How to Break Your Unhealthy Habits

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By Megan M. Krischke, contributor
July 12, 2012
- Are you longing to break free from a bad habit--especially one that is taking a toll on your health? Understanding the process for gaining willpower and changing habits can help you become the person you want to be.

“Bad habits form fairly automatically,” stated Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., psychologist at Florida State University and author of the best-selling Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. “We do things that we are motivated to do; our inclination is to go for short-term reward. However, unlike most animals who just respond to what they see or hear, we can imagine the future.” 

The process for making a positive change starts with a self-assessment.

How to Break Habits
Julie Cohen, career coach, says keeping the positive results in mind can help you stay motivated to change your habits, even when the new habits seem difficult.

“Start by identifying the habits that are no longer serving you,” advised Julie Cohen, PCC, career and personal coach. “Sometimes we have a behavior that serves us for a certain period of time, but we overuse it.”

She gave an example: “You may have high expectations of yourself and hate to leave things undone, so you end up staying an extra hour or two at the end of a 12-hour shift. You think you are being a super-responsible employee, but ultimately this behavior wears on your mental and physical wellness. You need to recognize when you are losing more than you are gaining, and come up with a better habit that serves the results you want to get.”

“In order to make the change, you need to tie it to a positive result. You need to answer the question: ‘What’s in it for me?’” she continued. “You have to quantify a benefit for changing the behavior. Then take it the next step and practice the behavior. In the beginning it will be uncomfortable. When you use new muscles there is pain and you have to choose to continue to do it and look for the results.”

How to Break Habits
Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., asserts that willpower is like a muscle that you can strengthen, but can also become fatigued over time.

“Willpower is like a muscle--you can strengthen it over time. Start with small things that can exercise your willpower muscle and increase your strength, like minding you posture or keeping a clean workstation,” offered Baumeister.

“Nurses especially need to be aware--because of their exposure to germs and shift work--that fighting off illness uses the same energy source as willpower and that there seems to be a connection between lack of sleep and lack of willpower,” he added.

Keeping track of your progress can help keep you motivated and offer personal accountability.

“Knowing your action will stay on the record helps take you beyond the immediate moment and the temptation,” he said.

According to Jessica Heller, owner and founder of Ignite Life Coaching, after naming the change you want to make and identifying why you want to change, the next step is to ask yourself, “What is one step that I can take today towards my goal of breaking this bad habit?”
“The last piece is to keep yourself accountable to making sure you do what you say you want to do,” she explained. “This can play out differently for individuals. Accountability can be writing yourself a note or setting an alarm or reminder in your phone. Many times it means telling someone you trust that this is something that is important to you, that you want to make sure you do it and that you need their help to make sure it happens.”

“Maybe you need someone else to break the habit with you, to check in with you or to ask you a key question,” Heller continued. “Whatever accountability means for you, make sure it is in place as you choose to take action and make the change.”

Cohen suggests thinking back on how you succeeded in breaking a bad habit or started a healthy behavior in the past. She emphasizes that change doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and to focus on making the change manageable for you.

“Celebrate all victories,” she remarked. “And don't be too tough on yourself if you take a step or two backwards.  It may take a few times, or more, to move from a not-so-good habit to a better one.” 

“Many nurses struggle with work–life balance and the best thing nurses can do is get rid of two myths,” she continued. “One, that there is a single definition of work–life balance and you have to fit it, and second, that you ever actually get there. It is a journey in the direction you decide, based on how old you are, your values and priorities.”
“The more deeply rooted the habit is, the harder it is going to be to break it. But there’s hope,” noted Heller.

“Make the choice to break the bad habits and form the good ones that are a more true reflection of who you are,” she added. “If you are having a hard time with thinking through this process on your own, figuring out what your end goal is or who your ideal you is, this is where coaching can play a transformational role in your life.”

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