HOW TO: Break or Make a Habit

We all have bad habits. Some are worse than others. When I was a kid, my worst habit was biting my nails. My mom got me to break my habit by offering an incentive. If I didn’t bite my nails for a whole month, she would take me to Target to pick out any Polly Pocket toy I wanted. Sure enough, 30 days later we were scouring the doll aisle at Target and I haven’t bitten my nails since.

As an adult, I have bad habits too. I hit snooze about 100 times in the morning. I drape my clothes over a chair instead of putting them away. I always get seconds on dessert. These aren’t terrible habits. I could live just fine if I keep up these habits, but I would arguably live much better if I break them.

In the moment, it’s so easy to say, I could get up right now, but I’ll just sleep ten more minutes, (and then ten more minutes, and then ten more minutes…) I’ll put all my clothes away tomorrow. Eh, I’m not overweight yet - it’s just one extra bowl of ice cream. In reality, that ten minute snooze turns into an hour, my clothes pile grows until I can’t see my chair, and pretty soon I’ve gained five pounds in a month.

My closet (when I put things away...)

My closet (when I put things away...)

‘Just one more’ and ‘tomorrow’ doesn’t work. If you want to break a habit, you have to start now. Today. Don’t put it off. In my quest to break my bad habits, I have failed time and again. I started thinking back to how quickly I broke the habit of biting my nails. How did I break that habit so effectively and so quickly? You could say that it was because there was an incentive. But I’d argue further that breaking that habit was my main focus that month. I only had one habit I was set on breaking. Once it was broken, it was broken forever and I didn’t have to focus on it anymore. If you have too many things to focus on, you can’t devote enough focus to each thing.

That being said, I think it’s just as important to make new, good, healthy habits. I have lots of things I want to do or do better. I’ve failed continuously at picking these up as well - mostly because I’ve tried to pick them all up at once.

According to Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz, it takes 21 consecutive days to break or make a habit. Other studies like this 2009 University College London study found that it may take up to 66 days to break a habit. With that in mind, I decided to start an experiment last month. I wrote down three habits I wanted to break and three habits I wanted to make. I chose only one from the list (reading every day) and committed February to working on that habit. I chose to set my alarm for half an hour earlier so that I could commit to reading for 15-30 minutes before I started getting ready for the day. After a couple weeks, it became so easy and I felt deprived if I missed my morning reading time. It’s become a daily habit and I’ve already finished three books in just a month and a half!

My latest read:  The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***  by Mark Manson

My latest read: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Manson

So, here’s my formula for breaking and making habits.

  1. Write down three habits to break and three habits to make.
  2. Choose one habit.
  3. Focus on making or breaking that habit and only that habit for the next month or two.
  4. Reward yourself! (Not by going against the habit. Don’t eat sugar as a reward for not eating sugar!)
  5. Pick your next habit and repeat.

In six months to a year, you will have completed this list and your life will be that much better and more productive! I challenge you to try it. Here is my list:

Habits to break:

  • Hitting snooze. (Working on this now.)
  • Putting clothes anywhere but where they belong.
  • Eating dessert X 2.

Habits to make:

  • Read every day. (DONE!)
  • 30 minutes of self-care a day.
  • Respond immediately to emails.

Simple. Easy. You’ve got this. What’s your list look like?