I used to have a roommate named Heather who'd spark up Marlboro Light after Marlboro Light, but desperately wanted to quit. Back then, I told her one tip I'd learned from a smoker who had quit successfully. He said, "Replace an unwanted habit with a good habit."
"But what habit?" she asked. In a miracle moment, I just so happened to be holding a green tea in my hands that second.
"Green tea," I almost screamed. "Green tea!" I raised my cup to highlight the divine timing of the universe.
"I like green tea," Heather said, looking curious. Could it work for her? She stocked the kitchen cupboards full of jasmine green tea, and ciggies were banished from our house from that day forward.
Replacing a bad habit with a good one is absolutely possible—if you're willing. Here's how to do it successfully:
1. Make sure the decision is yours.
Change isn't the easiest thing on earth; we find safety in familiarity, and our old ways can give us comfort—that glass of red at the end of a long day, the cake as the reward for a project finished, the snug-feeling smartphone with the Insta app (a.k.a. social crutch) you hold in your hand.
So it's even worse (impossible, really) when change is someone else's idea. You have to be the one to want it. You're far more likely to be successful in transforming a habit if you make the decision for yourself (not your mother, S.O., or doctor). What do you most feel ready to change about you right now?
2. Be around the right people.
I used to go to AA with my dad and I remember something often repeated there: "If you don't want to slip, don't go where it's slippery." This meant: Stay outta the pub! Find some sober friends! Enjoy "dry" places and activities, like a walk in the woods or a drive along the seaside.
Who can you spend a little more time with who doesn't share the habit you're hoping to reduce? For example, I find myself drinking far less prosecco with my entrepreneur friends than I do with my old corporate buddies. Who is a good influence in your life? Give 'em a call.
3. Distract yourself.
Comfort food is alluring no matter how full we are, am I right? My comfort food is pancakes, my childhood fave—I could even eat them after a five-course dinner. A great technique when you aren't hungry but want to give in to a craving is to distract your mind, even momentarily.
Instead of opening your fridge, leave the kitchen and start sorting something in a drawer in your bedroom, for example. When you go back to the kitchen, you might forget about the food altogether. This happened to me recently when I was making a batch of pancakes and my best friend called. We spoke excitedly for 45 mins—and the batch went down the sink.
A different trick might work for you: A client of mine quit her nail-biting habit by massaging the small of her back every time she wanted to chew a nail. After three weeks, she'd stopped—but she's kept up the massages.
4. Remember to reward yourself.
Rewarding ourselves matters, especially when we feel we're depriving ourselves in another way or that we've had to endure something difficult.
The reward is best if it's completely unrelated to the unhealthy habit you've eradicated. If you've quit sugar, for example, you can treat yourself to a nice haircut or even a weekend away (a friend of mine quit coffee and booze for a month and saved $1,000—that's plenty for some time pool- or mountain-side this winter)! If you've overcome a procrastination or complaining habit, perhaps treat yourself to a dinner out.
What's your dream reward, however small? Write it down. Picture it in your mind. It's on its way!
Habits are a natural part of your life experience, and the majority of them help us function—brushing our teeth, drinking water, exercising, calling our mum, and getting to bed early enough for a decent night's sleep. But no habit is you. We are the sum of our habits and choices at the end of it all, but no one habit defines you—and no one else can force you to do a thing.
As for Heather, she decided to put her ciggie money in a jar and save for a car (Hey—I'd choose to put my hard-earned dough into a set of wheels versus lighting it up in smoke any day.) Did she succeed? I don't know; unfortunately, we didn't keep in touch. But even if she didn't, if I saw her puffing away today, I'd say, "It's OK, girl! You can start over any time—but only if you really want to."
Susie Moore is Greatist's life coach columnist and a confidence coach in New York City. Sign up for free weekly wellness tips on her website and check back every Tuesday for her latest No Regrets column!