Bad habits disrupt your life and prevent you from achieving your goals. They can be dangerous to your mental and physical well-being. Plus, they are time-wasters. So why do we continue to do them? Can you do anything to stop them? Can you really eliminate bad habits and adopt better ones?

In this post, we’ll briefly discuss how bad habits start in the first place. But more importantly, we’ll focus on how to make real, lasting changes for the better. If you want to replace bad habits with good habits, keep reading.

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How Do Habits Start?

It’s actually pretty simple how we form habits—at least at the most basic level. They don’t just happen to us. We learn them!

How a particular learned behavior sticks and becomes habitual is more complex.

It has been well-documented that forming a habit involves three factors:

  • A consistent behavior or cue (you do something in the same place and in the same way each time.
  • A benefit or reward (each time you engage in the behavior, you get some type of benefit)
  • Repetition (the reward you get prompts you to do the same thing again and again until it sticks)

Let’s assume you brush your teeth every night before bed. The cues are bedtime and your teeth. The behavior is brushing them. The benefit or reward you get is that your teeth are clean. This makes you comfortable and ready for bed. Plus, you feel like you’re doing the right thing by taking care of yourself, and you repeat this consistently night after night.

Brushing your teeth before bed is obviously an excellent habit to have.

However, one can just as easily fall into a pattern of not brushing before bed. Imagine you’ve had a particularly stressful week. You’re overtired and getting to bed late. You even forget to brush your teeth a couple of times because you’re so exhausted. Instead of making that trek to the bathroom sink, you climb into bed and fall asleep.

Nothing terrible happens right away. And you got to go straight to sleep instead of puttering around the bathroom. So you start skipping the teeth-brushing routine more and more. Pretty soon, you’re not brushing before bed at all, even when you aren’t stressed and overtired. You’ve developed a bad habit.

How Long Does It Take To Establish a Habit?

In the habit loop, time is the final component. The trigger, action, and benefit are repeated again and again until a habit is established.

It takes time for a habit to form, but how much time? Developing a new habit generally requires about two months. However, everyone is different. So it might take one person only a few days or weeks for something to become habitual. For others, it could take even longer than two months.

Replacing Bad Habits With Good Habits

The good news about habits is that you can change them. No matter how frustrated or discouraged you might feel about your attempts at changing your behavior, you need never lose hope.

That’s because bad habits really can be replaced with good ones. Here are four solid tips to get you on the road to transformation.

1. Identify Your Triggers

The first step to breaking a habit is understanding what triggers it. For example, if unhealthy snacking at work has become a habit, pay attention to what is going on around you when the urge to snack occurs. Do you have a big project on your plate that you are avoiding? Does your to-do list overwhelm you?

When you stop for a six-pack of beer on your way home, what are you thinking about? Do you feel it’s the only way to transition from work to domestic life? Are you anxious about the responsibilities that await you at home? When you know what triggers you, it’s easy to identify the things you unconsciously do to comfort yourself.

2. Replace a Bad Habit With a Good One

Some experts recommend you replace a bad habit with a good one. But you need to be realistic about that advice. For example, nobody will be able to replace stopping for that six-pack by picking up a bag of carrots to munch on when they get home. So replacing a bad habit with a “good” one might mean replacing it with something “not as bad.”

The new behavior needs to be something reasonably pleasurable to you. For example, can you stop and get your nails done or go for a short hike before going home for the day? Whatever you use as a replacement will be unique to you. However, it should be something that gives you as much—or even more—satisfaction than what you’ve grown accustomed to.

3. Distract Yourself From the Bad Behavior

Sometimes, no amount of recognizing and replacing your habits can help when you have a bad day or weak moment. Everyone has a “crisis point” when trying to shed bad habits. And they vary in terms of how extreme they are. Pay attention because this is the critical point where you’ll either beat it or fall right back into it. This is when you need to engage in some distraction.

Distraction can be either passive or active. For example, let’s say you’re trying to quit smoking, and the physical and mental cravings become unbearable. One thing you could do is avoid these feelings altogether and go to bed. This is a form of passive distraction. And it’s perfectly fine. You’ll forego a bunch of discomfort by sleeping right through it.

Active distraction would be to immerse yourself in a productive activity that prevents you from overthinking your bad habit. In this case, you could do something physically demanding, such as chop wood, clean the house, or do something fun outdoors with the kids.

If none of these is an option, you could choose an activity that fully occupies your mind. Examples include playing video games, doing word puzzles, or scrolling social media. You could also do something productive and lucrative, like taking online surveys for money.

4. Use Your Imagination With Visualization

It is possible to use visualization to help you change your life for the better. It can also improve your motivation.

Consider how you’ll feel in one year, five years, or ten years if you keep up a particular habit. Then, think of what your future will be like if you let go of that habit. The more clearly you can see the outcomes, the more motivated you will be to change your habits.

Continue visualizing your future self as you wish to be, free of the habits you want to break. Be as detailed as possible when you use visualization techniques. To maximize the impact of the exercise, you will need to immerse yourself in the image.

For instance, you could imagine how your life would be if you turned your passions into a lucrative career. For many people, money is a great motivator.

Visualization is really nothing more than a grown-up way of using your imagination. But kids do it all the time. And if a child can do it, you can too. So don’t be afraid to imagine the best possible outcome, no matter how crazy it seems.