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How to...break a bad habit

Don’t focus on the loss but on the gain, such as better health, a clearer head, the financial rewards or more time to read books or pursue a hobby


Biting your nails, binge-watching telly, mindless scrolling – we all have bad habits. Lots of our daily activity is automatic, habitual, we do things on autopilot. Relying on willpower alone to resist temptation can be hard. If you’re keen to kick a bad habit this year, the trick is to change things, says Seamus Sheedy, a psychotherapist accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

“If you sit in a certain seat watching TV with a glass of wine, try changing your environment. Move to another chair. Instead of telly, read a book,” he says. Changing your autopilot settings can make breaking a habit less difficult. “Your unconscious sees how one thing fits with another.”

Start small

January is the time for new resolutions, but don’t make them too ambitious. Start small, says Sheedy. If you get home from work every evening and sit on the sofa, the cure for that bad habit isn’t to sign up for the marathon. Start with a ‘couch to 5km’ goal. “Starting small means you are not trying to jump from the bottom of the stairs to the top in one big leap. Try a 20-minute walk in the evening and then do a bit more the following day,” he says. If you are drinking a glass of wine every night, try cutting back to weekends only. If your goal is realistic, you are more likely to succeed.

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Visualise success

Habits are habits because they give us some sense of release or reward. But bad habits can make us feel guilt and shame as well, so it’s not all fun. Ditching a bad habit has its rewards so remind yourself of those. “Visualise yourself having broken the habit,” says Sheedy. “If you are drinking and snacking at home most nights, you’ll put on weight. If you cut back, you will lose the weight, and you’ll be able to wear that shirt or dress in the wardrobe that you haven’t been able to wear,” he says.

Swap it

Stopping a habit can leave a big void which makes giving up all the harder. “Replace the bad habit with a different habit,” says Sheedy. If you are totally cold turkey on Netflix, instead of sitting on the same sofa, pining, try reading a book in another room. If you are ditching the Friday night takeaway, try out a new recipe. Instead of pouring a glass of wine as soon as you get in the door, have a bath. Or get out for a walk and listen to a podcast.

Focus on the gain

When kicking a bad habit, focus on the gain, not the loss. Maybe you are gaining better health, a clearer head, more time to read books or pursue a hobby. There can be financial rewards too. “If you are drinking half a bottle of wine a night, that’s a fiver a night or €35 a week. Put that money in a jar and commit to rewarding yourself for your success,” says Sheedy. “Say to yourself, I’m going to book a weekend away with my family or my wife.”