How to Make and Break Habits

by Carolyn Moriarty, LCPC

Humans are creatures of habit. There are certain things we do every day that give our lives order. Having some type of routine is considered healthy because it can help us with time-management and provide structure to an otherwise chaotic day. However, this adherence can also mean that we mindlessly continue to engage in unhealthy behaviors while avoiding more beneficial habits. Alternatively, we may have tried to “kick” bad habits multiple times without success. So what does it really take to make and break habits for good? 

The 21-Day Rule 
You may have heard about the “21-day rule”, which proclaims that it takes a minimum of 21 days for an old habit to dissolve and a new one to take root. This makes sense, since the more often you do something, the more likely it is that you will continue to do it—that is exactly what it means to have a “habit”. The next time you are tying to implement a new behavior, or get rid of an old one, try to do it for at least 21 days before considering whether it is a realistic change for you to make at this time.  

Make Modifications 
It is easier to break bad habits if you replace them with something positive or neutral instead of quitting them cold turkey. For example, rather than cut out soda completely, you can replace it with seltzer water or another carbonated beverage. If you want to get into the habit or running, you could start out by taking short walks or jogs.

Focus on Improvement 
When it comes to changing habits, it is helpful to think about the process, rather than the outcome. A good way to do this is to focus on ways to improve your life. For instance, if you ate avoiding junk food, focus instead on how this can be used an opportunity to you to teach yourself how to cook yourself healthy meals.

The important thing to remember is that there is no guaranteed way to beat a habit. Habits are by definition rigid and consistent. It will take time, motivation and self-awareness before new behaviors become your new norm. So don’t feel like a failure if it takes you 22 days, or two months or one year to change a behavior. Once you have changed it, chances are that it will stay that way for the long-term. 

Carolyn Moriarty, LPC

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