How Long Does It Take to Break a Bad Habit?

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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Perhaps you’d like to watch only one hour of television a night instead of three so you can go to bed earlier and have more energy during the day. Or, maybe you want to be someone who makes real social plans with your friends (like, out in the world) instead of solely staying connected via Instagram—and feeling empty as a result.

Spending a little time thinking (or writing) about the person you want to be can motivate you to act in ways that align with this “future self”—and avoid behaviors that’ll hold you back, research suggests.

Step two: Identify the actions you need to take to become that person you’ve imagined.

Next, it’s time to bring your future-self vision to life. Take me, for example, always scrolling and swiping during my walks. I don’t want my phone to rule my life and would rather put that time toward something more fulfilling—maybe a little game of fetch with my dog or simply enjoying the fresh air.

Dr. Ingersoll recommends asking yourself: What steps do I need to take in my daily routine to become the person I’m picturing? Rather than focusing on your ultimate goal—say, going to bed earlier—zero in on the small behavioral changes you need to make in order to replace the bad habit, she suggests. When you first start implementing a behavior change, you may still feel the urge to carry out your old habit, she adds. The temptation can be intense, but it typically doesn’t last long—20 minutes or so, according to some research.

Instead of fighting the impulse to, say, scroll through Instagram when you should be sleeping, try to notice it without resisting it (some psychologists call this “urge surfing”). Then, focus on those tiny new habit-replacing actions you can do instead—like swapping Instagram for a book that helps you nod off faster. Eventually, if you’re consistent with your new behavior, you’ll no longer automatically do That Thing you don’t want to be doing, according to Dr. Ingersoll.

Step 3: Monitor your progress.

As you work on ditching the old habit, you want to continuously check in with yourself, Dr. Ingersol says. Several behavior-tracking apps can make this self-monitoring easier, like Streaks, HabitNow, and Way of Life. If you’re trying to use your phone less (hi!) or you just love to put pen to paper (also hi!), buy a notebook where you can keep track of how you’re doing (a monthly wall or desk calendar works great too).

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