How to break bad habits

How to break bad habits

How to break bad habits

Train your brain to drop the harmful behaviours and learn the good ones, one small change at a time. 

Whether your goal is to make healthier eating choices, start investing, or get your small pottery business off the ground, your daily habits have the power to help you reach them and transform your life. In his new book Atomic Habits (Penguin Random House), habits expert and author James Clear shows how small actions like waking up just five minutes earlier, doing 10 jumping jacks a day, or drinking two more glasses of water, make a huge impact in the long run.

If they’re so bad, why are we so loyal to them?

Joburg-based life coach Simone Naidoo says habits are created at the level of the subconscious mind. ‘According to
neuroscience, habits are created in the subconscious mind, which rules 80-90% of our behaviour.’ Your brain basically wires your behaviours, emotions, and thoughts into circuits deep below the surface, where they become automated, which is why you can perform your habits without thinking. ‘So basically, anything you’ve practised your entire life, or that has been part of your daily experiences, allows for the likelihood you’ll adopt it into your own life,’ explains Simone. For example, if you grew up witnessing your parents arguing all the time, ‘picking fights’ with your partner may become ‘second nature’ to you later on in life. It’s all to do with repetition and learning; the more you
do something, the easier it becomes an automatic response to specific situations.

Why do you keep backsliding?

You set a new goal to stop spending excessively. But a few days later you receive a notification about a 40% sale at your favourite online store, and before you know it you’ve added seven items (that you don’t need) to your shopping basket. You need to identify your triggers, or the reasons you’re giving up so easily.

1. It’s becoming part of your daily routine:

‘Remember that the more you practise or do something, the more the neurons in your brain wire together,’ says Simone. For example, trying to stop drinking a few glasses of wine with your dinner every night is difficult because
‘neural-patterns have formed in your brain over the years. A young child, whose subconscious mind is blank and
who has no other reference point, will easily pick up the habit of swearing if they hear it frequently. As an adult it’s
more challenging as we have old neural pathways we must first break down.’

2. Unconducive environment 

You’ve decided to stop smoking. You make it through most of the day, but at lunchtime your colleague calls you to
go downstairs for your regular smoke break together. Instead of saying no, you give in, because you feel you need some fresh air after back-to-back morning meetings. Your level of motivation can be greatly influenced by your immediate environment and the people you surround yourself with. ‘Despite our unique personalities, certain behaviours tend to arise under certain environmental conditions. If the communal table at the office is always filled with doughnuts, it’s hard not to grab one every now and then. Your habits change depending on the room you are in and the cues in front of you,’ argues James.

3. You’re impatient

Don’t worry; we’re all guilty of it. It’s human nature to want to see quick results, but in reality, that’s not how it works. ‘We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. If you go to the gym three days in a row, you’re still out of shape,’ says James. When we don’t see immediate changes, we tend to
fall back into our old routines.

A small step for change, a giant leap for a new you!

‘We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. If you save money now, you’re still not a millionaire. We make a few changes, but the results never seem to come quickly and so we
slide back into our previous routines,’ says James. The effects of those little efforts seem to not make any difference at all, but with consistency, the results months and years down the line can be amazing. The same applies with bad habits. When you repeat one bad pattern regularly, such as not making time to watch your child’s cricket games, it may not be apparent when your child is still young, but the consequences of that neglect will show through their resentment towards you years later. ‘When we repeat 1% of errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions,
duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalising little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results,’ adds James.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit – Aristotle

5 easy ways to make that change

‘Habits form based on frequency, not time. The more you repeat an activity, the more the structure of your brain changes to become efficient at that activity,’ James advises.

1. Identify and visualise

Identify those behaviours you want to change: perhaps you’d like to exercise more, drink less, or save money. ‘The next step is to visualise your end goal. Athletes do this all the time: a sprinter will visualise the finish line and the record they want to set. If you want to lose weight, start seeing yourself 15kg lighter, and your favourite clothes fitting you properly again,’ says Simone.

2. Intention setting

Simone says it’s very important to direct your mind to what you want to do. ‘All change starts in your mind; be clear on what you want to do. Write down your goal in your journal, map it out on a vision board, or even write it on a sticky note and put it on your fridge to serve as a daily reminder.’

3. Spot your triggers

Once you’ve pinpointed the change you’d like to make, it’s important to recognise and understand what triggers those behaviours, and take action to avoid them. For example, let your colleague know you want to stop smoking and that you’ll no longer be going out for the smoke break.

4. One step at a time

Start implementing daily action in small doses. Do 10 jumping jacks and a 30-second plank first thing in the morning;
read just one page from your book during your lunch hour at work, drink two more glasses of water, or eat one less chocolate a week. If you’re consistent and dedicated to those small changes, they’ll eventually become routine.

5. Value your happiness

Be honest – it makes you miserable falling back into your toxic patterns, and knowing you’re slipping further away from your goals each day. Think about how happy you’ll be once you slowly start changing your life into what you want it to become.

Apps to help you

If you don’t have an accountability partner in human form, try these apps to help you stay on track. They’re all free on
both iOS and Android.

  • Simple Habit was designed by a Harvard psychologist and has five-minute daily meditation guides by meditation experts. These meditations help you build successful habits and track your progress.
  • HabitBull lets you break and build multiple habits, each with their own calendar. It keeps you on track via graphs with success percentages, and reminders to complete tasks throughout the day. You’ll also receive
    relevant inspirational quotes for different categories like exercise or quitting smoking.
  • StickK was developed by behavioural economists from Yale University, and works on the principle that people become more committed when there’s money involved. It lets you bet money on yourself after you put your goals into writing, and to make sure you really commit to them, it allows you to involve your friends or family as a ‘referee’ or accountability partner.




About Nolwazi Dhlamini

Features Writer for Your Family magazine. She’s worked in print and digital media, and finds thrill in understanding human behaviour. Nolwazi believes everyone has a fascinating story to tell, and it just takes the right person, asking the right questions, to find it.


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