Every night that I’m alone in my apartment, I grab my laptop and start scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed.
My intention is to spend five minutes catching up on people’s life achievements and pretty vacation photos — and then suddenly, it’s an hour later.
Afterwards, I feel kind of blech. Like I just wasted a chunk of precious non-working time that I could instead have used to call a friend, or take a walk, or clean my bedroom. But the next night, it’s the same deal.
I’m assuming (hoping?) you can relate, even if your blech isn’t the Facebook newsfeed. Which is why I’ve put together a list of 10 strategies, recommended by experts and backed by science, to help us break bad habits and start better ones.
I plan to use some, if not all, of these techniques to break my late-night Facebook habit. But they can be equally helpful for those who want to quit biting their nails, or start flossing daily, or hit the gym regularly after work.
Read on to learn how to take control of your daily routines — and hey, wish me luck.
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1. Start a new habit by figuring out what helped you succeed in the past
Instead of beating yourself up for your inability to commit to a new habit, try pinpointing the specific factors that will help you achieve your goal.
According to Gretchen Rubin, author of “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives,” one way to do that is to ask yourself: What was different then from now?
In other words, reflect on a time when you successfully changed your behavior in the past and figure out what you had then that you don’t have now.
For example, Rubin has a friend who used to work out regularly when she was on the track team in high school, but finds it difficult to make time for exercise now that she’s on her own.
Then, the friend had external expectations to meet — presumably, she had to show up to practices or else she’d get kicked off the team. Now, she’s her own coach.
So it might be helpful for her to find a workout buddy or trainer.
The idea here is to set yourself up for success using your past achievements as your guide.
2. Start a new habit by finding opportunities for a ‘fresh start’
There’s a reason why the gym gets super crowded in early January and on Monday mornings.
Researchers call it the “fresh-start effect” to describe what happens when we seize on any opportunity to leave our old, lazy selves behind and become our new, ideal selves.
So if you’re trying to start a fitness regimen, consider putting the plan in place on your birthday, or the first day of the month, or any other date that seems like a turning point. You’ll likely see it as a chance to try again.
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3. Break a bad habit through mindfulness
The problem with scrolling through Facebook or biting your nails is that it feels great in the moment, right?
Maybe not. According to research led by psychiatrist Judson Brewer, if you focus on how the bad behavior really feels, you might realize that it’s not so pleasurable after all.
Brewer conducted a study in which he instructed smokers to smoke cigarettes mindfully, focusing on what it smelled and tasted like. Another group went through standard training on quitting smoking. Mindfulness proved twice as effective at helping people quit.
Brewer explains that mindfulness helps you observe your behavior — whether it’s smoking or nail-biting — up close, without getting sucked into it. Over time, your disgust for the behavior could help you quit the habit for good.
4. Start a new habit or break a bad habit with the ‘daily questions’ exercise
Leadership coach and author Marshall Goldsmith uses the “daily questions” ritual to help change his behavior.
Here’s how it works: Start with an Excel spreadsheet and write down a series of important questions about your experiences with friends, family, and coworkers.
Create seven boxes across, one for every day of the week. Every question is either answered with yes/no or a number from 1-10, comparing yesterday’s effort to previous days.
At the end of the week, create a report card.
Goldsmith’s questions include: “Did I do my best to be happy?” and “How many minutes did you walk?” but you can come up with questions that fit your personal goals.
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5. Start a new habit by riding the ‘motivation wave’
There’s little point trying to pack a gym bag or chop up fresh vegetables when you’re exhausted after a long day of work. Instead, do the prep work for good habits when you do feel energized and motivated.
Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg calls this riding the “motivation wave,” or the fluctuations in your motivation levels.
Here’s how it might work if you want to eat more healthfully. When you come home from the grocery store one Sunday afternoon and your motivation is high, you should wash your vegetables, chop them up, and put them in clear containers in your refrigerator where you can see them.
Later in the week, when you’re tired and hungry, your goal of eating more vegetables is easier to do. It’s all about predicting the obstacles you’ll face in changing your behavior and making it easier to overcome them.
6. Start a new habit or break a bad one by changing your passwords
Tech Insider’s Drake Baer has reported that turning your password into a “mantra” has the potential to change your life for the better.
He cited a Medium post by Maruicio Estrella, in which Estrella describes changing his passwords to goals that he wanted to achieve. For example: “Forgive@h3r” when he wanted to forgive his ex-wife and “Quit@smoking4ever.”
The point is to take advantage of tiny moments and daily routines to help you achieve your biggest goals.
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7. Break a bad habit by saying ‘I don’t’
Two simple words can help you eliminate unhealthy behavior: “I don’t.”
In 2012, researchers tested the power of “I don’t” as opposed to “I can’t” on a group of 30 women participating in a health and wellness seminar. One-third of the women were taught to say “I don’t do X” every time they were faced with a temptation to eat unhealthfully; one-third were taught to say “I can’t do X;” and one-third were taught to “just say no.”
Sure enough, participants in the “I can’t” and “just say no” groups were unlikely to last for the full study — but 80% of those in the “I don’t” group stuck it out.
You can apply this same strategy to procrastinating less, for example, by saying, “I don’t procrastinate because I care about giving my full attention to this project.”
8. Start a new habit or break a bad habit by getting your partner involved
A recent study looked at health behaviors among couples in the UK and found that one partner’s habits have a big influence on the other’s.
Specifically, people were more likely to quit smoking, exercise more, and lose weight if their partner did the same.
Consider making a pact with your partner to get healthy together, whether that means cooking more or joining a local gym. Or, if you want your partner to adopt a new positive habit, try modeling the behavior for them.
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9. Break a bad habit by identifying the cue, routine, and reward
According to journalist Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” every bad habit is a loop that consists of a cue, routine, and reward.
In the book, Duhigg uses an example from his own life to show how the loop works. Every day between 3 and 4 p.m., he’d get up from his desk, grab a cookie from the cafeteria, and eat it while chatting with his coworkers.
Eventually, he learned that the cue was the time of day. The routine was getting up to get a cookie. And the reward? No, it wasn’t a sugar rush — it was socializing with his coworkers.
Now, instead of eating a cookie in the afternoon, he goes over to a colleague’s desk and gossips for 10 minutes before returning to his desk. He successfully broke the habit by replacing it with a better one that produced the same reward.
10. Start a new habit or break a bad one by creating an ‘if-then’ plan
If you want to change your behavior, you’ve got to set specific goals — and if-then planning can help you do just that.
Writing in 99U, social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson explains how it works: You decide when and where you will take specific actions to achieve your goal. For example: “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work.”
Halvorson cites research that found people who used the if-then statement above were significantly more likely to exercise regularly than people who didn’t make specific plans.
That’s likely because they effectively eliminated all that time they’d otherwise spend deciding when and how to take action. The habit became easier.