Break Bad Habits for Good

You know you’re not supposed to nibble your nails or visit the vending machine every afternoon, but it’s hard to break bad habits when you’re under stress. What gives?

“Many adults have bad habits that developed in childhood or adolescence as a way to comfort anxiety,” says Mary C. Lamia, a clinical psychologist and professor at The Wright Institute in Berkeley, Ca. “In the end, the bad habit causes more stress because of the negative consequences -- whether it’s embarrassment over having tattered nails, extra pounds from eating candy, or big credit-card bills from spending money aimlessly.”

Good news: It’s easier to break bad habits than you may think! You may not choose to feel stressed or unhappy, but you do have a choice when it comes to dealing with those feelings. As you prepare for the new year and the resolutions that come with it, try this four-step plan:

1. Commit to change.
“Change won’t happen unless you make it a top priority,” says Susan Gayle, a cognitive behavior therapist and founder of The New Behavior Institute in New York City. It’s one thing to want lovely nails, but you really, really have to want to kick the habit in order to stop biting them. Once you make that decision, you’ve got to stay focused on the end result -- a beautiful manicure -- for as long as it takes to break the negative pattern.

2. Look at your routines.
Most stress-related habits are ritualistic: They’re structured around a specific situation and a specific time. To break bad habits, pay attention to them and note when and why they happen. Maybe you reach for a cigarette right after meals or crave cookies during tense times at work. If you realize when you’re more likely to continue the bad habit, it’ll be easier to notice and stop yourself from doing it.

3. Substitute with a better behavior.
“The key to breaking a bad habit lies in recognizing that you have an emotional need -- and fulfilling that need in a positive way,” Gayle points out. Once you know when you’re most likely to slip into a bad habit, find a healthier outlet for your feelings. Reach for a piece of fruit or cheese when your midday candy cravings hit. Keep a stress ball or worry beads at your desk to stop you from slouching or picking at your cuticles. Call a friend and vent before you hit the mall for some retail therapy.

4. Think positively before bed.
“Information gets stored in our subconscious mind through trauma or repetition,” Gayle says. “Give your subconscious a new way of thinking.” Try this exercise to break bad habits: Write a sentence about the change you want to make, but word it as if the change already is a reality (e.g., I’m losing weight, I drink less coffee, I keep my paperwork in order). Then repeat it out loud four times just before you fall asleep. “When you’re physically relaxed, your subconscious is more activated,” Gayle explains.

Finally, don’t sweat it if you slip back into old ways on your journey to nice nails and thinner thighs. After all, experts say it takes 21 days of repetition to break bad habits. “Many people think it’s over and give up when they return to their old behavior,” Gayle says. “It’s not over. It’s just the old behavior moving out and the new behavior moving in.”