Break a Bad Habit: Steps to Help You Turn Over a New Leaf

It’s 7 p.m. on a Wednesday, and I’m watching TV with an after-dinner cookie. In about five hours, my phone will go off to tell me that it’s time to get ready for bed. I will ignore it and proceed to watch two more episodes of “Queer Eye” on Netflix. By then it will be 1 in the morning, and I will feel super guilty about ignoring my Bedtime app. So, I will have one last cookie and proceed to half fall asleep on the couch whilst watching one last episode. By the time I drowsily stumble to bed, it will be 2 in the morning. My alarm will go off at 8, and I will hit snooze repeatedly until, suddenly, it’s 9 a.m., and I will scramble to make it to work on time for my 10 a.m. meeting.

How do I know this will happen? Because it’s been happening all of Lent. I’m not proud of how few days it took me to finish the whole season of “Queer Eye,” but I am being real. This is where I am. It’s not yet where I want to be, but it’s better than where I was.

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I have known since I got my first professional job after college that my sleeping patterns are a mess, and that my life would be better if I went to bed at a reasonable time and woke rested after a full eight hours each night. This Lent, my goal was to take the next steps toward forming new habits for sleeping patterns that would help me be a healthier, happier, and more productive person. But forming new habits isn’t easy, as I have certainly discovered. Here are a few of the small steps I’ve taken (and I’m still taking) to turn over a new leaf:

1. Discover the why

Before I can be successful at forming a good habit, I have to discover the signal that leads me toward the bad habit. With my sleeping habits, the “why” that led me to stay up too late was screen time in my bedroom. Between beating the next level on Candy Crush, checking the views on my Instagram story, and watching the next episode after a cliffhanger on Netflix, I was staying up later and later every night. Figuring this out makes it possible to get at the root cause of the problem. After I’ve uncovered that, I can move on to step two.

2. Adjust your routine

In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg describes a three part “habit loop” that leads us to repeat behaviors: cue, routine, and reward. I knew that my routine of staying up too late was cued by screen time in bed, so I had to discover a way to still get the reward of relaxation that screen time provides me without it hurting my ability to go to sleep on time.

Everyone has different rewards. It’s a matter of discovering what that reward is and figuring out a way to still receive the reward without continuing to persist in the bad habit. My solution was to ban myself from screen time in my bedroom and move relaxation time to the living room. Personally, I’m still struggling with staying up too late on the couch, but this small change is just a part of the process of transforming my bad habit into a good one.

3. Celebrate success

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has failed miserably because they set a lofty weight-loss goal of losing 15 pounds in a month and then gave up after only losing five. Forming good habits doesn’t happen overnight. It can take weeks and sometimes months and even a lifetime of small efforts that build upon each other. In my struggle to try to go to bed on time, I’ve been celebrating the small successes by reminding myself how many days in a row I have kept screen time out of my bedroom.

Track your progress on a calendar so you can see how far you’ve come. And if you share your goals and progress with a friend, they can help keep you on track and celebrate with you. In my journey, I know I am still staying up too late, but I also know I am heading in the right direction because I have achieved that small goal of keeping relaxation activities in the living room and reserving my bedroom for sleeping only. If I didn’t celebrate the win and instead beat myself up for not being perfect yet, I would get frustrated and end up sliding backward.

More than anything else, when working toward forming new habits, it’s important to remember that the process will be difficult, but it’s not impossible. It takes determination to stay strong in the face of entrenched bad habits. To root them out, you have to understand why they are there in the first place, focus on a healthy way of receiving a reward, and celebrate even the smallest successes. I am not there yet with my own bad habit, but I know I am on the right track. I can turn over a new leaf, and you can too!

Originally published on March 27, 2018.

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