The Best Way to Break a Bad Habit, According to the Experts

Breaking bad habits requires a little more than just willpower.
Breaking bad habits requires a little more than just willpower. / Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Habits: When they’re beneficial, they can be a good thing. You can make a habit of turning off the lights when you leave a room to conserve energy, or make a habit of exercising at 7 a.m. each morning. But when the habit promotes stress or puts your health at risk, like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, you want to interrupt the repetition.

Addiction expert and University of York professor Ian Hamilton and King’s College London addiction researcher Sally Marlow recently wrote a piece published on Business Insider that provides some practical, take-home advice for people looking to surmount the difficult challenge of avoiding patterns of harmful behavior. (Note, however, that serious substance abuse issues may require professional help, including counseling or medical care.)

Hamilton and Marlow endorse the benefits of what they dubbed “the two Ps”—perseverance and planning. When a habit graduates to a form of dependency, breaking free of it could potentially take dozens of attempts. As a consequence, it’s important to remember that few bad habits are broken after one attempt. It may take many setbacks before you begin to see progress, which is where perseverance comes in.

The second P, planning, refers to timing. People can and often do spontaneously decide to quit a bad habit like smoking out of the blue. And while that can work, you’ll increase your odds of being successful if you plan a time when your motivation and energy levels are highest—right after a vacation, for example. By starting with determination, you’ll be able to power through early days that might prove challenging.

If a relapse occurs, it should be taken as an opportunity to learn and avoid the same mistake in the future. And if you’re feeling apprehensive about things you might “lose” in breaking a habit, try to focus on the net benefits. Eliminating a bad habit is likely to save you money or free up some of your time.

Try to remember that bad habits are not only engrained behaviorally, but in your brain as well. Changes in brain structures called basal ganglia can prompt you to act on behaviors with a neurological reward faster than someone without those habits. Breaking a habit is therefore more than simple willpower. You need to change your brain’s wiring. With some persistence, you can get there.

Serious addiction can be brought under control with assistance. If you need guidance, you can reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s helpline at 1-800-662-4357. Operators can refer you to local resources that can make a difference.

[h/t Business Insider]