How to break a bad habit

Be it nailbiting, sugar snacking, procrastinating or mobile phone checking, we’ve all got a habit we just can’t break. But why are some of these behaviours so hard to quit? Psychologist Breanna Jayne Sada explains how to stop the repetition cycle for good.

Once a habit has you in its grip, it can be tricky to remove yourself. But while the addictive nature of nicotine explains how hard something like smoking can be difficult to stop, other seemingly innocent habits seem just as hard to escape. Why is that?

“To put it really simply, habits form through repetition,” says psychologist  Breanna Jayne Sada. “If humans complete a behaviour enough times for the behaviour to become automatic and habitual it is because the repetition has formed a new neural pathway, which makes completing this behaviour an efficient and sometimes unconscious process.”

Of course, often there are rewards to be gained from a habit. “If you are in some way rewarded for the behaviour you are more inclined to complete that behaviour again,” agrees Breanna. “For example that hit of nicotine that floods your receptors when you smoke or how great it feels after you eat sugar. If it feels good you’ll probably do it again until it becomes an unconscious action.”

So how can you change those ingrained habits?

“Commitment is the first step,” says Breanna. “You can only really change a behaviour if you decide you really want to, so you need to be honest with yourself and identify why this thing is something you should not be doing. Once you're committed you can set a realistic goal and strengthen your self-belief that you can, in fact, meet it.”

Next, work out your motivations. Once you figure out what is fuelling your habits you can move towards changing them by finding a replacement behaviour that can meet this need in a more productive and non-harmful way.

“Sometimes we aren’t consciously aware of the reward that we’re seeking from that habit, so you might have to delve deep to try and figure it out so you can stop repeating it,” says Breanna.

Lastly, you should form a new positive habit to take its place. For example, if you are a smoker, you might like to chew gum or do some breathing exercises or go for a walk whenever you feel the urge to smoke. Feel like looking at Facebook rather than doing work, procrastinators? Make a deal you have to complete one simple task first. Love to watch TV while eating chocolate? Decide to only have fruit in the house.

Sometimes, of course, doing it yourself may be daunting and you may want some external help. Luckily, Breanna says, there are some amazing apps that can really help you with some common habits that are hard to quit.

To quit smoking

The Smoke Free app was built by scientists and is proven to work, with 20 different techniques to help you become and stay smoke-free. It lets you track savings, track how your health is improving and log your cravings to see your progress.

To stop procrastinating

Try Focus. This productivity timer from Apple will see you organising your work, staying motivated and getting more done (no cat videos allowed!)

To curb overspending

The Money Brilliant app helps you understand your spending, manage bills and get better at making your money work for you (instead of buying shoes).

To keep you accountable

And if you need help once you’ve made the commitment to break those habits, monitor your new good ones with the app Strides - this tracker works to monitor goals (drinking enough water, for example, or saving money) and keep you accountable as you move forward.

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