A 3-step guide to breaking bad habits

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Stop slouching, my mother used to say. She’s 80 now and still says it. Because I haven’t stopped. Sometimes I pass a mirror or a reflecting shop window and see how bad it is. I pull back my shoulders and lift my chin, but soon I’m thinking of something else and doing the droop again.

Slouching looks unattractive, but does it qualify as a bad habit? Turns out it does. Every centimetre your head drops, more weight is applied on your neck and spine muscles. Later, when they relax, they can spasm and cause tension headaches. You’d be surprised by the side-effects of some common baddies. Onychophagia, or biting nails, is as nasty as it sounds. It can lead to infections, smelly breath and wear on your front teeth.

The way of the habit-breaker starts with admitting you have one. Don’t call it a vice – that makes you sound weak or morally suspect. Just call it a habit.
Like all bad habits, accept the need for change and slowly work towards an improvement.

 1. Find out why your habit is bad. There’s your motivation for making a change.

There’s a reason for every habit. Smoking might feel like a boost –­ you might believe it sharpens your concentration. These days, when you can’t smoke indoors, it might be your version of time out – a chance to step away from a stressful situation or an overwhelming job.
The smoke break can fulfil an emotional need. So can waking up every time the phone beeps to check the message. Perhaps you find it reassuring to see a text is not important – everything is still okay. But you won’t be okay after many nights of broken sleep. You’re not resting properly.

Why do you do it? When and where? Figure it out.

2. Now you just stop, right?

Wrong. Keep telling yourself you won’t do it and you’ll fail. Your brain’s habit controls can’t be reset by not doing – only by doing something else.
You have to replace a bad habit with a good one that might have the same effect, like making you feel calmer or more focussed.
If you drink too much coffee and end up feeling as wired as a lab rat, decide to try out different herbal teas.

3. Change your habitat.

If your bad (not to mention dangerous) habit is texting while driving, put the phone where you can’t reach it.
If you usually eat all the ice cream in the fridge in one go, buy a smaller tub. While you’re at it, try switching to frozen yoghurt.
If you reach for the TV remote the moment you sit down on the couch, move it so you have to get up and fetch it.
Pick an innocent word to say when you feel the urge to swear loudly in your eerily quiet open office.
When the habit takes more effort – go there, buy this, fetch that – you have more time to fight the urge. It might even seem like too much trouble.

Don’t beat yourself up…

So your new four-letter word will be “nice”, you’ll drink chai lattes instead of cappuccinos, munch nuts instead of nails, listen to music instead of the WhatsApp ping.
Good job. You’ll still have weak moments, though. Accept them and don’t beat yourself up about it. Most of all, don’t use a slip as an excuse for going back to the badness.
You’re not becoming a new person, by the way. It’s not as monumental as that, so don’t feel intimidated.
Even if you started in childhood, there was a time when you didn’t have the bad habit. Which means you have been able to cope without it before. So by breaking the habit, you’re simply returning to how you were.

That doesn’t feel like such a stretch, does it?

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    I don’t smoke or drink. Just need to cut out the sugar.

    2 years ago •

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