How to kick a bad habit

At some point in life, most of us develop a bad habit or two. Repetitive behaviours such as nail biting, throat clearing, hair pulling or picking at skin can be harmful to our bodies but can also be irritating to those around us.

Kicking a bad habit can often seem like a high hurdle in life's race, but it is not an impossible task. Here are a few tips to help.

First of all, get rid of the self-defeating attitudes about your habit. Instead of thinking that you will never figure out a way to break the habit, consider that you simply haven't found a way to do it yet. Habits can be broken.

Next, it is important to be aware of the habit. You might realize that your nail beds are sore and bleeding from biting them, but not notice when you are actually in the process of doing the damage. Habits become automatic and the first step to kicking a habit is to become aware of it.

Start by consciously paying attention to your behaviour and thinking about it as you do it. Sometimes, it is helpful to wear a wrist counter and keep track of every time the habit occurs.

If you have difficulty paying more attention on your own, it can be beneficial to ask a spouse or other trusted loved one to point out the behaviour whenever he or she notices it. You cannot stop something that you do not know is happening.

Not only will this help to raise your awareness, but involving someone you trust will give you support.

Another part of habit awareness involves taking note of when the behaviour occurs. Do you pull your hair or bite your nails while you watch TV? Or when you are feeling thoughtful? Sometimes, improvement can occur simply by reducing the associated activities.

So if you do bite your nails as you watch TV, it might help to watch less television.

The next step is to engage your hands in reciprocally incompatible behaviours whenever the habit is about to occur. For example, every time you notice your hand straying for your mouth (in the case of nail biting), make a fist or squeeze something in your hand for 30-60 seconds.

Having a written contract with yourself can also be useful. The contract should include details and a timeline for breaking your habit. Setting up written rewards and penalties for your progress can be a helpful motivator.

Set a big reward for fulfillment of the contract and small rewards for progress along the way. Similarly, have penalties in place for times when you don't reach the goals set out in your contract.

If you are including a loved one in your quest to kick a bad habit, this person might be able to help you stick with your contract. Social reinforcement, such as praise for doing better, is usually very powerful.

These techniques can help in an attempt to quit most habits. Addictions such as smoking may also be improved using these techniques, but keep in mind that these are more than simple habits and may require the assistance of peer support groups and/or professionals.


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