Breaking Bad (Habits)

There are four basic steps to breaking any bad habit.

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With the world weeping over the series end of popular TV show "Breaking Bad," why not bring a silver lining to it all? That means talking about something that, unlike a TV series, can feel to many like it never has an end: bad habits.

In my experience as a behavioral health counselor, treating a range of "negative" habits and behaviors – from smoking to substance abuse to eating disorders – I feel that while each situation is highly individual, there are four basic steps to breaking any bad habit:

1. Identify the Positive Intention. 

This first step is often the most confusing to most – a "positive intention" to a bad habit? Yes. All human behavior has a positive intention, in that it seeks to bring something "good" to the performer of any given behavior. So, while the behavior of cigarette smoking may have clear negative consequences, for many its positive intention is to calm, prevent boredom or provide a break. Aside from smoking, classic examples of bad habits and their positive intentions include overeating for comfort and nail-biting to relax. 

Before attempting to break any bad habit, one must first understand why one is doing it – what the habit's positive intention is – and then, find an alternate means of achieving the same positive intention. Our overeater may choose to opt for quality time with his children for comfort rather than turning to copious amounts of unhealthy foods.

[Read: Does It Only Take 3 Weeks to Form a Habit?] 

2. Stop The Sequence. 

Our next step is actively stopping the sequence of events that lead to the behavior of the bad habit. In other words, there are myriad smaller behaviors as part of the "kinetic chain" that leads to one doing the bad habit itself. This chain of behaviors can consist of both physical and mental links, such as a thought that sets off an action, that leads to a following action, and so forth. For the smoker, this may mean finishing up some work and thinking "time for a break," which then leads to reaching for a pack of cigarettes. I am keeping things as simple as possible for the sake of this article, but this is more or less the process – the sequence which we now must stop. We need to throw a wrench in the gears of the intricate chain of thoughts and actions that create the "Rube Goldberg" of habit. 

The best way to do this is to simply change the sequence. This can be done in many ways. Using the smoking example above, it may be as effortless as placing the pack of cigarettes in a different room. All we are looking to do is "ruin" the usual sequence of events.

[Read: In Pictures: 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100.] 

3. Re-sequence. 

Now that we have changed the usual sequence, we must change the chain altogether. In step one of this article, I stressed the importance of determining the positive intention. In step two, we changed the sequence; we broke the chain. Now it's time to insert an alternate means of achieving the positive intention of the bad habit. Our smoker may have decided that the need to take a break can be satisfied by walking to a co-worker's desk and talking for five minutes while stretching a bit. It really doesn't matter what the replacement behavior is as long as it satisfied the needs of the positive intention. The idea here is to simply get what you need from something other than the habit you are attempting to break.

[Read: 5 Healthy Habits to Copy From Your Dog.] 

4. Celebrate! 

Stealing a page from my friend and mentor, and master of creating positive habits, BJ Fogg, the final step is to celebrate every single time the new sequence is executed. Shouting "yes!" along with a big old smile, clapping and a pat on the back are all just fine. And, as corny as it sounds, this self-celebration has serious impact on your neurochemistry. You can literally rewire your brain to get the same positive intention and mental reward from your new behavior instead of your prior bad habit. 

It's easy to be skeptical reading this article because it all sounds so simple … but it is simple! Most habits are started not because they are difficult for us to do, but because they are easy for us to do. And with that, one final piece of advice: Keep steps two and three as simple, easy and achievable as possible. Running five miles instead of smoking a cigarette may be a great new behavior pattern, but it isn't very likely you'll do it. Keep it simple, keep it easy and keep it fun. And don't forget to celebrate!

[Read: 13 Fool-Proof Ways to Get Happier.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Jeff Halevy is an internationally recognized expert in behavioral health, nutrition and exercise science. His clients range from Hollywood and Wall Street "royalty" to true international royalty. After surviving the removal of a pear-sized tumor and a substance abuse problem, Jeff turned his life around, founding New York City private gym Halevy Life and starring in healthy lifestyle TV show "Workout From Within with Jeff Halevy," which airs nationally on Veria Living.