Life Advice: How to Break Bad Habits and Keep Your Resolutions

blank list of resolutions on blackboard

January is pretty quiet when it comes to advice giving and life coaching because most people are so enthusiastic about their New Year’s resolutions that they don’t think they need any help. But then February rolls around and that chocolate cake starts to look awfully tempting, you realize you are too busy to exercise or do volunteer work and you get a bit defensive when telling your friends there’s nothing wrong with staying home every evening, alone, with a  book.  The initial thrill of the New Year has worn off, your routine has kicked in and you now have to make those vows to change all over again.

Trust me – I know how hard that is.  I have habits that I have always been proud of, that I thought were positive. Habits that I am only now starting to realize may not be having the best effect on my life and the lives of those around me.

Part of the reason that habits are so difficult to break is because, whether it’s physical or emotional, your habit has belonged to you for a long time. You think it’s part of who you are.  Well, it’s not!  You are whoever you choose to be, how much effort you’re willing to put in and the intentions behind every choice you make.  Here are a few tips on maintaining the decisions you’ve made to make your lives better and be the best you that you can be.

Decide what you want to be, not what you want to become

If a large part of your resolution involves fantasizing about some idealistic, future version of yourself that you want to eventually become, and your main goal is to keep that version in your mind’s eye, then you are setting yourself up for failure.  It’s almost as bad as comparing yourself to others.  The longer it goes on, the farther away this person will seem from the person you currently are, and the more likely you will be to get depressed and give up.  We are a culture with a short attention span. That love for instant gratification is usually how bad habits form in the first place.

Why not try to reform your resolution to be a bit more obtainable?  For example, instead of promising yourself that you are going to be thinner and in better shape, say you are going to be someone who eats right and exercises.  The latter is a goal you could achieve tomorrow and get that rush of success. Hopefully, that rush will be your new addiction.  It’s a way to make the need for instant gratification work for you instead of against you!  After that, it’s all about maintenance.

Negative reinforcement can be positive

I’m a big believer in the power of positive thinking, of using mantras and quotes to get you through the day.  But even in the face of the most beautiful, inspiring words, our subconscious can be awfully determined to hang on to bad habits. We find ways to excuse ourselves for our faults and let ourselves off the hook.  Let’s be honest – sometimes negative reinforcement can be more powerful than hope.

My guess is that it was a negative moment that inspired your resolution in the first place.  An awkward social moment. The time when being too scared to try cost you the job you wanted. The day you got winded running up the stairs. Remember those moments.  Keep them fresh and in the forefront of your mind, so that when you start to slide you can relive the consequences of past behavior and find that push you need to keep going in a new direction.

Avoid physical triggers

A physical trigger can be anything from specific place, a group of people or a particular body movement. They key is that you begin to notice some sort of pattern associated with a particular type of behavior.  Once we have a habit for long enough, we find a way to work it into our daily routine, into our lives and our personal spaces.  We start to associate the habit with other things: opening a book right before bed results in staying up late and never get enough sleep. Always ordering dessert at a specific restaurant kills the eating right resolution. Hanging out with a certain group of friends constantly puts you behind in your studies.  It can even be as simple as the physical reaction of automatically opening up your month to give a verbal response when someone tells you their troubles. This can reinforce the habit of assuming they want your opinion or advice when perhaps they just want someone to listen.

After a while these places, people, or actions become the actual trigger for the habit. Study yourself, find the connections and then use this newfound knowledge to help you make an effort to break the habits that no longer serve you. It doesn’t mean you’re saying goodbye to them forever, but armed with self-awareness, you can start strong and always incorporate specific behaviors back into your world after you’ve made more progress.

Check in with someone

It helps to have one person who knows what you are going through, who will not let you off the hook, and who cares enough to interrogate you when you avoid them.  Of course, you can have more than one confidante if you’re worried about overwhelming one person with your problems, but make sure you’re not checking in with too many people or you could get overwhelmed yourself.

Also, be careful when choosing who to ask for help.  The key to this system is to keep yourself surrounded by people with different strengths and weaknesses than your own.  When two friends have the same addictions and bad habits, it seems logical to say you are going to break them together.  There is a camaraderie and understanding we crave, and that can help motivate change. But the sad truth is that you are more likely to fail than if you surround yourself with someone who can balance out your needs.  If you’re having a hard time in math class, you would most likely improve if you were being tutored by a straight A student than by studying with a classmate who is also failing. Turn to someone you know and trust, and who is better than you at what you want to achieve.  Hopefully you’ll be able to return the favor or pay it forward.  We’re all in this together.

Allow yourself to fail

Last but not least, don’t be so enthusiastic about your plans that you go overboard.  If you start an extreme diet on a Monday, go to the gym for the first time that same day, and then vow to do both every day from now on, you are setting yourself up for failure.  Plus, the longer you do actually  manage to keep up your perfect record, the more devastated you will be the minute you make that first mistake. The instinct at that point is to forget all you’ve accomplished and call yourself a failure.  To give up.  To ignore all the other successes you’ve had. And then to swear you’ll start all over next Monday and do better.  It’s a vicious cycle that does nothing for your self esteem and will eat away at you every single time you start over.

Instead, start small and build gradually. If you slip up, brush it off and continue moving towards your goal as though it never happened. Don’t focus on every time you fall down – instead, celebrate how many times you didn’t.  Next thing you know, you won’t remember the last time you messed up because doing the positive thing will be your new habit and routine.

I know it’s difficult, but take it slow and don’t give up.  This year could be the best year of your life and I believe in you.