In 1998, Jim Carrey played the role of Truman Burbank in the movie The Truman Show. In the film, Truman is oblivious to the fact that his life is being cast and manipulated in a phony world created by TV producer Christof (Ed Harris).
As the viewer is introduced to Truman, his life consists of his routines. Every day, day in and day out, Truman followed the same patterns. His habits defined his life and kept him confined to this make-believe world.
At the start of the film, Truman seems very happy and content with his established patterns. It isn’t until Truman breaks with routine and changes his habits that he discovers true freedom.
In a similar way, always giving in to one’s desires is not the freedom we think it is. When it comes to habits, our habits can either work for us or against us. In the case of bad habits, we often relinquish our control and view ourselves as victims of our habits rather than people who have the power to choose. And as long as we see ourselves as victims, we assume we have no control. Bad habits own us, we don’t own them.
Critical Characteristics of Habits
There are at least three common characteristics of habits. Knowing these will help us develop strategies for breaking bad habits and building good ones:
Bad habits nearly always have triggers associated with them.
Perhaps you want to lose weight, but haven’t decided on a specific plan of action. You’ve been “good” all day by eating whole, nutritious foods and maintaining portion control.
But after supper, you sit down in front of the TV to watch your favorite program. The next thing you know, you’ve got a bag of chips in your lap and you’ve eaten half the bag! For many people, the television is a trigger prompting them to eat. And usually what we eat in front of the TV is not healthy food.
Other triggers might include driving your car, feeling down, a certain routine (like always stopping for a tasty beverage on the way to work), or seeing someone else eating a dessert.
All habits offer some kind of perceived reward. (1)
Many of us are in the habit of drinking a café latte during a mid-morning break. For some, ordering a tasty beverage isn’t enough and they need something like a biscotti, cookie, or scone to go with it.
The immediate reward is obvious: the aroma of the fresh-brewed coffee; the warmth of the cup; and enjoying the delicious sweet flavor. The sweet scone goes down especially well with the coffee. This all adds up to a very pleasurable experience—for the moment.
The problem is, in less than an hour, the latte and the treat combined make for one-third of the recommended daily calories and 100 grams of carbs, more than half of which was sugar. The worst part: none of it was nutritious!
(Related: 3 Steps to Stopping Cravings in Their Tracks)
It takes time to break an old habit and build a good one.
Although we often hear that it takes 21 days to break an old habit and build a new one, the actual time required may be longer or shorter depending on the individual. The nature of the habit, its triggers, its perceived rewards, and one’s personality all play into the mix. (2)
Sometimes all it takes to make the change is a decision. Other times, especially if we’re dealing with an addictive substance like caffeine, sugar, or tobacco it can take much longer. The key is to go into your decision with your eyes open. Fully anticipate what it will take to make the change you desire.
5 Steps for Breaking Bad Habits and Building Good Habits
1. Visualize your desired future state.
What do you want? How badly do you want it? Will the hard work and self-denial be worth the end reward?
For example: if your goal is to lose 30 pounds, visualize what that will do for you. How will you feel? What will you look like? What will it do for your energy and your health? How else might you benefit from losing 30 pounds?
2. Make a decision and resolve to stay the course.
Based on what you’ve visualized as the outcome for pursuing this course of action, make a firm decision. Write your decision down and date it. Tell someone close to you what you’ve decided to do and ask them to help hold you accountable.
3. Identify triggers that prompt the bad habit and put safeguards in place to remove those triggers.
If watching television is your trigger for eating junk food, what if you went for a walk or read a book instead, thus removing the trigger?
If eating chips, cookies or other processed snack foods are your weakness, don’t buy them! Why tempt yourself by keeping them around?
4. Remove or redefine the rewards for bad habits and establish rewards for good habits.
As you visualize all the good that will come to you from losing 30 pounds (or whatever your goal is), your reward system changes. Instead of looking for that momentary sugar high from chips or cookies, you’re looking for long-term health and well-being.
You’ve established that your health and the way you will feel are far more important rewards. So indulging in snack foods now will rob you of your ultimate reward. This is the way you want to think.
5. Give yourself ample time to make the changes.
We are often very impatient with ourselves. Chances are you’ll slip up from time to time. Don’t give in to the temptation to throw in the towel. Just because you messed up today doesn’t mean that you’ve failed.
Instead, acknowledge your mistake, get back up, dust yourself off and go for a win tomorrow. Always go back to what you’ve visualized for yourself and to the rational decision you made. Beware of changing course when you’re particularly emotional, frustrated, angry, or down. Go back to what you know.
Breaking bad habits and replacing them with good ones is not always easy, but it’s very rewarding. Remember, bad habits own you, you don’t own them. Good habits are ones that you have chosen to improve your life. Good habits put you back in control.
(Related: Why You Literally Are What You Eat)