
It’s impossible to overstate how common this downward spiral of guilt is when people try to form habits, mess up, and then feel guilty or undisciplined because of messing up. You can get stuck in a quagmire of guilt, not wanting to admit it to anyone, not starting again because you feel so bad about it all.
Guilt can be more harmful than failure and stops you from doing the habit. Guilt is tough — it’s an insidious feeling that we barely notice but that has such a strong effect on us. You have to learn to be aware of it, then let it go and counter it with something more positive. Tell yourself that when you slip and fall, it’s just another lesson that will teach you to be better at change.
Take a longer view of things: a failure is just for a day or two, or perhaps a week … but that doesn’t matter in the long term. Missing a few days makes almost no difference in a year. Over a lifetime, one day means nothing, but what you do on the vast majority of days is what counts.
Guilt is short-term thinking. Brush yourself off after falling, learn from the mistake, and get going again as soon as you’re able. Get back on track, and you’ll feel great.
Positive feedback of mistakes
Another idea is to see mistakes not as negative feedback that you’re bad at the habit, but as positive feedback for learning. Mistakes mean you’re pushing into new ground and exploring something interesting — if you weren’t, you wouldn’t make mistakes.
See every mistake as an opportunity to learn, a thing that you can get better at, the feedback that’s so crucial for improvement. And smile as you open yourself up to this improvement.
Track your habits and triggers
When we formed a new habit, we found an existing trigger in our lives and tried to bond the new habit to it with repetition. After a bunch of repetitions, the trigger-habit combo becomes more and more automatic. With old habits that you want to break, you already have triggers for your old habit. They’re already automatic from years of repetition.
So the first thing you need to do before you attempt to quit a habit is tracked it for three days and try to write down every trigger for the habit. Carry around a small piece of paper and pencil, and make a tally mark each time you do the habit. For example, if you’d like to quit smoking, make a tally mark on the paper each time you smoke. This creates increased awareness of the habit.
Each time you write down a tally mark, think about what you did right before you did the habit (for example, right before you smoked, you ate dinner) or what the circumstances were (other people were smoking around you, so you smoked). These are your triggers. Make a list of your triggers below your tally marks.
Finally, write out a short text document that lists all your triggers. Next to each trigger, write down what needs you think the habit is meeting for each of these triggers.
Come up with replacement habits
Each bad habit meets some kind of need, or you wouldn’t be doing the habit. The problem is that while the need is very human, the way you’re attempting to meet that need is not as helpful as it could be. So you can come up with replacement habits to meet the need in a better way.
For each trigger and need, write down a positive replacement habit that will meet the same need. For example, for the trigger of stress and the need of coping with stress, you might exercise, walk, or meditate. And, for the trigger of meetings (and the need of dealing with the stress of the meeting), you might write down all your notes from the meeting, including action steps.
You’ll want to find new ways of coping with common difficulties. For loneliness, you might try to exercise, write, teach yourself a new skill, or meet new people. If you’re bored, you might cope by learning something new or tackling a new challenge. These are just a few examples, but you can see that these are much healthier ways of coping.
Make a list of the new habits you’ll form for each trigger. You don’t need to form them all at once if there are too many.
Common needs and replacement habits
As a quick reference for the habits and triggers you might work on in the future, here are some very common needs that bad habits might fulfill, and some replacement habits to consider to meet those needs.
You’ll note that some replacement habits are repeated often because they might help cope with multiple needs. And of course, there are many other possible needs and replacement habits — this is just to get you started.
Common needs are coping with the following:
1. Stress or anxiety
2. Exhaustion or tiredness
5. Feeling bad about yourself or your life
6. Social anxiety
7. Feeling incompetent
8. Feeling out of control
9. A need for love or affection
10. A need for comfort
11. Needing a break
Ideas for replacement habits that might help with coping with many of these things include:
- Taking a walk
- Naming and staying with the feeling (a form of meditation)
- Talking with someone
- Taking a shower or bath
- Drinking tea mindfully
- Taking a break
- Massaging your shoulders
- Taking a nap
- Getting some sunlight
- Drinking some water
- Listening to music
- Reading a book
- Sketching practice
- Practicing a new skill
- Taking up a new hobby
Again, these lists aren’t exhaustive, but they should get you started.
Recommended coping method
If you’re willing to take on a challenge, an expansion of the meditation method mentioned in the list above is my recommended method for coping.
Here’s what you do:
when you’re feeling stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, etc. … just pause and turn your attention to this feeling. Be curious and see how it feels, where it is in your body, what the quality of the feeling is. Become intimate with it, without trying to avoid it. It’s a staying of the groundlessness we talked about in Part I.
Watch it gently, without judgment or wishing the feeling weren’t there. Treat it like a friend, kindly. And see that this feeling is impermanent, just arises but will pass, like a cloud.
This is the whole meditation: just watch with curiosity and kindness, not attaching to the feeling of needing to act on it. I can’t guarantee what results you’ll get, but I urge you to explore this method.
Use techniques you’ve learned
The good news is that if you’ve worked through several habits using the techniques of this article, you already have most of the skills you need to form your replacement habit.
The techniques are mostly the same: repeat the new habit after the trigger a bunch of times, and after a while, the new habit becomes automatic.
Some of the things you should do to form replacement habits that you’ve already learned:
1. Make a vow.
2. Put up visual reminders to do your new habit — written notes around where the trigger happens.
3. Do the new habit mindfully, and enjoy it.
4. Find gratitude as you do the new habit.
5. Notice your resistance, stay with the groundlessness.
6. Flow around disruptions and missed days.
7. Reflect on your learning and obstacles, and make adjustments.
These should be done for each new replacement habit, to ensure that you remember the instructions for each technique above. Forming these new habits is doable, if as with your previous habits, you take it slowly, take it seriously, and give it your full focus.
Struggling with urges
The biggest difficulty with changing long-held bad habits is struggling with the urges to do the old habit. Your mind will constantly try to get you to do the habit, will want to give in to strong urges, will rationalize, and otherwise try to do everything it can to talk you into doing the old habit.
Usually, we just give in to the urges without thinking. But you can learn to be vigilant. Learn to recognize the urges as they arise. Instead of acting on them immediately, delay. Just pause, and watch them rise and fall, without acting. Delay again. Breathe. Walk around. Drink some water. Call someone for help. Go for a long walk. Get out of the situation.
The urge will go away if you just delay. The right mindset also helps. If you allow yourself to listen to the rationalizations (“I deserve a break, this one time”) or negative self-talk (“I can’t do this”), you’ll fail.
See the rationalizations and negative self-talk, but don’t believe any of it. Have a positive answer for each rationalization. Tell yourself you can do this, you’re strong, you got this. And be realistic in that things won’t go as planned, but those are learning opportunities. In the long run, you’re going to make it, because you are worth it.