Break up with your bad habits

Don't allow your bad habits to become a way of dealing with your short-comings


I was 14 when I started smoking for the first time. I had bought some cigarettes on a trip to Germany and brought them back to the States just to ‘try’. Once every few months I’d go out late at night and smoke just one cigarette.

I can still remember staring at the stars and feeling the waves of pleasure after each puff. Apart from the physical pleasure I loved sneaking around, breaking the rules, and the way smoking made me feel all grown up. Before long, I began to associate smoking with a sense of freedom and maturity.

Though this small habit was mostly innocent, it laid the groundwork for a much deeper habit later in life.

It wasn’t until years later when I went to college that smoking became a problem. I already had a positive association with smoking, but then college added one important ingredient: social pressure.

Smoking became a way to look cool, to talk to other people, and to feel relaxed and happy. At first, it was just a few puffs a week, but before long, I found myself smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

Before long, smoking became my strategy for fulfilling all sorts of needs: it helped me feel accepted; it provided me with a simple social script to follow; it satisfied my oral fixation; it calmed me down; and it helped me feel rebellious and grown up.

And it’s because smoking was so useful that it became such a big part of my life.

Autopsy of a habit

Bad habits have power because they are useful. You see, we form bad habits because they make difficult tasks easier and/or because they help us deal with things we don’t want to face.

Bad habits provide us with a shortcut for dealing with our problem and meeting our needs. The problem is: once we get hooked on one method to meet our needs, we build our lives around that method and get stuck.

But we don’t have to be victims to these methods. In fact, by understanding what our bad habits are doing for us, we can learn how to defeat them.

For example, I tried and failed to quit smoking many times without success. These attempts were unsuccessful, because I never developed new strategies to fulfill the needs that smoking met for me.

Instead, I tried to convince myself I didn’t need comfort and social acceptance. But that didn’t work because, well, I do need those things. Everybody does.

Finally I realised that quitting was hard not because I was weak, but because not smoking made it hard to meet my needs.

Once I realised this, it became clear that if I wanted to quit I had to find a new way to fulfill the needs I got from smoking.

The big quit

Based on this discovery, I was able to develop a simple six-step plan to help me defeat smoking. This plan was so effective that I’ve used it many times since and I’d like to share it with you.

Step 1 – Look back

Take a moment and think back to when your bad habit emerged. Try to remember what was going on in your life.

Maybe you developed a habit of telling small lies because you feared a critical parent. Maybe you developed a habit of snacking because your grandmother offered snacks to you and you came to associate it with love.

Next, look at your life now and see how your relationship to this habit has changed. Does it still meet your needs?

Then take a moment to write down any observations that come up.

By looking at the origin of your habits, as well as how they are functioning today you can identify the needs they once met and perhaps are currently meeting in your life.

Step 2 –Find the needs

Based on the previous investigations, make a short list of the needs your habits used to and/or still meet in your life.

Next, spend some time reflecting on your history with these needs. Notice if any fear, anger, or a desire to shut down arises. By observing and understanding any feelings you have around these needs, you can better prepare for the emotional challenges that quitting might bring up for you.

Step 3 – Identify alternate strategies

Next, make two lists of alternate strategies for meeting these needs. On the first list, write strategies you can use in the moment to replace a habit.

For smoking, you might choose chewing carrots or gum, because these can replace the short-term sensory comfort of smoking.

On the second list, write strategies you can use to replace the bigger needs.

When I quit smoking, I made a point to spend time with non-smoking friends. I knew that this would meet my need for social acceptance as well as create situations where smoking would be discouraged.

Step 4 – Practice quitting

Quitting a bad habit is all about withstanding temptation. And the key to enduring temptation is to delay acting until the temptation passes.

One way to do this is whenever you notice the desire for your bad habit arising, set a timer for one to 10 minutes. Then your goal is to delay doing the habit until the timer goes off.

It’s not important whether you ultimately give in or not. If you can delay even for a moment, that’s success.

Step 5 – Set a date

After practising for a week or two, pick a quit date that makes sense. For example, I chose to quit right after moving into the monastery. I could have chosen to quit before that, but I knew the change in environment would support me, so I waited.

Once you have picked a date, post it on Facebook, call your friends, and mark it on your calendar. Ask your friends and family to check in with you and encourage you if they are willing. The more people you tell, the more likely you are to quit.

Step 6 – Quit

Once the big day arrives do your best to keep your mind busy but aware. Pay attention to times and locations that trigger your bad habit and put extra energy into your alternate strategies at those times and places.

If you like to smoke after eating, make plans to go to a movie right after dinner where you can’t smoke. Or make plans to eat with non-smoking friends.

If you do give in, don’t give up. Remember mistakes happen but your ability to endure small slips will only encourage you to keep going.

Endure, endure, endure

The second biggest risk comes when you think you have conquered your bad habit. No matter how far you think you’ve come, chances are you are still hard wired for your bad habit. So stay focused.

While I still have moments where I’m tempted to smoke, I know that each time I overcome that temptation I have more faith in myself to defeat any bad habit that stands in my way.

This was first published in the June 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Samuel McCree
Samuel “Gentoku” McCree is a personal trainer, habit coach, and Mindful Fitness thought leader. He trained for over two years at a Zen monastery and shares his knowledge about the power of mindfulness and movement on various blogs and websites