Every time my phone shows me my weekly screen time usage report, I am dismayed to see how much time I spent scrolling through my phone. Sure, some of it is work related, like answering emails or returning phone calls. But if I’m being honest, a lot of it is spent on social media — both for work and personal use. I just didn’t think I spent that much time on social media. But numbers don’t lie, and some weeks I am downright embarrassed by the number my weekly report shows.
When the report shows up on my lock screen every Sunday, I resolve to spend less time on social media, only to forget about my resolution as the week goes on. It’s a bad habit and it’s hard to break.
We all have bad habits we want to break. In fact, there’s an endless supply of books investigating why bad habits are so hard to break and how to replace them with good habits. We promise ourselves that this time we’ll really make that happen, but then find ourselves going right back to that bad habit — whether it’s too much time on social media, drinking, hitting snooze one too many times, being late, or skipping your workout yet again (just to name a few).
People often blame “having no will power” for the trouble they experience with breaking habits, but the reality is that effectively breaking a bad habit requires more than just sheer will power, and is not a reflection on your character. Here are some research-backed tips to help you finally break that bad habit once and for all:
The first step in many 12-step programs is to admit that you have a problem, and it’s the same with any bad habit you are looking to break. Sometimes, it’s easy to rationalize our habits as “harmless” or “not a big deal,” but that can only make it more challenging to get rid of a habit for good.
Instead, it’s more helpful to put your pride aside and identify your bad habit and why it’s worth getting rid of. For example, I can say that my mindless scrolling through social media is getting in the way of spending time with truly restorative self-care activities for me.
Make it difficult to access
Once you’ve identified how your habit is holding you back from living the life you want to live, it’s time to take action. One way to help decrease the amount of time you spend with your habit is to make it difficult to access or accomplish.
For example, if you find yourself hitting the snooze button too many times in the morning, consider putting your alarm clock beyond arm’s reach so that you have to get up and out of bed to turn it off. Or, if you are trying to spend less time on social media, you might want to move the app icons on your phone to make them more inconvenient to find (or remove them all together). When I wanted to stop my bad habit of checking my work email on the weekends, I simply disabled my email notifications in my Gmail app.
Replace the habit with something good
A helpful way to put a positive spin on eliminating your chosen habit is to replace it with something that’s good for you. For example, if you’ve gotten into the habit of pouring yourself a glass of wine or grabbing a beer from the fridge as soon as you come home from work, you could go for a walk around the block or call a friend instead. Or, if you are tired of making up excuses for not going to the gym, you could bring your workout bag with you when you leave for work or school so that it’s a lot harder to make an excuse to not go to the gym on your way home.
Some habits are easily changed on your own, but others can be more difficult. When that’s the case, it can be helpful to create a network of supportive family, friends, and even professionals to help you. Many people find it beneficial to have accountability partners who are friends or family members you can reach out to when you are struggling and need support and motivation. Accountability partners can make a huge difference, whether you are wanting to go to the gym more often, breaking a smoking or drinking habit, or something else altogether.
Figure out what precedes it
Often, we engage our bad habits in response to something — we don’t just conjure them out of thin air. Most often, some sort of stress precedes the habit you are trying to break.
For my social media habit, I noticed that I often picked up my phone to scroll through my newsfeed when I was working on a writing project and hit writer’s block. Instead of sitting with that discomfort of not knowing how to say something or what to say next, I escaped to my phone. Once I made this connection, it was easier for me to recognize the pattern and redirect my attention earlier.
And finally, as much as you may like to quit your habit cold-turkey and move on, that can be very challenging for many people. You are more likely to succeed when you take small but deliberate steps to extinguish your habit.
For example, if you are trying to quit smoking, you might start with smoking one less cigarette per day and then moving on to smoking two fewer, etc. Or, if you want to spend less time on social media or not get up late in the mornings, focus on setting a limit on the time you spend on social media, or hitting the snooze button one less time than you usually do. Taking small steps makes eliminating your habit easier and will increase your chances of success.