How to Change a Bad Habit: 5 Behavior Modification Strategies to Get You on Track

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Are you having trouble shaking a bad habit? Habits like overeating, compulsively checking the phone, or being sedentary can get in our way of living full and satisfying lives.

Nothing happens in isolation. For any action, we can always look back in time and identify influences and triggers that led up to it.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

But the difficult thing about ingrained habits is that good intentions is often not enough to change them. It takes commitment, skill, and practice.

If you’re considering making a change in your life, here are 5 evidence-based strategies for making it happen:

1. Take a close look at the pros and cons of changing vs. staying the same.

This kind of exercise can be particularly helpful in the early stages of change when you’re still making up your mind about whether or not it’s really worth the effort. Give it a try using our Pros and Cons Worksheet.

EXCLUSIVE – Try Our Decisional Balance Worksheet and Get Yourself Motivated for Change

2. Monitor and record problem behaviors.

If you’re wanting to be more active, you might count the number of times you notice yourself sitting for more than an hour over the course of a typical week. Or if you’re trying to stop biting your nails, you could record the number of times you catch yourself doing it across the day. Self-monitoring can be tedious work but still well worth the effort at any point in the change process.

Self-monitoring can help you to: (a) track your progress over time, (b) learn about when unwanted behavior is most likely to occur and what triggers it, and (c) slow down and be more mindful of urges and other internal cues (e.g., boredom) that lead up to the behavior.

There are now apps that can help you to keep track of bad habits and unwanted behaviors on your phone. Give it a try and download a free self-monitoring app like KeepTrack or Thing Counter.           

3. Manage triggers that promote unwanted habits.

Nothing happens in isolation. For any action, we can always look back in time and identify influences and triggers that led up to it. These triggers can be internal (e.g., having a defeatist thought like ‘What’s the use?’ ) or external (e.g., being around others with similar bad habits). 

In some cases, identifying and managing a trigger may be fairly straightforward. If you’re trying to cut back on fast food, for example, and you know that the Taco Bell on the way home from work will be calling your name, you can take an alternate route so you’ll be less tempted to ‘make a run for the border.’

‘In other cases, however, identifying triggers may be less obvious. If unwanted behavior seems to have no rhyme or reason to it, try to retrace your steps. Revisit a time in the recent past when you had a slip up. See if you can replay the scene in your head and slowly rewind the film. What do you notice?

Sometimes in can be helpful to formalize this process using what’s called a chain analysis, which involves identifying all of the links in the chain that led up to unwanted behavior.

Once you identify your most potent triggers, come up with an action plan for managing them. How can you react differently to these triggers? Can some of them be avoided altogether?

4. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals and reward yourself along the way.

To keep yourself focused, it’s important to establish goals and track your progress toward them. However, some goals can set you up for failure.

A goal like ‘Be a better person,’ for instance, wouldn’t be a particularly useful one. It’s too broad and vague. How would you ever know if you accomplished it?

The best goals are ones that are S.M.A.R.T.:

(a) Specific: Narrow down what you’re really wanting to achieve.

(b) Measurable: The best goals can also be objectively assessed, so there’s no ambiguity about whether or not they were met. There are a number of resources and apps for tracking different kinds of change.  

(c) Attainable: Start small and don’t try to change everything at once. Set goals you truly believe you can attain. Meeting your initial goals, even if they’re modest ones, will boost your confidence and motivation to keep at it. Also make sure that you have control over the goal. You can’t guarantee you’ll lose 10 pounds, for example, but you can make sure to exercise for 30 minutes three times a week.     

(d) Relevant: Set goals that relate directly to the problems you’re facing. Consider also how your goals align with your larger values and life purpose.

(e) Time-Limited: Set a reasonable timetable for achieving your goals. And come back regularly to assess your progress toward them.

And make sure to have rewards built into each goal. Celebrating your progress and being compassionate with yourself is an important part of the process.

5. Seek advice and support from trusted allies.

It helps to have someone in your corner to give you guidance and encouragement. Friends and family can also be recruited as partners in the change process to help keep you on track with your goals.

However, it is important to pick people that you’re confident will support what you’re trying to do. Buddying up with someone who is struggling with similar issues, but not motivated to change themselves, could create conflict and undermine the progress that you’ve made.

If there’s no one in your immediate circle that you believe would be a reliable source of social support, consider working with a therapist or life coach. You can identify local therapists at Psychology Today or give online counseling a try with our partner, BetterHelp.       

The Bottom Line

If you’re wanting to make a change in your life, try: (1) examining the pros/cons of change vs. doing nothing, (2) monitoring unwanted behaviors, (3) managing triggers, (4) setting S.M.A.R.T. goals, and (5) seeking support.

Give these strategies a try! And tell us about your journey with change in the comments below.


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