THE BLOG
11/12/2013 12:32 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

How to Break Bad Habits Like a Boss

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." -- Aristotle

That Aristotle was one smart dude. What he's saying is that people who are wining at life are doing so because of their positive habits. Through the repeated routines and rituals of their daily lives, they are literally setting themselves up for success.

The opposite is also true: averageness, mediocrity and feeling-like-crap-ness are also due to our habits. Our daily routines are not always priming us for success -- they can also be unwittingly setting us up for self-sabotage and disappointment.

So what do we do when we've got a bunch of unhealthy habits holding us back? How can we turn the ship around?

Trying to override bad habits with willpower alone is not going to create lasting change. Ask anybody who's ever gone on a restrictive diet -- eventually your willpower will fail and the chocolate bar will win.

Instead, we need to shift the way we look at habits. We need to rebalance the odds in our favor and arm ourselves with some serious habit-breaking weaponry.

Here's a new model for how to break bad habits like a boss:

1) Discover what your bad habit is. Identify it. Awareness is always the first step.

2) Create a goal of what you would like to do instead. What would you like to replace it with?

3) Uncover what triggers you into carrying out this habit. What are your cues? What sets you off?

4) Bring an internal focus to the habit. Start self-monitoring when you engage in it. (Note: this isn't about judging yourself. It's a soft gentle focus.)

5) Become aware of your trigger and begin stopping the habit while it's happening.

6) Progress to catching the trigger before it happens.

7) Replace this habit with the goal -- a deliberate response, consistently taken.

This approach is gentle but deliberate. There's no judgment involved. Just gentle awareness and transformation.

Let's work through an example. Say the bad habit keeping you stuck in rut-ville is coming home from work at 5 p.m. and being ravenous, so proceeding to eat an entire packet of rice crackers (low-fat, of course) before dinner. Sometimes with cheese and wine. Okay, mostly with cheese and wine.

1) Identify the habit. Binge eating when I get home from work.

2) What would you like to replace it with? I'd like to get home from work, have a healthy, normal-sized snack, then start cooking a nutritious dinner. If I can squeeze a run in there, too, that would be amazing.

3) What are your cues? I come home from work hungry. Starving. And usually cranky, ,too. I'm always exhausted, and I just want to switch off from work. So I walk into the house, I walk into the kitchen, and I get to work on a packet of Lay's finest.

4) Bring an internal focus to the habit. I start to become aware of what I'm doing while I'm doing it. So maybe when I'm halfway through the packet, I move into awareness. Slowly, this awareness will be triggered earlier and earlier.

5) Become aware of your trigger. I know now that I'm at my worst when I'm really tired and hungry. Or when I am stressed. Or when I've had an especially bad day at work.

6) Progress to catching the trigger before it happens. I keep snacks in my car -- nuts, trail mix, a bottle of coconut water. I try to eat these on the way home so that my blood sugar doesn't crash and burn. I'm also trying to play a relaxing, uplifting playlist on my iPod during my commute home. This helps lift me out of my post-work funk faster. I also leave my sneakers outside the front door so they are the first cue I see when I get home.

7) Replace this habit with the goal. Now that I'm not starving when I get home (thanks to my car stash of snackables), I've got more mental power to make the decisions I want to make. I find it easier to choose healthy foods to cook for dinner, and I'm probably going for a run or walk every second day. I'm totally acting in alignment with my values and am moving towards my health goals.

Habits are just conditioned patterns of behavior. We don't do them because we're dumb or weak or lazy, we do them, well, because that's just how we've always done it. This process helps us to know better. And when we know better, we can do better.

So get out your journal and start to work through these steps. In no time at all, you'll be busting out of your bad habits like a total boss.

For more by Elizabeth McKenzie, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.