What to Do If You Can't Get Rid of Your Bad Health Habits

Date: July 17, 2021

Do you find yourself eating a cookie every day at 3 p.m. merely to satisfy your sweet tooth? Do you find yourself staying up late on a regular basis despite the fact that you need to get up early? And, despite your best efforts, do you find yourself doing these things because you can't seem to break the habit?

Before we can modify our behaviours, we must first understand why we do them and why they serve a purpose. You may make strategic changes to replace your poor behaviours with positive ones once you grasp this.

1. Recognizing Precursors

You may believe that your habit is as simple as eating a cookie every day at 3 p.m. Eating the cookie is simply a byproduct of your habit, which suggests that something (a thought, feeling, or external trigger) occurred before the cookie that prompted you to eat it. This is referred to as the antecedent, or the event that precedes the behaviour.

What happened before you ate the cookie, for example? Did you check at the clock and see that it was 3 p.m., or do you have a daily meeting with your boss at 2 p.m. that you usually dread? Understanding the trigger, whether it's internal (a thought or sensation) or external (the time of day, the presence of other people or events), might help you avoid the behaviour in the first place by altering your reaction or interpretation to the antecedent.

Cookie consumption


2. Recognize the Consequences

We frequently confuse the act of eating the cookie with the effects. We believe that boredom drove us to consume the cookie in this situation. While boredom may have prompted the action, what was the outcome of the action? How did you feel after eating the cookie?

On some level, we must find the consequences pleasant in order to continue to link the antecedent and conduct together. However, you might question why, if eating the cookie makes us feel horrible, we keep doing it. It's possible that the behaviour has a very short-term beneficial effect, which is sufficient for us to repeat it in the future in the hopes that it will stay longer. On the other hand, it could reinforce our pre-existing belief (“I knew I wouldn't be able to resist the cookie, and here I am eating it.”)


3. Recognizing the Big Picture: Precursors

You can confront each step of the antecedent-behavior-consequence chain separately to create permanent changes now that you have a clearer knowledge of what it is. Start with the antecedent; if you're stressed at work and eat a cookie to feel better (even if it's only for a short time), examine your attitude to the situation.

Consider the following question: why are you stressed? Is it a reasonable reaction to the circumstances? What do you think would make you feel less stressed? How could you alter your attitude toward the circumstance so that you don't have to be stressed in the first place? You can either change the antecedent (for example, avoiding walking past the vending machine) or, if you can't, change your reaction to it (i.e., looking at the vending machine as something that is hurting, not helping your goals).


4. Seeing the Big Picture: Human Behavior

You need to develop a new behaviour to replace your old one now that you've changed the antecedent, or at least your reaction to it. Because it is difficult to completely quit a habit or behaviour, it is usually far more beneficial to replace the unpleasant behaviour with a more desirable one.

Taking the effort to create a substitute behaviour that you can consistently practise will help you maintain your strength in the face of the antecedent (trigger). You may have resolved to walk past the vending machine without purchasing anything, but if you are truly tempted or hungry, you risk reverting to your old habits. To build a new behaviour that is incompatible with your old one, plan to bring an apple to eat or a cup of coffee to drink when you walk by the machine.

Sweets are not permitted.

5. Consequences: Seeing the Big Picture

The final step in changing your behaviour is to examine the old consequence, how it made you feel, and what kind of reward you require from the new result to assist reinforce your new reaction to the antecedent and the new activity you engage in. In other words, how likely is it that you will continue with your new antecedent-behavior chain if going past the vending machine and eating an apple instead makes you unhappy (consequence)?

If the conduct is likely to have an unfavourable outcome, you must either change the behaviour or change the outcome. If eating the apple makes you grumpy, either do something different or pay yourself a $1 for every apple you eat instead of eating from the vending machine and use that money towards something you want.

6. Putting it All Together to Help You Change Your Bad Health Habits

Once you understand how the antecedent influences the action and, eventually, the consequences, you'll be able to recognise your habits as predictable patterns rather than random events. Making long-term improvements requires taking the time to critically reflect on why you act the way you do. Keep a journal if you're having trouble identifying the causes and effects of your actions. Make a list of what happened before the behaviour (events, thoughts, feelings) and after the behaviour (events, thoughts, feelings) (short and longer-term, primarily thoughts and feelings).

Although any adjustment might be challenging, addressing the problem in its whole can help you achieve long-term improvements and give up the negative health behaviours you've been trying to kick. Stick with the process and maintain a sense of humour, and you'll be able to break your bad habits in no time.

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