There’s no better time than right now to break a bad habit and start a new one!
The following resource was adapted from the Winter 2020 edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
Written specifically for incarcerated men and women, each issue (offered in a men's edition, a women's edition, and a Spanish-language edition) explains the Gospel in a fresh way, offers encouragement and motivation, and shares practical advice for the daily struggles of prison life. Distributed to prisoners via chaplains, program coordinators, and in-prison volunteers, Inside Journal provides a unique way to share the hope of Jesus with those who may never attend a chapel service or Bible study.
BREAKING BAD HABITS: 5 TIPS
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. A leopard never changes its spots. Old habits die hard. You’ve heard it before: breaking bad habits is difficult.
If our brain knows something is bad for us and we try to resist, what overpowers our good intentions? It all boils down to what is known as the cue-routine-reward “habit loop.” A cue signals your brain, which causes you to take action (routine) and rewards you with a sense of temporary pleasure. Then the cycle repeats, and eventually our brains become wired to follow habits without much thought or effort.
So how do you break a bad habit?
1) CREATE A PLAN.
Make a list of triggers and avoid them whenever possible. If your triggers include people, like family members or other prisoners, avoiding them may mean stopping visits and phone calls or putting unhealthy friendships on hold.
When you can’t avoid triggers, set a time limit for that triggering situation or ask a trustworthy prisoner to hold you accountable.
Before entering the triggering situation, get calm (through things like prayer or meditation) and then stay calm (through things like deep breathing or rubbing a soft piece of clothing) while you’re there.
Keep an ongoing journal, writing down things that worked or didn’t work.
2) CHANGE YOUR ROUTINE.
Shake up your habit loop by altering your schedule.
We can actually override brain messages by changing up the routines that accompany a habit. Eventually the brain’s signal pathways will change.
Whenever possible, break up habit rituals, like doing a habit at the same time or location, in the same emotional state, or around the same people.
For example, smokers have had more success quitting when they’ve stopped going to the same designated smoking area at the same time each day and stopped hanging around their smoking buddies.
Also, if you’re more likely to act on your habit when you’re tired or bored, get more sleep or find more hobbies.
With commitment and consistency, these simple steps make a big difference.
3) CREATE NEW HEALTHY HABITS.
When temptation arises, try a healthy activity instead.
For example, if your habit is nail biting, then any time you’re tempted to bite your nails, quickly stop and do 25 pushups instead.
Fill typical “triggering” moments of your day with activities requiring extra focus, like learning a foreign language or doing crossword puzzles.
Find creative outlets, like journaling or drawing, for the nervous energy that surrounds a bad habit.
Also, try to repeat the healthy behavior in the same situation until it becomes routine.
According to a University College London (UCL) study on habits, performing the new behavior in a consistent setting can cue that behavior in the future.
So in the example of exercising instead of nail biting, you’ll need to exercise consistently every time the nail-biting temptation kicks in.
The UCL study found that missing one opportunity to perform the new behavior didn’t prevent the habit from forming, but people who were “very inconsistent” about doing the new behavior in the same setting failed to form the new habit.
4) WORK ON ONLY ONE HABIT.
When we get on a self-improvement kick, we can start to analyze everything wrong with us and want to change it all. We often set multiple New Year’s resolutions.
But our brains are most productive when we focus on one thing at a time.
Dave Crenshaw, a professional organizer who has overcome severe ADHD, gives lectures on the myths of multitasking, explaining that when we think we’re multitasking, we’re really “switch-tasking,” or going back and forth from one activity to another, one at a time.
Trying to multitask actually takes more time and is less productive than focusing on one thing at a time.
5) DON'T GIVE UP.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The UCL study found it took actively trying for 66 days on average before the new habit was formed. For some study participants, it took as long as 254 days or 8.5 months.
People who have a strong ability to remember upcoming events without reminders and people who establish routines easily tend to break and create habits more easily.
But for people who are impulsive or used to a chaotic life, creating and breaking habits will be harder.
Dr. Timothy Walsh of a renowned addiction recovery center says the average person goes through six treatment episodes before finally reaching sobriety.
And even minor habits like nail biting can be so engrained that breaking them can take months of extreme focus and effort.
It takes a long time for the brain to reset, but it can be done. Bad habits can be broken, and healthy new habits can be formed. So what are you waiting for?