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This Is How You Break a Bad Habit

As humans, we’re hardwired to form habits. Why? The less we have to think about brushing our teeth or how to get to and from work, the more freedom our brains have to tackle other, more creative issues. This is a good thing…unless the habit is a bad one (biting your nails, slouching, checking your phone every five seconds).

The brain doesn’t discern between good and bad habits, and the bad ones “stick” just as easily as the good. Case in point: do you find yourself craving dessert every night, even if you had sweets earlier in the day? Breaking a habit that feels good (even if it’s not good for you) can be that much harder to do. But it’s not impossible. Here are strategies that researchers say might work for you:

Find a substitute. Replacing a bad habit with a better one can help. For example, if you’re a knuckle-cracker or hair twirler, find something else to occupy your hands when you’re feeling anxious. Try knitting or doodling. This helps satisfy your compulsion—without being harmful to your joints or scalp. Similarly, gum could stand in for nail biting, taking deep breaths may help temper chronic throat clearing, or taking your dog for a late-night walk may help curb your urge to binge-eat before bed.

Control your environment. If you can identify the triggers for your bad habit, you can then minimize those triggers to break that habit. For instance, if you grind your teeth when you’re watching TV, try slipping in your mouth-guard to safeguard against subconscious clenching. Or if you tend to raid the freezer for ice cream when the clock strikes midnight, skip the pints when you go grocery shopping. Can’t stop glancing at your phone when you should be paying attention to the people you’re with? Keep your phone in another room. As you remove chances to resume bad habits, you might find yourself falling into them less and less.

Have a game plan. Sometimes you can’t control your environment—or triggers pop up unexpectedly. In those cases, visualizing the scenario and plotting out your response ahead of time can help keep you from falling back into your bad habit in the moment. For example: If you’re trying to cut down on sugar but walk into a lunch meeting where there’s a buffet of sweets, plan in advance to immediately to beeline for the herbal tea so you’re less tempted by the table of tortes.

Tell everyone about it. Getting other people on board is another way to reinforce your efforts—and get support. If a friend knows you’re trying to cut back on caffeine, she can kindly call you out when you suggest going out for a coffee run. Or if your husband knows you’re trying to eat healthier, you can make a pact to do more healthy meal-planning.

Keep at it. Chances are you won’t see immediate results. Don’t beat yourself up if you backslide a little, and keep in mind that it does get easier over time. Practicing self-control to break your bad habits once and for all can strengthen your resolve, making it easier the next time you’re faced with temptation. So try, try again!

Find other great health and wellness stories at MarthaStewart.com/Strive.