40 Science-Backed Ways to Kick Old Habits
They may die hard, but it is possible to bring them down.
It’s true what they say: Old habits die hard. Yes, our vices refuse to go down without a fight, but know that it’s not impossible to get rid of them (just ask any former smoker). In fact, with a good support system, the right mantras, and a little bit of extra sleep, you can stop your bad habits in their tracks.
Whatever your bad habit may be—knuckle-cracking, procrastination, or the pervasive tendency to overthink anything and everything—you can use these science-backed strategies to end it once and for all. (But be patient: experts say that it can take as long as 254 days to eradicate a habit once it’s, well, habit.) And once you’ve effectively eliminated your faux pas, be sure to check out these 40 Ways to Develop New Habits After 40.
Make your goals as specific as possible.
It’s happened to the best of us: You tell yourself you’re going to start working out more, only to find yourself back on the couch the very next day with your hand buried deep in a bowl of popcorn. Instead of letting yourself fall into this negative cycle of unhealthy habits, motivation expert Michael Vallis suggests turning broad goals (like “I will exercise”) into something more specific (like “I will go running twice a week for 30 minutes after work.”) These explicit objectives will help you feel accomplished—and the more accomplished you feel, the more motivated you will be to keep pushing forward.
Focus on one thing at a time.
Trying to overcome several bad habits at once is only going to end in disaster. According to Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg, the trick to kicking vices for good is to only tackle one at a time. “If you try to transform everything at once, it tends to be very, very destabilizing,” Duhigg told Bakadesuyo. “It might feel frustrating to say, ‘If you have ten habits you want to change, that means it’s going to take eight months or nine months’… [but] it’s worth spending a month to change one behavior permanently. You’re going to be reaping the benefits of that for the next decade.” And for more ways to live long and prosper, try these 20 Healthy Living Rules You Should Live By.
Pay close attention.
Sometimes our bad habits become so ingrained in us that we don’t even realize when we’re feeding them. When this is the case, scientists have found that by being conscious of our actions, we can start to override our delinquent desires. Just look at the results from this study published in the Journal of Consumer Affairs: Researchers found that people who read food labels and did not exercise lost more weight than those who hit the gym but ate whatever they wanted. Economist Howard Rachlin similarly found that when smokers were asked to consume the same number of cigarettes every day, they actually began to consume less, likely because they became more aware of their bad habit and wanted to make a change.
Implement a 20-second delay.
Everywhere we go there is going to be triggers that tempt us, so one of the best ways to break a bad habit is to make the temptations harder to succumb to—even if it’s just by 20 seconds. “Watching too much television? Merely take out the batteries of the remote control creating a 20-second delay and it dramatically decreases the amount of television people will watch,” author Shawn Achor told Bakadesuyo. If your indiscretions are of the edible variety, for instance, put a lock on your junk food—it will prevent you from diving face-first into the sweet stuff.
To quit smoking, drink…
Milk. Serial smokers are much less likely to head outside for a drag after drinking it, according to researchers from Duke University Medical Center. They found that smokers who consumed milk, water, fruits, and vegetables reported enjoying the tase of cigarettes less, whereas those who consumed alcohol, coffee, and meat enjoyed the taste more. “With a few modifications to their diet—consuming… a cold glass of milk, and avoiding items that make cigarettes taste good—smokers can make quitting a bit easier,” study author Joseph McClernon, Ph.D., told Science Daily. And good news: Drinking milk is also one of the 30 Best Ways to Boost Your Metabolism After 30.
Pinpoint a cue.
To override a bad habit, professor Alison Phillips suggests focusing on a cue that alerts you to engage in a better, healthier habit. In her study published in Health Psychology, she found that sedentary people were more likely to exercise regularly when they were prompted to do so by a signal. Some of the cues that Phillips suggests for people who want to work out more are an alarm clock in the morning or driving straight from work to the gym to create a routine. And for more helpful healthy tips, learn the 30 Ways to Get Six-Pack Abs After 30.
Communicate with others in the same boat.
It’s true what they say: We get by with a little help from our friends. One study from researchers at the University of California, Irvine, found that 42 percent of smokers who used social media for moral support were able to quit successfully, and an even greater amount (72 percent) were able to break the habit when their social media use involved encouraging words from automated messages. The study authors determined that the Twitter conversations gave people a place to boast about their accomplishments and simultaneously seek help on dark days. And for more stress solutions, you’ll love these 12 Genius Tricks for Turning Anxiety into Excitement.
Eliminate old habits with exercise.
According to researchers from Concordia University, the best way to beat your smoking habit is to replaced it with exercise. When they analyzed the habits of smokers, they found that those who took up exercising were better able to stave off the cigarettes. Even just a simple workout like walking was enough to reduce withdrawal symptoms, so you may want to replace that pack of cigarettes with a gym membership. If you need help getting to the gym, here are 11 Ways Smart People Motivate Themselves to Go.
Invest in a real alarm clock.
Telling yourself you’re going to become an early riser is one thing, but actually getting into the habit of waking up at, say, 5:00 a.m. is another thing entirely. If you’re looking to start making more of your mornings, sleep expert Dr. Neil Stanley suggests using an alarm clock (and no, not the one on your phone.) In one study, 26 percent of teenagers and college students reported being woken up in the middle of the night by their phone going off, so Stanley recommends sleeping as far away from your phone as possible for a night of restorative rest. The better you sleep, the easier it will be to wake up. And for more tips on a good night’s sleep, check out 40 Tips for Better Sleep on Summer Nights.
Envision where you want to be.
If your goal is to stop wasting all your money, Money Basics for Young Adults author Don Chambers says to visualize the things you want. “Develop a single exciting mental picture of where you want to be in five years,” Chambers told Time. “Each day as you pull out of your driveway on the way to work, think about that image.” These dreams will motivate you to focus on a long-term goal rather than short-term pleasures, and “real progress is made.” And for more budgeting tips, don’t miss the 40 Ways to Seriously Boost Your Savings After 40.
Get an extra hour of sleep.
Looking to stop those pesky sugar cravings? Your bed might be the answer you’ve been looking for. One study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that subjects who increased their time in bed by up to 90 minutes reduced their sugar intake by an average of 11.8 grams per day over a four-week period.
Invest in gel manicures.
Nail biting is a bad—not to mention unhygienic—habit. Nevertheless, it’s hard to break. If you’re part of the estimated 30 percent of the population (according to figures published in the Journal of Dermatological Treatment) who bites their nails, consider setting aside part of your paycheck every month for gel manicures. As nail specialist Dr. Dana Stern told InStyle, these special, long-lasting manicures “can be an incredible tool to help nail biters to ‘bite the habit.'”
Turn to technology for a helping hand.
Rampant tech use gets a bad rap (and usually for a good reason), but every now and again it can come in handy—like in the instance of overcoming an old habit. Researchers at Northwestern University recently found that with the support of smartphone apps and monetary incentives, subjects were able to increase vegetable intake by 6.5 servings, decrease saturated fat intake, and increase exercise by 25 minutes per day. Looking to try this method at home? Some apps, like MyFitnessPal, provide an easy way to track food intake and exercise, and others like DietBet will even monetarily reward you for losing weight.
Overcome negative thoughts with the word “but.”
“I hate the way I look and I’ll never be better.” How many times have you found yourself repeating this, beating yourself up for missing a workout or eating an extra cookie? The next time you find yourself getting into the endless negative-thought cycle, self-help expert James Clear recommends finishing the sentence off with a “but”—as in “I’m stupid and nobody respects me, but I’m working to develop a valuable skill.”
“Rather than beating yourself up over a mistake, plan for it,” wrote Clear. “We all slip up every now and then.”
Before you indulge in that second piece of cake or lose another night of sleep in favor of a Friends marathon, ask yourself: How is this really making me feel? When psychiatrist Judson Brewer instructed smokers to do just that, she found that they were twice as likely to quit. Evidently, just being mindful about your bad habits is enough to make you want to eliminate them for good.
Set aside a night for just you and your goals.
“Most people live life on autopilot and are not intentional about designing their life or being clear about how they want to live and be,” says executive coach Shefali Raina. Her solution? Plan a “date night” every month where you can take some time to review how much you’ve accomplished toward your goals, and how much more you’d like to achieve.
Travel to new and exotic lands.
Taking a vacation is a win-win: Not only do you get to enjoy the wonders of the world, but you’ll also be one step closer to breaking your bad habits. Studies have shown that those who travel are less depressed and report greater feelings of satisfaction. Many of our old habits are just ways to cope with buried anxiety, so traveling could alleviate those underlying issues and defeat the need for those vices in the first place. If you do decide to take a trip, just make sure to brush up on the 25 Countries Where You Shouldn’t Drink the Tap Water.
Disable your smartphone notifications.
You’ll be hard-pressed to fight your tech addiction if your phone is constantly going off with notifications. “The smartphone is like a portable slot machine,” Dr. David Greenfield, founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, told CNBC. “The buzz and beep let you know there’s something there. We’ve all become conditioned by our smartphone unwittingly.” And for more ways to steer clear of technology, try these 20 Genius Ways to Kill Time without a Smartphone.
Give your bad habit a persona.
“I turn to one of my more debatable qualities when I’m ready to break a bad habit: stubbornness,” business coach Marla Tabaka told Inc. “If I want something enough and my brain tells me I can’t have it, I’m on a mission to prove it wrong! When I decided to eliminate gluten from my diet I humanized the “enemy” (gluten) by giving it a personality. I saw it as a little character who stopped me from feeling well. Call me crazy, but I actually had conversations with gluten—and it worked.”
Sure, there are obvious benefits to cleaning your room or doing your laundry, but they’re not always enough to overcome your procrastination. If you want to get things done in a timely manner, trying making your own incentives, like treating yourself to a coffee break for every task at work you complete or buying a new workout top for every week you make it to the gym. These rewards are the small push you need to turn that procrastination into motivation.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
It can take anywhere from 15 to 254 days to create a new habit, and one of the most important parts of the process is repetition. Research out of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology shows that 40 percent of a person’s regular habits are performed in almost identical situations every day. Translation: Do something at the same time every day, and eventually it’ll stick. The same logic applies to breaking a habit.5
Get off the couch.
If you want to lose weight, it’s as simple as getting up and moving, according to researchers from Northwestern University. They found that, when subjects were asked to reduce their time spent on the couch, their saturated fat intake was reduced by almost 18 percent. “Just making two lifestyle changes has a big overall effect and people don’t get overwhelmed,” lead author Bonnie Spring explained to Science Daily. “People can make very large changes in a very short amount of time and maintain them pretty darn well.”
Eat with your left hand.
Or try something else that will make you hyperaware of what you’re doing. Psychologist Dr. Saliha Afridi says that a small, simple change in our everyday routine “keeps your brain alert and allows you to be more conscious.” And the more we recognize what we’re doing, the easier it is to make a change.
Keep a written record.
When you write down the thoughts and feelings surrounding your bad habits, you become more aware of the motivations behind them. “Put down the antecedents, the emotions surrounding the [habit] and what goes through your head when you [give in to it],” clinical psychologist Janet L. Wolfe, PhD, told WebMD. This will make your bad habit more conscious.”
Keep track of your weight loss.
Whether you’re looking to save more money or shed a few pounds, nutrition consultant Leslie Bonci says that the best thing to do is keep track of your progress. “We respond well to numbers and this is much less vague and much more tangible,” Bonci said. “This puts things directly in your face so you’re confronted with what you have or have not done.” And for ways to make those pound-shedding numbers soar (or rather, drop), learn the 100 Motivational Weight-Loss Tips for Summer.
There’s a reason that so many people turn to the swear jar when they want to stop cursing: It’s because it works. One Australian writer noted that, after implementing the swear jar method, he only cursed 18 times in one week, compared to his old weekly average of about 400 expletives. “It’s been surprisingly easy to limit pointless and offensive outbursts with the swear jar hanging over me,” he wrote. And while you’re at it, you might want to avoid these 20 Things You’re Saying You Didn’t Know Were Offensive.
Be your own devil’s advocate.
Right before you bite your nails or crack your knuckles, what do you tell yourself? Odds are it sounds something like “One more time won’t kill me” or “I know this is bad, but I can’t help it”—you know, the kind of things that wouldn’t sound so great if you said them to someone else. And in fact, saying them out loud can help you eliminate these habits for good, according to psychologist James Claiborn.
“People can make some important steps if they look at those ‘permission-giving’ thoughts pretty carefully,” he told the Huffington Post. “If you said [those thoughts] out loud, they probably wouldn’t sound very believable—even to you.”
Replace the words “I can’t” with “I don’t.”
When someone asks you if you want dessert, tell them you don’t want anything instead of saying that you can’t have anything. Just let the science convince you: Researchers split subjects into two groups—one group was told to say “I can’t eat chocolate” and the other to say “I don’t eat chocolate.” They found that the group who said they don’t eat chocolate chose to eat the candy almost 70 percent less often.
Find someone who will support you along the way.
Overcoming an old habit isn’t going to be easy, which is why you’ll need the support of your friends along the way. “Research shows that having friends or family members who support your goals improves long-term success,” says nutritionist Cynthia Sass. “Even if they aren’t doing the same thing you’re doing, just having someone to offer encouragement, or listen when you’re having a tough day, can help you hang in when you feel like giving up.”
Prepare yourself for the worst-case scenarios.
As you try to break your bad habit, you should maintain a positive attitude, but it’s also important to be ready for the things that can go wrong as you alter your lifestyle. “Figure out all of the things that can go wrong, and use those as guideposts for the things you need to be prepared for as you embark on the process of making change,” psychology and marketing professor Art Markman told the Huffington Post. “A lot of obstacles are very real.”
Sign up for more workout classes.
Ready to start reaching those weight loss goals? Research shows that people are more likely to actually work out if they’re doing it in a group. “Working out with a crowd carries a plethora of intertwined benefits that include enhancing consistency, duration, motivation, conversation, and inspiration,” Dian Griesel, Ph.D., told NBC News. “Workouts with others improve consistency because they involve a commitment.”
Make sure your goals are SMART.
As in: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. As addiction specialist Sharoo Izadi wrote, “In the short term, it’s more effective from a motivational standpoint to increase your sense of achievement and self-efficacy by achieving the goals you’ve said you’ll achieve as opposed to making big and often unrealistic changes.”
When you start to overthink things, set a timer.
Over-thinkers have a tendency to let their thoughts run rampant, and speaking from experience, it’s a hard habit to break. But if you want to overpower these negative thoughts, Anna Osborn, MA, LPCC, LMFT, suggests only allowing yourself to overthink for a set period of time—and then move on immediately. “Really become aware of how often you’re turning assumptions into facts,” Osborn told Bustle.
Don’t eat when you’re feeling sad.
Overeating is a serious problem that over 2 million people suffer from, but there are many ways to work on resolving the issue. “If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about yourself or your life while you eat, just stop,” says Dr. Lisa Palmer. “Always be aware of why you are wanting to eat, and think twice when you find yourself reaching for that snack after watching the evening news.” And if you need a mood boost, read these 70 Jokes So Corny They’ll Leave You in Stitches.
According to the Mayo Clinic, practicing meditation can give you a sense of serenity, change your outlook on life, and increase your self-awareness—and all of these newfound skills will help you on your journey to kick your old habits. If you find yourself struggling to shut your mind off, try these 10 Ways to Focus Better During Meditation.
Ask yourself the three whys.
Before you smoke, ask yourself, “Why?” Once you formulate a response, follow that up with another “Why?,” and then yet another. If you can come up with three good reasons for doing what you’re doing, then you’ll have confidence in your actions—or in this case, you’ll second-guess your decision to light that cigarette.
Don’t forget the most important meal of the day.
We’re talking about breakfast, of course! “Studies show that folks who eat breakfast report being in a better mood, and have more energy throughout the day,” reports WebMD. And if you’re in a good mood, you’re much less likely to indulge in those bad habits. While you’re at it, you can also try The Best Way to Get an Energy Boost Without Coffee.
Grab a banana before bed.
If you struggle to fall asleep, try eating a banana before you hit the hay. Indonesian researchers found that when elderly patients ate the yellow fruit before bed, they fell asleep much more quickly. And for more sleeping hacks, don’t miss these 40 Tips for Better Sleep on Summer Nights.
Buy a plant.
If procrastination is your problem, then a plant just might be the solution. One study found that adding greenery to a workspace increased productivity by 15 percent. Plus, a little bit of green can instantly light up any space.
Dress to impress.
“Dress well and appropriate and you will be surprised as to how much self-confidence can boost energy levels,” explains physician Mashfika Alam. And with those reserves of energy, you can finally hit the gym, clean the house, or meal prep your way to a healthier lifestyle. Looking for more ways to live your best life? Start with The 20 Best Apps for a More Organized Life.
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