We all have bad habits — it could be nail-biting, eating poorly or something more embarrassing. Wanting to stop should be enough, but our brains are wired to take comfort in our vices. We've shared plenty of tricks to kill unwanted behaviour, but I found nothing helped until I convinced myself that I needed to change. And all I did was talk to a webcam.
What I Did and Why It Worked
Bad behaviour sticks when you aren't motivated to get rid of it, and it's hard to stay motivated if you don't really feel like anyone cares if you change or not. You need someone to hold your hand along the way, believe in the change you want to make a reality, and remind yourself why you're suffering for it. The problem is we don't necessarily have people in our lives who are going to commit themselves to ensuring our diet is healthy, our nails remain unbitte, and every choice we make is in our own best interest. When I finally decided I needed to break my bad habits and make better choices for myself, I didn't have anyone to coach me through the process. But I had a webcam — and that was actually all I needed.
My approach was very simple, and it worked like this:
- I came up with a list of things I wanted to change, such as my life-long nail-biting habit, not getting enough exercise, worrying about offending people who aren't nice and don't care about me, and quite a bit more.
- I added why I wanted to change to each item on that list.
- I wrote a short "speech" (about 45 seconds) that I could read into a camera that covered every item on the list.
- I ended that "speech" with a reminder that I'm doing this because I care about myself.
- I read that speech into a webcam and recorded it every night. Sure, I could have gone the traditional route and talked into a mirror, but it's tough to speak and truly listen at the same time.
- I watched each recording after I finished.
I stopped biting my nails within a week, and my other problems started to disappear shortly after. Listening to and watching myself express the things that mattered to me helped in three important ways. First, I had a coach who wanted to ensure I stuck to my goals. Second, I had someone I didn't want to disappoint (me). Third, I was able to create an emotional reason to avoid my bad behaviour every day. The process involves a bit more than just talking to yourself, of course. You can't just say anything — it has to be effective. Here's how to make this method really effective.
How to Coach Yourself Out of Bad Habits
No single habit-breaking method works for everyone because 1) we're not all the same and 2) the specificity of any method makes it less useful when applied broadly. In order to effectively coach yourself out of bad behaviours, you need to adapt this trick to yourself. Let's look at how to do that, step by step.
Step 1: Find a Compelling Reason to Stop Behaving Badly
Your bad behaviours are rooted in comfort. You act on them with the best of intentions: to make yourself feel good. Because you essentially suck at predicting the future, what feels good now (your bad habit) also feels like the right decision. The future is logical and cold. Your habit is emotional and warm. In order to motivate yourself to ditch your unwanted behaviour, you need an emotional override. For most, realising the severity of the problem is necessary.
Take nail biting, for instance. The damage it causes often hurts later, not during the act or even immediately afterwards, which makes identifying the habit as a problem very difficult in the moment. It just doesn't feel bad, so for all intents and purposes it isn't. In order to see the damage, and feel the consequences, you need to track your behaviour closely.
Keep a notepad and a pen with you. Every time you bite a nail (or engage in your bad behaviour), make an X. (Tracking each infraction on your smartphone also works, but the definitive action of making a mark on paper is better.) For greater effect, snap photos of the damage you cause yourself and keep them handy to look at. If your problem cannot be photographed, write down the specifics of what happened every time the behaviour occurs. Eventually the evidence will overwhelm you and you will want to change.
Step 2: Accept Your Bigger, Scarier Problems
Your unwanted behaviours are easy to understand, but the reason why you haven't changed is a bit more complicated. Bad habits don't stick solely because of their frequent repetition, but also because of a lack of a sustainable willpower to change. If you're unhappy for any other reason — whether it's feeling overworked and burnt out, lonely or whatever — you need to be aware of that issue or you won't make any progress. Getting started is only half the battle. If you can't keep up the fight, you're wasting your time.
Figure out the larger problems in your life. You don't have to worry about fixing them, or even addressing them, but you need to admit they exist and that you're not satisfied. Write down the issues you come up with. Don't think — just write. You'll need this information in the next step when you figure out what to say to yourself.
Step 3: Use Your Gathered Information to Coach Yourself
As your own habit-breaking coach, you need to prepare a pep talk for yourself. Doing this might feel a little ridiculous, but you'll quickly forget your discomfort if you take it seriously. First things first, you need to prepare what you're going to say. (Check out the video below for an example.)
Start by identifying your problem(s) and telling yourself to stop: You will stop biting your nails.
Explain why you don't want to do it: It damages your hands, it hurts, and it's unsanitary.
Tell yourself why this change is important: From now on, you will make better choices.
Why? You will do this because you care about your well being. You will do this because you deserve better than feeling bad about your actions every day.
Tailor your pep talk to your problem(s), but keep it short and simple. When you're explaining why you want to change your behaviour, feel free to be more specific and incorporate any larger issues in your life. Remember, the only goal here is to write out what you want to accomplish. Don't try to come up with any solutions. Simply create a statement of intent and a short explanation of its importance. Solutions come once you're motivated to find them, and your goal is to create that motivation.
When finished, turn on your webcam and record yourself speaking what you wrote with confidence. Make eye contact with the webcam as much as possible. When you've finished recording, watch the video and listen to a self-assured version of yourself convince you that you can leave your bad habits behind.
Repeat this process once a day. You'll start to remember the words whenever you try to engage in your bad habit. You won't want to disappoint the the part of yourself that believes you can fix the problem. Remember: this isn't an instant solution and it will take time. Allow yourself to make mistakes, or you will fail. If you trust yourself and hold your own hand through the process, however, you can break your bad habits before you know it.