I’m often asked about how to “stop a bad habit”. I’m not here to judge, just quoting what people say to me. A habit is ‘bad’ if you say it is, and for the purposes here I’m assuming it is something you’d rather live without like, for example, constantly apologising when you needn’t, constantly being late for appointments, or smoking.

There are things which we generally agree are good for us, and others less so or harmful. We all have them, and sometimes these habits are hard to break. Here’s a little secret which makes it easier to stop a bad habit.

We all have habits we don’t like or are not proud of. Mostly these are a low-level nuisance – like chewing our nails or taking out our stress on others – so we accept and live with them. They may annoy other people, but… Well, you know!
Other habits can be positively dangerous – driving too fast, smoking, drug use – and inconvenient enough to get us to want to change them.

This is often where we create a new problem for ourselves. We want to stop a bad habit but inadvertently we set ourselves up for failure, and in failing confirm our belief that our particular habit is a tough one.

How to stop a bad habit

The paradox is that the more you try to stop a bad habit the harder it can seem to make the change.

Part of the problem here is ‘trying’. You don’t often hear people who succeed at things saying they did it by ‘trying’, mostly they just get on and do it. My personal theory is that when we say we’ll ‘try’ to do something, we are secretly allowing ourselves an exit clause; it allows us to be less disciplined in getting to what we want.

A second point is – and this is the main one – you can stop a bad habit more easily if you forget all about ‘stopping’. You are more likely to succeed in your aim if you work towards what you want to become, rather than away from something you want to lose. Trying to “stop smoking”, “not be late” or “give up drink”, for example, is fraught with risk because the very thing we are trying to stop becomes the centre of our attention; we must first think about it, before we can think about changing the habit.

By contrast, decide on your goal and move towards it and you’ll find the whole exercise more purposeful and positive. Instead of feeling that you are having something taken away from you (the old habit), you’ll now be moving forward in a goal-oriented way. When your aim is to become a non-smoker, be on time, or “only drink soft drinks”, you have provided yourself with a recipe for a specific course of action. Non-smokers don’t smoke, people who are on time are not late… etc.

Its all a question of telling ourselves what we want, rather than what we don’t want. While I’m on the topic, it works well with giving instructions to others; always ask for what you want, not what you don’t.

It seems obvious, yet it’s amazing how often we hear parents telling the children, “don’t run”, or “don’t make a noise”, rather than “please walk”, or “do it quietly”, and we remind others by saying “don’t be late”, or “don’t forget”.