How to free yourself from an old habit

Freedom from Bad Habits - action steps

How to free yourself from a ‘bad habit’

A bad habit is just a means to an end. It’s a way of having certain feelings. Or avoiding other feelings. Or both.

It’s a way of managing your mood – and we looked at this in Part 1 of this article "Bad Habits do a good Job" which is here.

The dilemma

Let’s say you recognise and agree with this; but you still want to get rid of your Habit because

  • It’s expensive or
  • It upsets other people or
  • It upsets your health or
  • You simply don’t like being a victim of the Habit.

You now want to be free of it. But this gives you a dilemma:

  • If you give up the Habit you lose a way of managing your feelings – one which you’ve used for years and which definitely works - despite the downsides!
  • But if you keep the Habit you’ll have to put up with those downsides. And you don’t want to do this.

Free from the Habit – without a ‘downside’?

To be free of the old Habit without having to put up with its downsides be clear that the Habit is merely a route or a means to an end…

… and that…

  1. The Habit is unlikely to be the only route to that end
  2. Once you find (and use) better routes you will be free!

Avoid getting hung up on the habit itself – that’s a distraction.

Instead continually (daily or even hourly) remind yourself ‘This Habit is just ‘one’ way of having changing my feelings…’

Get ready for freedom

Before the action steps be clear about these 3 pieces:

(1) The Habit: what you’ve have been using this to change your feelings … up to now.

E.g. Let’s say the habit is biting your nails. Whenever you feel nervous, stressed, angry, you bite your nails.

(2) The Payoff: this is what you get from the Habit. It either gives you certain good feelings. Or helps you avoid unwanted feelings. Usually it will be a mixture of both.

E.g. Nailbiting (1) gives me ‘something to do with my hands’ when I feel anxious, (2) it’s a release or distraction when I’m stressed, (3) it stops me thinking about negative thoughts, and (4) it feels comforting.

(3) The Downsides: These are things that you don’t like about the Habit.

E.g. Nailbiting results in unsightly nails, I feel bad about still being a victim to a childhood habit, it lets others see I’m nervous or stressed (most nail-biters don’t realise they’re doing it when in company), well-meaning friends ‘nag’ me to stop the habit.

(4) New ways: begin listing new ways of changing your feelings – to replace the Habit and make it redundant.

E.g. I will find better ways of getting the Payoff feelings. I will find and begin using other ways of getting the 4 current benefits of nailbiting so that I no longer need to bite my nails to change my feelings. Nailbiting will be redundant – no longer useful.

Action steps to freedom

1. Have a goal

Focus on being free of the Habit.  Develop a clear idea of how your life will be different when you are free of the Habit: when it’s in the past.

Make this your ‘non-negotiable’ target – the one you focus on continually.

E.g. Let’s again use nail-biting as an example. I see my nice-looking nails, I feel better about myself for having dumped a childhood habit, I appear more at ease with myself than when I used to be chomping on my nails.

2. List the Payoffs from the Habit

List the benefits of the Habit. Make a written list of the good feelings it gives you. And another written list of everything the habit enables you to avoid feeling.

E.g. Nailbiting currently gives me good feelings: (1) It makes me feel comforted (2) Something to do with my hands (3) Release from tension when stressed. 

Nailbiting helps me avoid bad feelings: (4) It takes my mind off unpleasant thoughts.

3. Find other ways of getting or avoiding the Payoff feelings

Do this for each one of the Payoff feelings.

E.g. We have listed a total of 4 of these above so…

Find other ways to have the good feelings:

(1) Feel comforted: I can have a shower, remind myself of things I’ve done well in my life, call up or visit a friend, do something that cares for my hands, give myself little treats (other than food or drink), etc.

(2) Something to do with my hands: I can use a smart phone app for fun, buy a gadget to fiddle with, take up a (portable) habit such as knitting, etc.

(3) Release from stressful tension: do some brief stretching or breathing or relaxation exercises.

Find other ways to avoid the bad feelings:

(4) It takes my mind off unpleasant thoughts: create a handy list of pleasant or constructive distractions e.g. a to-do list, phone a friend, read or watch about ‘positive living’, plan something pleasant and out-of-the-ordinary for tomorrow.

4. Take action – at least every day

Next you need to act on the above. Every day. And especially whenever you feel the urge to engage in the old Habit.

Do it for a few weeks

These two articles may have given you insight and understanding into how to be free of your Habit. That’s a beginning.

But, unless you follow-through, that’s all you’ll get from them.

Put the Action Steps into, err, action – daily - for three or four weeks. And feel the difference.


The Pegasus NLP Newsletter

This article originally appeared in The Pegasus NLP Newsletter - which has been published continuously since January 2001.

You can subscribe to our usually-monthly newsletter here

And there will be no spam - I promise.  You have trusted me with your email address and I will use it for the Newsletter and for nothing else - and it will never be shared with anyone else. Ever.  (Reg Connolly, founder of Pegasus NLP)