Subscriber OnlyLife & Style

How to break a bad habit: Begin by taking one day at a time. It’s less overwhelming

Habits take a long time to form and can be hard to break, so take things one step at a time

Wine, cigarettes, coffee, chocolate, telly, smartphone use – why is it always the “good” stuff that can turn into a bad habit? “A habit is a behaviour that we engage in a lot. A bad habit tends to become this little overindulgence that forms over time. We can end up becoming trapped by the bad habit to the point where it starts to own us rather than us owning it,” says Dr Ciara McEnteggart, psychologist with Perspectives Ireland.

Habits aren’t simple

Habits become habits for a reason. “They tend to fill the gap of something that’s missing from our lives, whether that’s boredom, a lack of connection, loneliness, a sense of belonging or a sense or purpose,” says McEnteggart. “We try to satisfy that gap by seeking pleasures or comforts in other things and those are the things that become the bad habits.

“The longer the habit is in place, the less aware we become of why we do it in the first place. Because they satisfy a need or a longing, outside events can escalate them,” says McEnteggart. “They really are part of this complex system, that’s why willpower often isn’t enough to change them.”

Be honest

Part of the problem with habits is how we talk to ourselves about them. “We tend to say things like, ‘it’s harmless’, or it’s ‘me time’, but at the same time we hear ourselves saying things like, ‘I wish I wasn’t doing it so much’,” says McEnteggart. The first step is to examine the habit closely and honestly. “Ask yourself, ‘how much time am I actually putting into this, how much money am I putting into this, how much effort is being spent doing it?’ Just ask yourself, ‘what did I really get from all of that investment?’” she says.


Name it

The next step is to name the habit and what you think it gives you. Is excessive smartphone usage giving you a sense of connection, or is it alleviating domestic boredom? Track the habit too, says McEnteggart. “Write down how much time you are giving the habit. How many evenings a week are you having a drink, for example. When you track i, you stop cheating yourself that it’s grand or it’s not that bad. Tracking it really helps you to take back ownership over the habit.”

Change your environment

If your weakness is too much wine or chocolate don’t have it in the house. If the habit fulfills a need, plan to meet that need in another way. “Replace the habit with something that brings you real meaning, rather than guilt, shame or frustration,” says McEnteggart. Instead of reaching for your phone meet a friend for a walk and a chat. “Your need for connection will be met that way rather than sitting with your phone for a couple of hours which won’t give you the same meaning.”

Take it slow

Habits take a long time to form and can be hard to break, so take things one day at a time. “Break the behaviour down into very small steps because small steps are much easier to manage. This makes it feel a lot less overwhelming and easier to manage,” says McEnteggart. If you lapse know that you can regroup and start again.

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt

Joanne Hunt, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about homes and property, lifestyle, and personal finance