3 Ways to Break Old Habits and Make New Habits Stick

by Tim on January 5, 2011

We’ve all had a bad habit of some sort – cracking knuckles, biting fingernails, spending money you don’t have, speaking over other people, you name it. I hope I’m not getting too personal…. A habit can become almost involuntary and can be very frustrating if it’s one you don’t want. Although there is no magic formula for breaking a habit, there are ways to overcome them and replace these actions with better habits. Yes, it comes down to change and change is hard; but with a little work, you can reprogram your mind to do anything you set out to do.

Breaking Bad Habits

1. Address the Reason WHY You Need to Stop

Why is your habit so bad anyway? Until you actually come up with the reason and acknowledge the impact of your habit, you’ll never get over it.

Do you have a habit of checking your email too much? Your reason to stop may be that it’s taking too much time away from your family. Spending too much money? Your reason to stop is because your finances are suffering and you just can’t ‘get ahead.’  Be honest with yourself and think about what is being affected by the habit.

2. Identify Substitutes

Once you know why you need to stop, you can work on ways to replace the habit with better things. Try to identify activities that will make you more productive or help you practice self-control. An example would be to set aside 3 ten-minute blocks at night to check your email. This lets you stay in control of your email – not the other way around. If you want to break the vending machine habit, try bringing pre-made snacks to work. You’ll soon overcome the temptation to spend a few dollars just by planning ahead.

3. Make the Decision

You can talk about making a change all you want, but nothing happens until you start. The choice to start doing something differently needs to be a conscious decision that you believe in – otherwise, it won’t stick. Choosing the substitute over your bad habit will put you on your way to better habits – but you’re not done yet…

Building Good Habits

1. Get Focused

If you want to build good habits, you need to have a strong will and narrowed focus. Trying to start too many new habits will only result in a bunch of inconsistent tasks. Start with one new habit at a time and make it a priority to master it before moving on to your next goal.

2. Stay Organized

Your efforts will be much more fruitful if you write down your goals and objectives before starting. Keep it simple and make targets that are achievable. Try making milestones that you can track over a period of time. An example would be: “I will drink 4 glasses of water a day for a week and move to 5 glasses next week.” Create a chart and keep track of your progress.

3. Be Consistent

Habits aren’t broken overnight; nor are they started in a day. Through consistent action, you can add a great habit to your life that can literally make your life better!

One of the ways you can stay committed is through accountability. (yes, the “A” word) Announce your new goal to a few friends or write a $100 check to someone you trust with instruction to cash it if you don’t keep your word.

You’ve heard it said that a new habit takes 21 days of consistent action in order to stick. Whether that’s true or not, I challenge you to start and commit to your goal no matter how long it takes. The bottom line is that it requires a concentrated effort and determination to change, but I’m confident you can do it!

“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:13

What do you think? Do you have any tips or habits to break or start?

Tim is a personal finance writer at Faith and Finance a Christian financial help blog that provides financial insights for individuals, businesses, and churches. Outside of finance, Tim enjoys spending time with his wife, playing the saxophone, reading economics books, and a good game of RISK or Catan. Find him on Twitter and Facebook and subscribe to the Faith and Finance RSS feed.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

krantcents January 5, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Find the technique or strategy that works for you! That is the most important part of this. Yes, 21 days is the amount of time it takes to establish a new habit. Good luck.

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Tim @ Faith and Finance January 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Great tip Jenna – it’s definitely harder to slack off when someone else is watching :)

@ Krantcents – You’re right – something that works for me might not be the right way to break/make a habit for you. I don’t know if I’ve ever really tried to test the 21 day thing…I might have to pull a ‘Mythbusters’ and test it on something.

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Roshawn @ Watson Inc January 5, 2011 at 8:19 pm

I like the advice on identifying substitutes. For example, using artificial sugar can help one with a sweet-tooth stop over-indulging in sugary foods. Sometimes, it is not an “all or none” deal.

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Samantha Dermot January 6, 2011 at 6:47 am

I must admit, it is really had to control yourself from breaking old habits most especially if you’ve been doing it for years now. Some people need to undergo guidance from experts while some can manage to change themselves alone. Whatever ways you choose, you must only remember one thing… Your willingness to change for the better is the best way to start everything!

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joeplemon January 6, 2011 at 12:42 pm

@Tim,
I like the idea of writing a $100 check to someone I trust with instructions to cash it if I don’t keep my word. It really flushes out whether one is simply wishing a bad habit will go away or is serious about breaking it.

That is a new one for me. Is it original with you? Have you ever used that idea yourself or know of anyone who has?

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Tim @ Faith and Finance January 6, 2011 at 12:53 pm

@ Roshawn – Thanks! There is almost always a positive thing you can substitute for a negative habit. Finding one that helps you to grow in knowledge or health (like reading or eating vegetables for snacks) can really change life for the better!

@ Samantha – You’ll never get somewhere unless you start! Thanks for commenting :)

@Joe – I didn’t come up with that idea; I’ve heard a few variations growing up. One of my profs in college had a standing agreement with a buddy for working out and each person paid cash if they missed a day. I thought checks work nicely and I’ve heard a few others do the same.

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JohnG Billings Mortgage January 6, 2011 at 2:26 pm

I’ve been writing so many things down on a day to day basis, what more is it to write down my goals as well? (eating more vegetables). Maybe I’ll just keep a tally on my planner. Thanks for the tips!

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twentysomethingmoney January 6, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I think time and patience also helps… it takes time to change, and you need to realize that going into changing anything.

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Tim @ Faith and Finance January 7, 2011 at 12:33 am

@ John G – Having the goals in front of you always serves as a nice reminder. Try putting a sticky note on any extra bags of junk food in the house :)

@ Twentysomethingmoney – Rome wasn’t built in a day…the time and patience part is difficult for me, but it’s necessary!

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Everyday Tips January 8, 2011 at 9:01 am

I think I read it takes 3 weeks to make a new habit stick. That being said, I think persistence and patience are a huge part of the equation.

I agree that substitution is very important. With my luck though, I would be exchanging one habit for a much worse one! :) I am actually finding success with this method though with my quest to give up pop.

Great post!

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Jerry January 8, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Staying focused and organized is usually what leads to results for me. If my environment is chaotic then I can’t think or concentrate and do what I need to do. I need to lose some weight as requested by my insurance company. I can do this if I focused and stay organized.

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Tim @ Faith and Finance January 10, 2011 at 10:29 am

@ Everyday Tips – I hope you’re successful in your attempt to rid yourself of pop (or soda as some say). I went all of college without drinking pop and don’t really drink it today (I actually stopped liking carbonation because of the 4 years of not drinking it). You can do it!

@ Jerry – I absolutely believe that you can do whatever you set out to do. Make mini-goals and try to focus just on the week at hand. Eating right/exercise should be a daily goal. Trying to go 6 weeks of straight workout will just burn you out. But trying to workout 3/5 days of the week—now that’s a goal.

Best of luck to both of you!

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ForexTrader January 10, 2011 at 1:51 pm

My strategy is to make small steps. I always try to change little things and only one thing at a time. If you try to change who you are and who you were until that day over night you will fail 100%. We are complex beings and 90 % of our actions are made of habits. So don’t force yourself to move a mountain try instead to move a small stone.

Keep up the good work.

Cheers Alex

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Anna@CreditCardComparison.com.au January 11, 2011 at 2:10 pm

I agree that having bad habits can really be a cause of frustration and disappointment, most especially if it involves your finances, like spending more than you have. These are really straightforward, realistic and helpful strategies on breaking those bad habits and starting on the good ones. I admit it’s hard to get rid of things we’re used to doing (in my case spending way too much!), but once we set our minds into eradicating bad habits and think of the benefits at hand, it’s truly worth the sacrifice and effort.

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