A new year is a blank slate. The perfect chance to make a change. Maybe you want to stop scrolling through your phone before you go to bed every night. Or perhaps you’d like to become one of those people who run in the mornings.
While you might not realize it, scrolling your phone late into the night and getting up early to run have something in common: They are habits.
“Habits are essentially what we repeatedly do—actions we perform daily without even realizing it,” says Julie Manuel, MSEd, a licensed professional clinical counselor and clinical program manager for Kettering Health Behavioral Medical Center. “For example, most people have a habit of brushing their teeth in the morning and before bed. These are autopilot actions.”
So, how do you break an unhealthy habit, such as scrolling your phone before bed? Or start a healthy one, like running? Start by taking a close look at your behavior.
Breaking an unhealthy habit
“To break a bad habit, you first need to recognize the when and why, also known as the ‘cue,’ of the habit,” says Julie.
- Identify the cue that prompts the habit. Take some time to consider what events or circumstances precede a habit. Keeping your phone on your nightstand could be the cue for scrolling before sleep.
- Interrupt the cue. Change your routine to disrupt the cue that prompts your habit. Set your alarm and check your phone a final time before entering your bedroom. Once in your bedroom, put your phone out of reach—say, on a dresser—instead of on your nightstand.
- Replace the unhealthy habit with a healthy one. Substituting a healthy alternative can ease the transition period of phasing out an old habit. Reading a book or listening to music are just two examples of healthy ways to relax before going to sleep.
Forming a healthy habit
“Starting a new habit takes time and discipline,” says Julie. “However, there are actions you can take to help set yourself up for success.”
- Make a detailed goal and put it in writing. You are more likely to stick to a concrete goal if you write it down. Instead of saying “exercise more,” write in a notebook “run every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”
- Set up cues. Create an environment that makes it easy to perform the new habit. Before you go to bed, set your morning alarm and lay out your running clothes. In the morning, the alarm will be your cue to wake up and the running clothes will cue you to get dressed and start your run.
- Record your setbacks and victories. Writing moments of struggle and success gives you a clear picture of what circumstances are most likely to cause a setback or enable progress. If you missed a run because you went to bed an hour later and felt too tired to get up, write that and go to bed earlier the next night.
How long does it take to form a habit?
Studies show that, depending on the behavior and individual, forming a new habit can take anywhere from 15 to 254 days. If you fall off track, don’t get discouraged. “Small steps are better than no steps,” says Julie. “If you have a setback, know we have the blessing of a new day to try again.”
If you feel like a habit is negatively interfering with your daily life and you have been unable to change it, it could signal a problem, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or addiction, that needs medical attention. Talk to your primary care provider, be honest, and let them help you.
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