Breaking Bad Habits in College

College is a formative period of your life. It’s obviously a time when you’ll learn loads of new information that will (hopefully) assist you in planning a career, and a time when you’ll be able to expand and reinforce your social circle. But it’s also a time when your existing habits will dig in deeper, and when your new habits may come to define you for years to come.

It’s incredibly hard to break a bad habit, especially when you’re dealing with an enormous workload and new kinds of academic stress. But with the right mentality and commitment, you can eliminate the worst habits plaguing your health, academic performance, and happiness, and set yourself up for a brighter future—all before you graduate.

Breaking Your Bad Habits

These strategies can help a dedicated college student break almost any habit:

  1. Find a substitute. Your most powerful tool will be finding a substitute for the habitual action or behavior. It’s incredibly hard to stop doing something that’s part of a regular routine, but it becomes much easier if you find something to take the place of that bad habit. For example, if you currently smoke cigarettes, you might look forward to having one after class, after meals, or at other major points throughout your day. Replacing tobacco cigarettes with a JUUL could be the first step to getting rid of that habit for good, giving you many of the same sensations, but with less of a damaging effect.
  2. Interrupt your habit loop. Most habits occur as part of a three-stage “habit loop,” making it hard to stop the habit by itself. There’s the trigger phase, when something alerts you to a situation that makes it easier to engage in the habit; for example, you might feel anxious or enter a specific phase of the day. Then, there’s the habit itself. After that, you’ll feel rewarded by the behavior. It’s hard to make the habit directly less rewarding, but it’s possible to identify and reduce the power of triggers in the first phase. For example, you could learn to identify when you’re feeling anxious and aim to reduce your feelings of anxiety, rather than resorting to nail biting or picking your skin.
  3. Practice mindfulness. One way to improve your awareness of trigger points is to practice mindfulness, or bring your attention to the present. It takes time to develop this habit and ability, but it’s worth the effort. After even a few weeks of practicing mindfulness, you’ll be more keenly aware of your thoughts and feelings. That means you’ll be better able to manage anxiety, stress, and habit trigger points, so your bad habits are easier to work out.
  4. Make the habit harder to practice. You can also use physical impediments to make your bad habits harder to practice, especially as a short-term measure. For example, if there’s a mobile app stealing away most of your time, you could delete it or hide it on your phone, making it harder to access when you want it most. You could circumvent this, but it would force you to think about your habit, rather than mindlessly indulging it.
  5. Enlist the help of others. Consider talking to the people around you and enlisting their help in eliminating your bad habit. For example, you could ask your friends and roommates point out when you’re engaging in the habit, so you’re more aware of when it occurs, or you could ask them to join you in a new, healthy habit like going to the gym.
  6. Improve your big-picture. Many bad habits are created from negative life circumstances. For example, if you’re struggling with depression, you might resort to binge eating junk food. If you’re socially anxious, you may drink excessively to cope. You can make these bad habits less tempting by improving your big-picture situation; oftentimes, this means eating healthier, exercising regularly, seeking therapy, and learning anxiety management techniques.
  7. Reward yourself for positive changes. When you do make progress in reducing your bad habits, it’s important to reward yourself to preserve that momentum. For example, if you go a week without having a cigarette, you could treat yourself to a new outfit, or a new video game you’ve been wanting. Keep track of how many days you’ve gone without engaging in the bad habit, and set long-term goals that keep you working hard.

Getting Help

While most bad habits can be mastered and broken through sheer willpower alone, others may require more serious forms of intervention. For example, if you’re physically addicted to a substance, it may be nearly impossible for you to overcome your addiction by yourself. In this scenario, it’s important to recognize the severity of the problem and seek professional help.

Once you’ve been able to break one bad habit, the rest will seem miniscule by comparison. Over time, you’ll gradually perfect your habits and ultimately end up better able to succeed—both in the classroom and in life after college.