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13 Things You Should Know About Breaking Bad Habits

Changing ingrained behaviours is tough. Here are simple coping strategies to help you overcome the not-so-great ones.

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Avoid triggers and high-risk scenarios. If you’re trying to lower your alcohol consumption, for instance, stay away from bars and don’t keep booze around the house.

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Beware the miracle cure. Any expert will tell you that kicking a bad habit is hard work. A 2013 Gallup poll found smokers quit an average of 3.6 times before succeeding.

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Expect some failure. “We beat ourselves up when we fail to meet our lofty objectives,” says Andy Blicq, the Winnipeg writer and director behind the 2014 documentary Slaves to Habit. “You have to forgive yourself and build on the mistakes you’ve made.”

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Remember Blicq’s advice if you falter on your New Year’s resolution. According to research conducted at Pennsylvania’s University of Scranton, nearly a quarter of resolutions get abandoned within the first week of January. Sixty-four per cent of people stick with them for a month; 46 per cent last six months.

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Science suggests going cold turkey isn’t the most effective method. Instead, try indulging in your habit less frequently or putting more time between your craving and gratification, which will help build up your willpower.

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Social support, like a gym buddy, is essential, says Blicq. “Doing this alone, without some sort of help or advice, makes it more difficult.”

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Divorce your vice from your schedule. If you begin every morning with a cigarette, try swapping in another part of your routine-like reading the news or eating breakfast-before smoking. It’ll be easier to wean yourself off nicotine if it’s not part of your regular timetable.

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A habit consists of a cue (say, stress), a routine (shopping) and a reward (new items), according to New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg, author of the 2012 book The Power of Habit. Recording where, when and in what context you give in to your habit can be the first step toward changing it.

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Keep the cue but change the reward. If you bite your nails, try snacking or chewing a toothpick instead. “During that period, you shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a real change,” Duhigg writes. “Think of yourself as a scientist in the data collection stage.”

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Being vigilant about behaviour helps, says a 2010 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Habits are unconscious actions, so monitoring them lowers their frequency.

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“You have to look after yourself when you’re trying to shake a habit,” Blicq advises, advocating proper rest, diet and exercise. “When we’re stressed or tired, we’re way more prone to bad behaviour and losing ground after we’ve made a change.”

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Draining your energy by kicking one habit can make others more tempting. Case in point: a 2012 study in The Journal of Social Psychology showed that people in relationships were more likely to be unfaithful after resisting a plate of freshly baked cookies.

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Breaking the habit pays off. According to a 2012 study by Public Health Ontario and three other institutions, five prevalent bad habits-smoking, overdrinking, poor eating, neglecting physical activity and not dealing with stress-can shave 7.5 years off a life.