28 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Breaking bad (habits)

From Facebook-surfing and smoking to procrastination and nail biting, Colin Drury finds out how you can kick those damaging routines to the curb

By Colin Drury
29 Jan 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:iStock Image 1 of 4
  • Don’t be like Bill – put a stop to those bad habits that play out like Groundhog Day to become your perfect self.

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  • The next time you chomp on that burger while on a junk food-free diet, put Dh20 in a jar – a self-imposed fine.

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  • A bad habit could easily kill all your dreams, so create a plan of action to set yourself up for success.

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Ah, Groundhog Day. February 2. Legend has it that on this date Americans watch for a giant rodent emerging from its burrow in the belief that the way it does so will foretell the season’s weather.

If the animal comes out and stays out, so the legend goes, spring will be warm and long. If it retreats back after taking in the air, winter will persist for another six weeks.

Except no one knows it for that anymore, do they?

Thanks to the 1993 film of the same name – in which a grumpy Bill Murray is trapped living the same day over and over until he changes his ways – the date has become associated with repetition. Namely, repetition of our mistakes.

Which surely makes February 2 the perfect time to assess all those little things we do automatically day after day – things that are actually no good for us at all.

You know the ones: checking social media too often, hitting the snooze button too many times, having a sugary drink with lunch, biting nails, procrastinating. And because they’re built into our daily behaviour patterns, we find them too tough to take on.

Friday spoke to life coaches to get the low-down on how, once and for all, you can get out of these Groundhog Day grooves. You can thank us for these 10 top tips next February 2 when you’re the perfect person.

1 Recognise the damage done

Most bad habits are small stuff. Snacking on chocolate instead of fruit. Staying in bed longer than we should. Getting sucked into Facebook. These things, on the surface and in isolation, are no big deal, right?


Done often and long enough, they can take a massive chunk out of your life. ‘Let’s take Facebook as an example,’ says José de Heer, development coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha. 
‘If you’re spending two or three hours a day checking in online, that’s almost 20 hours a week. When you start thinking what you could be doing with that time instead – when you realise how much of your life you’re wasting – that should be a good starting motivation to break the habit.’

In short, understand that little habits have big consequences.

2 Identify triggers

Bad habits don’t come out of nowhere. They’re triggered by something, whether that’s our environment, an emotional state or even other people – who hasn’t wanted a comfort dessert after a particularly trying meal out with the boss?

The key is to find out what those triggers are, and then, if appropriate, try to remove them from our lives.

‘Every time you engage in the same bad habit, make a note of the location, the time, your emotional state, other people around you and any immediate preceding action,’ advises self-improvement blog Pick the Brain. If a pattern emerges – you lose your temper every time you drive on Shaikh Zayed Road, for example – take steps to avoid the relevant trigger. In this case, plot alternative routes.

3 Take time out to plan

So, you wake up on January 1, and you decide you’re going to quit smoking. You throw away the cigarettes and tell your colleagues, then you go into a meeting with a particularly demanding client; you come out, stressed, and head straight to the smokers’ room.

That’s all natural – because you haven’t planned. You’ve dived in at the deep end. Some of us will swim, of course. Most of 
us mere mortals will fail.

‘So plan better,’ says Ghada Zakaria, executive leadership coach with Authenticity. ‘Think about what you want to achieve, formulate a schedule and set mini targets.’

If smoking is the issue, for example, stock up on gum, talk to professionals, and cut down the number of times you puff away before quitting it completely.

‘But,’ says Ghada, ‘be aware this is a long-term objective. It could be a behaviour pattern that has formed over years so it’s no use rushing to rehabilitate. Prepare thoroughly.’

4 Have friends hold you accountable

That is to say, talk about how you hope to change. Not too much, of course. Don’t be the bore who spends all brunch informing everyone you plan to reduce your credit card spending (no one cares).

But telling friends and family is a proven way of setting yourself up for success. Not only can they provide a support system, they also offer inspiration.

‘People who share their goals are more likely to keep them,’ says Ghada, who was the first Emirati woman to qualify as a life coach in the UAE. ‘I did this myself. My bad habit used to be putting off jobs I didn’t want to do, and I had a friend who did the same. So we came up with a routine where first thing every morning we’d email each other to admit one job we weren’t looking forward to. Then, at the end of the day, we’d email to say if we had done it. That inspired both of us to get on with it.’

5 Small steps

Traditionally, when people try to change for the better, they get too excited.

If their bad habit is not doing enough exercise, for instance, they rush out, buy a gym membership and declare they’ll be using it five times a week.

To which sound advice would be: whoa! Slow it down, sunshine.

‘If we set targets that are poorly thought out and unrealistic,’ says Tom O’Neil, life coach and author of the critically acclaimed self-help book The 1% Principle, ‘that means, inevitably, progress soon begins to fall apart.’

Downsize instead. Try the gym twice a week, in the above example. Try taking the steps instead of the elevator, even. ‘By setting mini goals over shorter periods,’ adds Tom, ‘you can quickly transform bad habits with relatively little effort.’

Remember, long journeys generally start with small steps.

6 Fine yourself

It’s the metaphorical swear jar.

If you bite your nails too much, put Dh20 in a jar every time you find yourself indulging in the habit. Then once a month donate the money to charity. It’s a form of financial penance, if you like.

‘Trust me,’ says Ghada, ‘if you’re giving away significant amounts in short periods, you’ll soon learn to change your habits.’

Even if self-imposed fines don’t help change your behaviour, at least you can feel smug about doing good for charity. Online swear jars are reported to have raised millions over the past five years.

7 Set reminders for your future self

It’s when your habits trump your willpower that things start getting messy. It’s all very well saying you’re going to cut down on caffeine when you’re on a motivation kick, but how will you feel about that as you’re walking past your favourite café, in need of an early morning boost?

So use technology to your advantage. 
Set reminders on your phone, detailing all the reasons you want to break this habit, and have it go off at moments when your determination is likely to be at its weakest. ‘These reminders might seem silly,’ admits SJ Scott, the American self-improvement guru behind a whole bunch of bestselling e-books including 77 Habits To Live A Better Life. ‘But they’re a great way to keep this habit change at the forefront of your mind.’

8 Coach your brain

Bad habits form because, at some point on some basic level, we enjoy them. That’s science. 
A 2012 study by the University of Texas found that the brain releases the feel-good chemical dopamine when we do something we find pleasurable. Even when we come to feel that pleasure may no longer be good for us, the brain continues to crave the dopamine. It’s a mild form of addiction.

But, argue some psychologists, this can be beaten by something as simple as using affirmations. That is to say, if you repeat or write down a message a number of times before bed – ‘I must not spend all night watching box sets,’ for instance – your brain subconsciously heeds the advice.

‘Whether it works or not is still open to debate but, in my experience it certainly helps in combating bad habits,’ says José. 
‘It’s a form of trying to get yourself and your brain pulling towards the same goal.’

9 Review your behaviour – and celebrate wins

Recording your progress is a way of both holding yourself accountable and keeping the reasons for wanting to change fresh in your mind. Take a minute every day to record your triumphs (and, if need be, your failures), says Carmen Benton, managing director of LifeWorks Personal Development Training Centre in Umm Suqeim.

‘It’s just a small thing that takes no time at all, but that act of writing down what you’ve achieved has real benefits, such as showing you that you are making progress, and giving you the momentum to carry on.’

And, if for instance, you’ve gone a week without slipping up? ‘Celebrate,’ says Carmen. Although, obviously, make it appropriate. Don’t toast reducing your sugary drinks by nailing a can of coke.

10 Remember: a bad habit isn’t the end of the world

We all have them and we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. It doesn’t make you a bad person, and it’s certainly not worth self-loathing.

Fact is, you don’t always even need to change a bad habit. They can make you unique.

More to the point, says Mehtap Arslan, life and business coach with Step Out Consulting in Dubai Marina, in a counter-intuitive kind of way, not worrying about these behaviour patterns can actually result in their reduction.

‘When people learn how to be comfy in their own skins it breeds self-confidence,’ she says. ‘And when you’re confident and happy, that naturally breeds success.’

Sometimes, it seems, simply deciding not to try too hard to break bad habits can actually lead to the biggest long-term changes and personal growth.

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury