Bad habits can be a huge barrier to success.

At the very least, they waste our time and stop us from achieving our goals. At their worst, they can be truly debilitating. They can threaten our health, our career prospects and our financial stability.

Last month’s post, ‘How To Build Healthy Habits’, described some useful techniques for incorporating healthy habits into our lives.

But if there’s one thing more difficult than making new habits stick, it’s breaking the bad ones.

So how do you turn your back on a nasty habit for good?

The science of habit formation

It helps to understand how habits form and become increasingly ingrained.

All our habits, good or bad, can be broken down into four stages:

–  Cue;

–  Craving;

–  Response; and

–  Reward.

A cue is an environmental stimulus, or event, that our brain learns to associate with a certain kind of reward.

Take a smoker who has a cigarette with a glass of wine after work every evening. Over time, her brain subconsciously becomes aware of the association between an after work drink and smoking. Once this association is established, as soon as she uncorks a bottle, her brain will anticipate that she is about to smoke.

This, in turn, will trigger a craving. As she pours a glass of wine, she will inevitably crave a cigarette.

Next, comes the response. This is the habitual behaviour itself. Our smoker will reach for her packet and light up, satisfying her craving.

This, in turn, brings the reward. Butting out her cigarette, our smoker feels more relaxed, having put her work day behind her.

The more often a cue is followed by a reward, the more ingrained the association will become. This results in increasingly intense cravings when the cue is experienced, making the habit harder to break.

Techniques for breaking bad habits

The first step in breaking a bad habit is to try to understand it. When did it start? How often do you do it? At what point in the day, and with who?

Answering these questions will help you identify the cues that trigger your habit.

You should try to limit these triggers as much as possible while you are attempting to break the habit. Our smoker, for example, would be well advised to cut out her after work tipple while she’s trying to quit.

However, there may be cues that can’t be avoided. For example, if you’re in the habit of checking social media each time you return to your desk, and want to stop, it’s not practical to avoid this trigger. Nevertheless, understanding what triggers your bad habits is a step in the right direction. Keep in mind that each time you experience a trigger and don’t act on it, a new, more healthy habit is forming.

Rather than simply eliminating a bad habit, try replacing it with a less harmful alternative. Something that gives you some enjoyment is likely to be more effective. Instead of checking social media when you return to your desk, for example, have a piece of gum and get on with your work.

Another technique is to visualise success in kicking your habit. This can have a powerful effect on your subconscious. Picture yourself returning to your desk and getting straight into work. Focus on the satisfaction you feel in being more productive. It may sound silly, but there’s compelling evidence that this works.

Teaming up with a buddy can also help. Even more so if it’s someone who is trying to give up the same thing as you. As well as moral support, a buddy can instil a sense of accountability. Knowing there will be someone to answer to if you let temptation get the better of you can help maintain resolve.

Finally, expect to fail. Probably more than once. But never take this as a reason to stop trying. Perseverance is the key. Keep at it, and you will get there in the end.

Good luck!