How to Break a Bad Habit

The photo archive that is Instagram is a brutal reminder that I used to be a better version of myself.

I ate raw food and cut sugar and was only having, like, half a coffee a day. I used to run and last year at this time I was so scrupulous about my two twenty-minute meditations a day that I swear I thought I could levitate.

Today, though? Today I’m sitting at my desk. I’ve been here since 8 a.m. I’m eating a breakfast cookie that is neither tasty nor healthy but is doing the trick and I’m two coffees into my early afternoon. Per yesterday’s post, yeah, sure I waited until 12 p.m. to drink them but after cappuccino #1 went down in under a minute, I graduated to the major leagues — a large cold brew (curiously strong) sweetened with that nasty syrup because I am a gross human.

A previous version of me is watching this happen and shaking her head, I know it. I don’t blame her. And in case you’re wondering: no, I haven’t meditated, and yes I would like to. But will I? Probably not. Bad habits die hard.

But it’s mental health month on Man Repeller and falling back into the familiar cycle of over-caffeination, sugar highs that end in energy burn out and low-grade depression elicited by allowing my anxiety attacks to spiral into my guts would be a) extremely unbecoming b) bad for all of us.

For all of us!

So I’m putting together a plan, a sort of antidote to the bad habits I’ve picked back up.

It will begin immediately. (I spit the last bite of that breakfast cookie out.) Instead of cookies, I will eat fruit for breakfast henceforth. I will make sure to include grapes and pineapple to start: they’re my favorite and the sweetest. When I feel my body going into crisis mode because of the absence of unnatural sugar, I will drink a bottle of water, suck it up (maybe) chew a piece of gum and close my eyes to remind myself that I’ve done this before and therefore I can do it again. It will be a slow wean off — I will deprive myself — and if I feel as though I must eat a cookie? I will stuff a date with walnuts and scarf. Not the silk kind.

Per that coffee, I will push forward consumption by one hour — instead of waiting ’til noon, I’ll allow myself that first one at 11. My thinking here is that if its waiting for me just a little bit earlier, I won’t enter the withdrawal state and binge. If I do? I’ll attempt to supplement that second go with a hot tea. So much of it is about ritual. That’s something I understand intellectually, so I will be implicitly mindful about consuming that second beverage. I’ll think through the order of consequences. I won’t tolerate impulsive activity. Again, I’ve talked myself out of this bad habit before; there’s no reason I can’t do it again.

And as for the meditation? Twenty minutes in the morning and then again in the afternoon is cumbersome. Overwhelming. It feels fucking great but somehow those mind circuits aren’t connecting, so I’ll take baby steps, because I know myself and cold turkeys don’t work for me. I just can’t digest them.

Instead, I’ll meditate for ten minutes right after I complete this writing assignment. I’ll set an alarm on my phone for five hours from now and will commit to my second ten minute meditation. I know myself well enough to know that in no more than three days, I will remember exactly why I need meditation and so, slowly, I’ll increase the time I spend closing my eyes and telling my mind to shut the fuck up. The other thing I’ll have to do is plan better, right? Reorient my priorities and truly understand that without allocating this “Me Time” each day, I will be a nightmare both to myself and those around me. If it means waking up earlier, or being a little late, then so be it.

I read a story in the Review section of the Sunday Times last weekend about the psychology of dieting and why it doesn’t work. The neuroscientist who wrote it presented a lot of information that’s not going to sound new to you: deprivation throws the body into panic mode and thus incurs future binging behavior; restriction is stressful and when stress hormones are released in the body, our judgement is impaired — you revert back to bad habits and addictive behavior and you do it with a vengeance. Something that was mentioned at the end of the article though, which aligns nicely with the pursuit of a broken bad habit, is the notion of “mindful eating.”

I first heard this in a Ted Talk with Sandra Aamodt, and think it makes a lot of sense: if you check in with yourself regularly enough, you’ll start to pay attention to how you’re feeling and why you’re feeling it. (Some examples: you’re tired because you just had two coffees and the energy spike has worn off; you’re feeling frustrated and anxious because you still need to plow through hours of work and not having stopped to meditate is only exacerbating that experience; you’re curiously hungry, but only for something sweet, because you’re not actually hungry, you are just looking for a distraction from the other stuff.)

Next: appraise the order of consequences. Don’t just respond to the first order consequence and tell yourself thatif you don’t meditate, you might win back ten minutes right now. Instead, think through the second and third orders. If you give up the ten minutes, you’ll be more clear and therefore more efficient, and if you keep it up, you’ll see the anxiety attacks dissipate entirely. You’ll break that bad habit like you’re a bull in a fucking china shop. It’s the only time being one of those is a good thing!

So, let’s do this together, shall we? List the bad habits you want to break, instate an action plan and let’s check in next week to see how we’re doing. Same time, same place.

Sound good?

Featuring a Shourouk ring; collage/illustration by Emily Zirimis. 


Get more Brain Massage ?
  • This is perfect. And has greatly improved my mood today. :}

  • Kelsey O’Donnell

    I made you breakfast cookies once and dropped them off at your [old] office. The dude who claims a 50% possessory interest in my closet told me it was weird thing to do, in a bad way. Maybe he was right because you don’t call, you don’t write – so I took up meditating.

    Just kidding. I was already meditating because, life. But call me, maybe?
    No? Well, this post is not weird, it is awesome in a “I relate to that, what a great tip” way. I am impatient and want to go from zero to hero, coach potato to enlightened goddess RIGHT THIS INSTANT. In my numerous attempts to change my habits I’ve learned to focus on gradual improvements, gradually. For the sisters looking for further inspiration, The Power of Less: Changing Behavior by Leo Babauta is helpful re: breaking bad habits and replacing them with healthy ones. Tim Ferriss has a great post that highlights the fundamentals, link below. And the Headspace meditation app – good shit. It deserves a high-five for helping me begin and continue a meditation practice.

    • Last month I met the guy who started Headspace and asked him how he might define meditation in one word. “Perspective.” So, so true.

      • Kelsey O’Donnell

        That’s incredible, all 3: the meeting, the question and the answer.

  • katie48

    This post on Day 2 of no Coca Cola is life.

    I have a serious relationship with Coke / it’s toxic.

  • I have increased the daily amounts of veggies and fruit ever since turning vegetarian (24 years ago) and it has had nothing to do with my being a strong-willed person. Instead, I simply crave them more. I even have a “theory” to offer: my gut saw I liked it raw to a certain degree, so it filled up with bacteria appreciating the raw remains. And since I have been happy to oblige, they make me want to ingest holy rawness even more.

    I do eat cookeis and chocolate, but they don’t matter, I almost never crave them (I used to, of course) and mostly they taste way too artificial, meaning my mouth is now where my gut is 🙂

    Another thing I have grown to appreciate: coffee without caffeine. Not in the morning, that one has to be real and strong, but in the afternoon or even evening, the decaff will make me happy, too. It has the great taste I like so much but won’t keep me from falling asleep whenever I am ready to do so.

    • Senka

      I like this so much. Introducing something your body craved and wanted more and slowly it becoming a really good habit. I also appreciate that you didn’t force yourself to stop eating cookies and chocolate, but they gradually became less interesting because your body and digestive system as well as taste buds have adapted to something far healthier. I fear any drastic decision on cutting anything out completely, but introducing new better things sounds good.

      • It is an interesting test, in any case: so if you do X, what will your body say/do? I am quite afraid to go on living the same kind of life anyway, so changes are a good thing: you introduce them, monitor them and keep or discard them after some time. Nothing huge, no time for that, just small things, to feel alive.

        As a sagittarius, I wouldn’t have been able to stop myself doing something I like (or force myself to do unpleasant things) anyway. Doesn’t work that way 🙂

        • Senka

          Exactly. As a Taurus I enjoy food way too much to give up some aspects of it that easily. So small change, bringing new stuff in, sounds doable.

  • AlexaJuno

    Ugh. Sugar is the bane of my existence. In the process of weaning as we speak. Damn boyfriend and his friggin’ sweet tooth. Time to shed this “I’ve been hanging out with a man for a year” layer.

  • Mariana

    Could you please write again a post about meditation? But this time with examples, techniques. I’m eager to try TM but I can’t find people to teach me. In Portugal (where I live) people are more into mindfulness and I think I am more into the mantra meditation type.

  • Jolie

    I’ve been having these problems lately, too, and finding it hard to get back on track — also hard to believe I was ever actually on track to begin with. I came back to NY a few months ago after living in a dfiferent country for a few months. Before my trip, I was in great shape, felt healthy, practiced “mindful eating” and benefited greatly from it. Now, I’m trying to eat right but nothing is helping me to feel better or get back to that state of mind I was once in. It’s been months of trying!

    But I’ll keep trying. For me, most of it is being unemployed, so I’ll keep fighting to get a job. As we speak/write, I am eating a sandwich (on a roll instead of the usual hero — baby steps) and fruit for lunch. As for coffee, I have the same problem, although I don’t tend to feel guilty about my coffee consumption. When I think I’ve had too many coffees during the week, I like to grab a matcha latte or something similar. It feels healthy (I have no idea if it actually is, tbh) and somehow seems like a better choice.

  • Lillian

    The neurosciencey stuff about eating is so timely. I just finished the Whole30 and craved more sugar and obsessed over food more than I ever have in my life. Deprivation is no joke. I didn’t recognize myself. I normally don’t favor sweets, but I broke the cleanse with a SLEEVE of girl scout cookies. Now that I’m off it it’s suddenly easier to not eat shit. I guess because if I wanted to I could?

  • mara

    Wow – it’s just so rewarding knowing everyone else is as *&$&ed up as me when it comes to bad habits and self recrimination…I have however decided, based on your post, that the best thing to do for my mental health is just accept who the hell I am and what I like to do and do it without feeling bad (as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else). So I think I will skip yoga at lunch and grab a big bowl of soup from the cafeteria and watch the rain fall – ah my mental health has improved greatly already.

  • Natalie

    Ugh, the snooze button and sleeping in past 8:30 only to scramble to get to work in a panic.

  • Molly

    No more pulling out my eyelashes! I don’t think this is a habit I’ll break very quickly, but worth putting it out into the world.

  • I would say “no more procrastinating on finals.” but I have two 8-10 page essays due by Thursday and therefore said announcement is null. However, after my last day of school I am signing up for a 31 days of yoga thing, my body is a cranky wooden plank.

  • Babs

    I’m all about gradual improvement, but one way to f it all to hell is criticizing and judging yourself for not performing to your ideal standard. I’d argue that there’s some room for self-love and grace in this otherwise motivating post!

  • Robin

    This is not so much about breaking a bad habit, more starting a good one, but from tomorrow morning on I’m gonna drink hot water with lemon juice in it. When I was on vacation I drank two gallons of tea with orange and ginger a day and I had great skin, and the science-side of me says there’s a correlation between those two facts.

  • LOVE this. Much needed inspiration to (also) start meditating again and stop biting my nails and try to eat a salad once and a while.

  • Alison

    What if we just all cut ourselves a little slack?

    • Alarive

      I’m with you 🙂

  • As this posts insinuates, getting off a bad habit the first time isn’t that hard, it feels hopeful and cleansing and energizing, it’s getting BACK to a good habit that feels frustrating to me because I’m like, well i fell off the wagon even though I passed the 30 day mark maybe I even passed the 300 day mark–basically past the point where I thought I’d be meditating/exercising/writing daily/ not shopping frivolously/emotionally eating/name your vice on autopilot FOREVER but knowing that I could fall off the wagon even if I’ve been on it for MONTHS (years?) means that I COULD FALL OFF AGAIN

    there are other life parallels to this fear and obviously the obvious blunt answer is WELL YOU JUST GET BACK UP AGAIN

  • Aboslutely loved this. This was exactly what I needed to hear. And yes I will go for that run!

    Karina xx

  • I haven’t done yoga since May 1st, so I scheduled it in my journal once a week until the end of June, and then if that goes well I will up it to 2x a week for July/August.

    Also, I want breakfast cookies! Instead of aiming to restrict myself from certain foods, I find it’s a much more positive experience to have a goal of adding something to my diet. I try to add one serving of vegetables to a meal a day (even if sometimes its like, salsa…) and then that displaces a bit of the sweets I may eat just by default so I don’t have to think I can’t have it.

    • Oh, and here’s the habit page of my journal!

  • Julia

    Quit anhilating my cuticles and smoking so much weed! Saving the short term memory is way worth it ✌?️

  • Katie Hicks

    Just wanted to say that this is an awesome article, Leandra. It hits home for sure (I was actually watching OITNB at the same time as I was reading posts on man repeller. The very definition of a multi-tasking, crazy-inducing bad habit.) I’ll
    get on the bandwagon with you. Meditation and all. Keep up the great writing!