Breaking bad habits is hard, but it’s not unachievable. With the right mindset, tools and commitment, you can make 2021 the year you replace negative behaviors with positive ones.
To help guide us through the process, today we will talk to Harriette Cole. Cole is a lifestyle and branding coach who helps her clients build their dreams -- which includes ditching the bad habits.
Set positive goals
You may have a goal to break a bad habit, but reframing your goal to something positive can help you achieve higher odds of success.
“What you set your mind to is what you end up doing,” explains Cole. “If you’re focused on not doing something, that thing can take up all of the oxygen. But when you set your mind to do something positive, it’s easier to move forward.”
She notes that this doesn’t mean you ignore your bad habits. But you integrate breaking them into a larger, more constructive goal.
For example, if you smoke and want to quit, setting quitting as a goal may have you perpetually ruminating on your next cigarette. But if you set better health as your goal and integrate quitting as one way to achieve a healthier life, you may find it easier to do so as there’s a reward at the end.
That reward may be making it up a few flights of steps without losing your breath or generally improving your life expectancy.
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Break big goals into small tasks
New Year’s is a time when we tend to set big goals. Big goals are good, but they’re just the first step. Cole says that in order to achieve those goals, you need to break them down into smaller, manageable steps.
“Then you get to be your own cheerleader along the way,” she says. “When you make manageable goals, it helps you to reinforce your positive behavior, and creates a better chance of accomplishing the task.”
Maybe you’re a procrastinator. It’s the bad habit you’d like to break. You’ve had this dream of writing a book for years, but you’ve never brought it into fruition.
Using the book as your big goal, you would sit down and figure out things like the topic of your book, the type of research you’d need to do, and how many hours a week you’d have to spend in front of the keyboard to accomplish the task.
Organizing all these tasks into weekly, achievable goals can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. As you check each task off each week -- whether that be X hours of research or X hours of writing -- you’ll build confidence in your ability to actually, finally dothis.
As for how much time you dedicate to your goal, Cole advises at least an hour each day.
“When you do that, you keep the momentum going,” she explains. “You have it on the front burner -- not on the back burner.”
Foster in-the-moment awareness
Making a plan and setting small, achievable goals along the way doesn’t mean your behavior will magically change. There will still be moments where you crave nicotine. There will still be moments where the desire to procrastinate will feel like self-care, even though it’s counterproductive to your goals.
Cole sees this same need for behavior change frequently as she coaches speakers. When people get nervous, they use fillers like ‘um,’ ‘like,’and ‘you know what I mean.’
When her clients find themselves falling into these patterns, she encourages them to practice breathing exercises. To bring themselves into the moment and foster awareness of their word choices and other behaviors.
Mindfulness such as this can be used for breaking other habits, too. Simply noticing you’re feeling overwhelmed can empower you to honor the feeling, but then question it.
You might say:
‘I want a cigarette because I’m addicted to nicotine. But I also want to be healthy, and feeding the addiction moves me further from my goal of a healthy life . ”
‘Do I really want to disconnect and procrastinate on this project simply because I’m feeling overwhelmed? Or do I want to break down my task and work at the small goals until I hit flow?’
None of us are perfect, and there will be moments where you choose to engage in the old habit anyways. But simply pausing and paying attention gives you the opportunity to make a choice rather than fly on autopilot.
Because ultimately, it’s the autopilot you’re trying to rewire.
Replace bad habits with good ones
Cole notes that in order to break a bad habit, you need to replace it with a more positive one. It’s good to practice mindfulness. But you need to plan what you’ll do in that moment of mindfulness.
When you are tempted to smoke, you might get a hard candy and suck on it instead.
When you are tempted to put off working on your book, you might start by writing just 100 words instead.
By the time you’re done with the hard candy, you’ve completed an engagement with a new oral motor activity.
By the time you get to 100 words, you’ve probably remembered why you’re excited about this project in the first place and may no longer feel the overwhelming need to procrastinate.
Don’t wait for things to get ‘better’
A lot of life has been put on hold in 2020. Some of the restrictions we’ve been experiencing will continue into 2021.
But Cole says that doesn’t mean you should put self-improvement on hold. She recalls a lesson learned from her 91-year-old mother, who taught her that even in the darkest of moments, you can find something good.
“When you build on the good, more good comes,” she says. “That’s not to say you’re living in a fantasy world. It’s about creating opportunities for ourselves to remain positive. It’s not easy. But it is possible.”