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The trick to breaking a bad habit is simpler than you think

Bad habits are often the result of not having a habit at all. Here are 4 tips for creating good habits — and sticking to them.

A visit to the drive-thru at lunch, mindlessly scrolling social media, hitting the snooze button … five times.

We all have them: The bad habits that prevent us from accomplishing our goals or feeling our best.

The good news is that it’s entirely possible to break bad habits and replace them with new ones — and according to board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma, fall is the perfect time to do it since we’re already in the right mindset.

“What I love about habits is that they automate and routinize things for us,” she told TODAY in a TODAY show segment aired September 6. “And even though we may feel like, 'Oh, is this really a time for change? Do I really want to add a new habit in my life?' It’s actually going to streamline things down the road, and it creates expectations for everyone in the family. So, to me, habits are a way to organize oneself, organize, streamline and automate.”

What is a habit?

What often appear to be good choices — like eating a healthy breakfast or going to the gym — are actually good habits, says Varma. And these every day habits really add up. 

“We are what we are used to, we crave what we are used to, and we can change what we are used to — so let’s make good habits what we are used to,” said Varma.

She says the anatomy of a habit is simple:

  • Intention
  • Decision-making
  • Action plan
  • Automation

Bad habits are simply the absence of good habits

You may assume that bad habits are the result of making poor choices, but Varma said choice has nothing to do with it.

“Bad habits are often the result of two things: not having a habit at all or genuinely having a routine, just an unhealthy one,” she said.

This can actually bode well for you when it comes to forming good habits.

“Believe it or not, a garden variety bad habit situation means you are a creature of habit; it means you like routine. And that’s good. Let’s swap it out with something else. Over time you will become habituated to it,” she says, caveating that this doesn’t apply to addiction.

How to break a bad habit

Varma has two main tips for breaking a bad habit:

  • Identify your cue and trigger: Bad habits happen when we are vulnerable, she said. “Lots of bad habits result from mindlessness and lack of discipline, so put it inside your conscious control and bring awareness,” she said. "Why do you smoke or bite your nails?" Identifying the triggers for your bad habits can allow you to anticipate in advance and create a plan.
  • Don’t make the things that that are bad for you too accessible. For example, if you come home from work and head right to the freezer for a carton of ice cream, don’t keep ice cream in the house. "Make yourself have to step out and buy it, creating a boundary or obstacle," said Varma.

The secret to a good habit? Eliminate choice

“Choice is the enemy of a habit because you are leaving it up to whim and willpower and discipline,” said Varma. “There are too many variables involved including energy, interest, other people, discipline, motivation.”

For example, the habit of exercising: “If you leave room for choice on whether or not to exercise this evening, then your energy or mood or even whim will determine the outcome,” she said. “It leaves a greater chance of not working out. Make the act of exercising non-negotiable and it becomes an automated habit.”

How to create lasting good habits

  • Narrow the attainability gap: “Don’t make habits too complicated (at least, not at first),” she said. “If you are not a morning person and currently aren’t doing a morning workout, and the workout itself is your goal, don’t make it that much harder by adding the early morning awakening to it — do it later in the day."
  • Lower the entry barrier: “Make good habits easy and attainable and keep bad ones out of sight,” she said. “Keep cut fruits and veggies at eye line and in the front as soon as you open the fridge. Not the unhealthy snacks in front of you.
  • Associate the habit with with positive emotions or a time or place: “Positive emotional association is key — keep a journal about how good the new habit makes you feel; it reinforces the behavior,” said Varma. "Make the new habit be associated with a time or place! Leverage the cues that trigger the habits, for example, as soon as you get home or first thing in the morning.”
  • Build in contingency plans.”For example, if you didn’t get to work out, have a backup like gardening, light housekeeping, stairs in the building, walk to work,” she said, adding that she is also a fan of the buddy system. “Add friends into the picture, like exercise/workout buddies! We’re very much influenced by our peers,” she said.

How to maintain good habits

New habits may feel a bit like a New Year’s resolution: you start full steam ahead, excited about the change, only to fall off a few weeks later. Varma has some tips for creating a habit that sticks.

According to Varma, maintaining good habits involves a few key things: short- and long-term goals, support, increasing the challenge, an opportunity to showcase your talent and adding novelty.

  • Consider novelty and challenge to prevent boredom: "Planning a bike race in a different city, taking Pilates reformer classes if that’s your thing and you’ve never done it; dance class, if that’s more fun than walking on a treadmill. Keep adding new options to the mix," said Varma. "As much as I’m promotion automation, I’m not promotion complacency or stagnancy. The minute you are falling off the wagon, ask: Am I getting bored?"
  • Set additional goals or opportunities with a time frame: Novelty, surprise and challenge are such an important part, but also make a longer term goal: signing up for a race and challenge…something that allows you to showcase your new talents” Once you meet a goal Varma said to celebrate, but then plan your next milestone. “That’s why it’s helpful to have step-wise goals: 3, 6 months, quarterly, mid-year and annual goal,” she said.
  • Keep yourself accountable: “Someone I know books classes, knowing they would hate to lose the money, or make a plan with a friend knowing they don’t want to disappoint the person. Put yourself on the hook with money or an obligation,” said Varma.

Bad habits can often make us feel like we’re not in control, but Varma stressed that “we are more in control of our health and our life than we realize." And it's worth it to put the work in to establish good habits. "Your emotions, attitude and behavior determine your habits and habits determine your health.”