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The Best Way to Successfully Quit a Bad Habit for Good

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I recently made the decision to give up my post-lunch dessert for good. The sugar hit wasn't doing anything for me. In fact, it could probably be blamed for the huge energy crash I suffered every midafternoon. (BTW, this is your body on sugar.)

First day without a sweet treat, great. Second day, fine. Third day...I snatched up a mini Snickers and a mini Butterfingers from the little jar outside the office kitchen. By the following night was craving chocolate-covered pretzels like I was going through withdrawl, and wondering what had happened. My resolve had been so strong.

So when I read in AgeProof, a new book written by Jean Chatzky and Michael F. Roizen, M.D., that going cold turkey with a bad habit isn't the best idea, I felt a little relief. Maybe my lack of willpower wasn't my fault.

The problem with trying to go cold turkey, says Roizen, is that your brain wants to be busy. He gives this example: Say every time you have a cup of coffee you also have a cigarette, but then you decide to quit smoking (hurray!). The first time you have coffee sans cigarette, your brain will be screaming for something, anything pleasurable. Providing it with nothing at all sets you up for failure, he says.

A-ha, so that was why I couldn't quit the midday treat. My brain had gotten used to a sugar rush after lunch. When I took it away, my brain freaked out and started looking around for something to replace it. When I saw the candy jar—bingo.

This doesn't mean we're all doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over, of course. "The brain just needs to be kept busy, and with a healthier habit. You need a substitute," says Roizen. Rather than trying to quit a bad habit entirely, try his two-pronged approach:

First, figure out what times of day you tend to engage in the habit you'd like to give up. My sugar habit was isolated to after lunch. If you're trying to quit smoking, maybe your afternoon coffee or drive home are triggers. (It sounds odd, but paying attention to your menstrual cycle may help too.)

Next, find out what you can do instead of your bad habit to keep your brain busy, so you won't experience insane cravings. In the case of smoking, you might slap on a nicotine patch or chew a stick of gum. If you want to give up diet soda, you might have a cup of coffee for the caffeine without the fake sweeteners.

For my candy addiction, I decided to try sipping on a cup of peppermint tea, which tastes sweet to me even without sugar, or if the situation was really dire, having a square of super-dark chocolate. (After all, it's good for my gym performance.) Roizen says you could also choose something like going for a short walk or taking a few minutes to text with friends—the new habit just has to be something you enjoy doing, and something that's healthier than what you're giving up.

"Substituting the bad habit with a healthier one helps you break the brain circuitry that you've formed around the bad habit," says Roizen. You may be able to switch over 100 percent right away, or you may need to wean yourself off of your habit of choice—the dark chocolate approach. But the end result? Freedom.

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