How to Replace Unwanted Habits and Start New Ones

Most of us have habits we can do without and new habits we’d like to work into our lives. However, we know from experience that process is challenging. While it takes work, halting old habits and replacing them with new ones is certainly doable.

We have 21days left until the new year. This is about the minimum amount of time needed to form a new habit. Personally I’d like to order out less and cook more, so today I’m starting that process as we head into 2018.

A previous article I wrote about habit formation discusses the science behind habits and helpful steps to form a new habit.

That article is a good introduction to habits, so check that out if you want to learn more about the basics of habit formation; here I’m going to dive more into what has helped me replace unwanted habits in the past.

Currently our day is filled up with a bunch of habits, and some we like more than others. We’re always doing something, even if that something is laying in bed and binge watching YouTube videos.

So how do we bring about change? The science indicates that the only way to get rid of a habit is to replace it with something new. Each habit is responding to a need whether it’s boredom, sadness, stress, or needing a break, so we have to offer ourselves a new habit that’ll fill the need, in order for us to move away from the old habit.

Steps to Replacing an Old Habit:

1. Motivation: What’s your why? The journey of refraining from something you do everyday while simultaneously starting something new in its place is hard. You need to give yourself a reason that can motivate you throughout the process. If your norm is to go home after work and watch TV, but you’d like to replace that with going to the gym, then your why needs to be stronger than “It would be nice to exercise more.” Perhaps you can connect your why to feeling happier, lowering your risk of chronic disease, or something else that’ll help to light the fire.

2. Commit: You have to go all in. Replacing a habit is too hard to give yourself the option of an out. You have to make an unbreakable vow with yourself that you’ll do everything in your power to follow through. Tell others about it and ask for their help in holding you accountable. Also set up the environment that’ll allow you to be successful. If you want to replace checking emails with a morning meditation habit, then put your technology out of reach and set up your cushion or chair beforehand, so there’s as little friction as possible.

3. Notice your triggers: What events trigger you to do the old habit? Every habit has an initial trigger that puts it into action. Maybe you smoke when you see other people smoking or you eat unhealthy food when you’re stressed. Observe yourself over a few days and take note of what triggers the habit you want to replace. Leveraging this trigger to form your new habit will be a key part to success.

4. Understand what desire your old habit is fulfilling: Habits are repeated because they lead to a reward. Understanding the need your habit is fulfilling, will help you to consider replacements. Your old habit might be helping you to socialize, offering a break, or helping you cope with stress, sadness, boredom, loneliness etc. Once you understand the reward your old habit offers, consider a replacement that’ll offer similar rewards.

5. Use your trigger and reward to replace the old habit: You can’t just do nothing when your habit is triggered because you’ll crave the reward and have an unfilled need. Instead, you need a new habit to add in when the trigger arises. Think about the habit you want to stop and consider a replacement for it.

6. Notice the urges and leverage the new habit: Inevitably you’ll have urges to do your old habit when you experience the triggers. Practice sitting with the urges, noticing as the urge gets stronger and eventually wanes. It is better to do your new habit whenever you’re triggered to do the old habit. This will take conscious effort, but eventually your new habit will become the automatic response to the trigger. If necessary, find ways to delay the old habit until the urge dies down: call a friend, move to a new environment, go for a walk etc.

7. Observe your thoughts and plan your response: We justify the old habits with thinking. Notice when you’re making excuses for your old habit and feel like giving up on forming your new habit. Pre-plan answers to your objections, so you don’t give in to your rationalizations. You just need to do a little or don’t have to do your new habit for a long time when you feel tired.

8. Understand its a process and be forgiving: Replacing a habit is hard and you’ll likely have a hiccup. Don’t let one misstep derail all of your progress. Forgive yourself, understand what happened, accept it, and decide on a better plan to make you more successful at your new habit the next time you have a trigger. Your plan will improve and you’ll increase the likelihood of replacing your old habit.

Consider a habit you want to replace or a habit you would like to start, and let’s use the 21 days we have until the new year as motivation.

I’m looking forward to cooking some new dishes over the next 21 days. Comment below to let me know what habits you’re trying to replace.

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