The 4-Step Plan That Helped Me Break a Bad Habit

It starts with identifying the problem, and then committing to a change.

Memoryman/ Shutterstock
Memoryman/ Shutterstock

I’m a psychologist, and I have a confession to make: Until a few months ago, I was spending a large amount of my time binge-watching Netflix. Despite working hard over the last several years to reduce the ways that I “numb out,” binge-watching was the only one I couldn’t seem to let go of. If I’m being honest, I was resistant to the idea that it might be problematic for me. Yet I had all of the symptoms of a problem: an increase in anxiety as the end of a series approached, the urgent search for what to “binge” next, and rewatching a series I’d already seen in its entirety more than once.

My justification was always that I was doing lots of other things too: working out, socializing, or spending a couple of hours a day outside with my dog. So what if I was spending the rest of my time being numbed out in front of the TV, I would say to myself. But when I really stepped back and widened the lens, I could see that it mattered. There was an entire list of things that I’d been considering getting started on, a list of things swirling around in my brain, that existed only as ideas. I wanted to start writing, create a blog, think about ideas for a book I might like to write, and increase my meditation practice from a couple of times a week to every day.

When I finally sat myself down and dove into this, I found that despite wanting to start all of these projects, I also was experiencing some serious internal resistance. For example, I desperately wanted to start writing, yet the idea of actually sharing things I’d written with other people felt vulnerable and frightening. I very much wanted to increase my meditation practice to be a daily thing, yet the idea of connecting deeply with my internal self more than a couple of times a week seemed daunting (and slightly terrifying, if I’m being completely honest). So I was binge-watching instead, telling myself, “One more episode, then I’ll look into that whole blog thing.” And lucky for me, Netflix just kept those episodes rolling along, requiring little action from me to do so. After all, I would tell myself, everyone’s doing it. Everyone’s talking about whatever show they’re “bingeing” — it’s so normalized that it was easy to brush it off as non-problematic. And to make matters worse, we tend to be positively reinforced for it — people get so excited and want to talk to you more when they find out you’re watching the same thing as them. It’s really the perfect vehicle for avoidance.

So I stopped. It’s been a few months now. I’ve watched a handful of things — shows and documentaries that feel meaningful or important or that I can learn something from — and at the rate of only one or two episodes per week. Once I committed to it, I found it surprisingly easy (with the exception of the time period surrounding the final season of Game of Thrones, during which I often felt like a social outcast).

Someone recently asked me, “What do you do when you’re at home?” Well, long story short, I’ve been doing all of those things I’d been avoiding. It all still feels slightly uncomfortable; it didn’t suddenly become less scary. But removing that avoidance was symbolic of me opening myself up and committing to these other things. My mind also feels less foggy, my thinking is more clear, and I’m sleeping better. The hard things I’m doing instead are helping me learn and grow. I can feel it happening.

If this resonates with you in any way, I would encourage you to give it a try. These are the steps I follow, and often use with my clients. You could try using this to change any behaviour or habit, not just watching too much TV. I would also suggest writing this down for yourself, so that you have it to come back to in moments you need it.

Step 1: Assess Identify what the function of the behaviour is and what makes sense about it. Why am I doing this thing? What about it makes sense? What’s valid here? You might find that there are tasks you want to start but fear actually doing; you might be trying to avoid some void inside of you; you might be avoiding facing your own thoughts and emotions. It could be many things. Figure this out first. Often, if we can acknowledge what’s valid about our behaviour, it helps free us up to actually change it.

Step 2: Motivate Identify what you’re losing or missing out on, and why you want to make this change. Is there a longer term goal I’ll never reach if I keep avoiding this now? Could I be spending my time in a different way that could help me create more meaning and connection? Are there some emotions I’m avoiding that could be leading me to feel worse in some way? Be as specific as you can here, so that you have something to come back to in the moments that you want to go back to the old habit.

Step 3: Move Commit to something. You don’t have to swear to change the habit forever. I often suggest to people the idea of a “trial period”. Make it a length of time you can commit to (a week, two weeks, etc.) and then define exactly what you will do (e.g., no TV at all, or maybe one evening a week without TV to start). What we really want here is to commit to something doable. If that means starting small, start small. The goal is to have some success right out of the gates so that we get some reinforcement for our hard work.

Step 4: Reassess At the end of the trial period, take time for a check-in. What has changed? Do you feel any different? There will likely be some positive outcomes (e.g., feeling more present, getting other things accomplished), but there might also be some negative ones (e.g., it was uncomfortable and sort of hard). The key here is to expect that there will be some discomfort at first — but also to identify what you’ve gained by making the change. Then decide how to proceed.

If you give this a try, I would love to hear about it!

If you enjoyed reading this, please check out my site: heartsatthehelm.com

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