some tools for breaking bad habits

Our "character defects" or, better put, coping strategies, start childhood—they begin as ways to navigate through difficult, challenging interpersonal situations. In our earliest years we feel especially vulnerable, as we are so dependent on others for our basic needs. Traumatic interactions to even the most benign, negative reactions from family members, teachers and social peers can appear to be threats to our survival.

And so we choose short term "survival" behaviors that "rescue" us difficult quickly from tense situations. Over the years they become ingrained, nearly automatic:
—hypervigilance, or monitoring others' subtle facial expressions, trying to read their minds, so we can anticipate their actions towards us
—throwing fits or talking ceaselessly to gain attention
—exaggerating when we think our experience wont be interesting enough to warrant needed attention from others
—yelling and resorting to dramatic extremes to stop people from doing what we don't like
—lying when behaving unskillfully
—stealing, especially to obtain objects that will bring us social status
—avoiding uncomfortable interactions
—getting bitter/envious over other's successes and happiness, out of fear there's only so much to go around

Its important to note that all bad habits work in the short term; they achieve for us an immediate sense of safety. It's only in the long term, especially when we maintain these behaviors in our adult lives, that they sabotage the possibility of happiness and lasting, purposeful relationships.

tools for breaking bad habits

relaxing the body, especially those areas that hold tension (shoulders, stomach, throat, etc):
part of the process is keeping the body as tension free as possible. our tendency to act compulsively are often the result of underlying physical stress, which depletes our self control over thoughts and behaviors. the less we're tight and contracted in the places we hold fear, the less likely we'll act out.

keeping the mind self-aware and acknowedging:
its important to observe and noting "I have anger" "I have agitation" "I am worried" , not to fall into states of distraction (lost in the clouds), or states where the mind is contracted around thoughts.

keeping skillful thoughts and reflections in the mind:
The more we populate the mind with skillful thoughts, the less likely we are to habitually fall into the allure of self versus other thoughts. A few examples of positive ideations: thoughts of good will towards self and others, gratitude for our skillful accomplishments and virtuous acts, reflections on karma (The big issue in life is not what others are doing to me, its what i'm doing to myself and others.)

try keeping the mind still wherever possible: of course, getting the mind with the breath, or body sensations or even sounds, and practice putting off thoughts that we know fill up the mind with a mob of inner voices (jealousy, envy, anger, worry); thoughts that yell unskillfully or say things to us we wouldnt say to anyone else. even putting off for 5 minutes the thoughts can be worthwhile, in that tomorrow we may be able to put them off for 10 minutes, etc.

its really important to start noticing when the mind is still and quiet and developing a sense of pride and accomplishment.
—so many people run around talking and celebrating how busy they are, how much they've got going on, etc.
—focus instead on days when the mind is still.

catching unskilfull habits in the act:
if we wait to spray a cat with water after it pissed or puked in the wrong place, it wont learn... it's action is done, it wont connect the crime (pissing) with the punishment (spraying with water).
—adding all these self-critical remarks after we make mistakes doesn't teach the fear based, primal parts of the mind to stop acting reactively. the primal part doesnt associate the self-condemning remarks with the addictions and behaviors it triggers.
—we have to associate these coping strategies with

we have to learn how to catch ourselves in the process of creating stress and suffering, not wait until afterwards.
—if we wait until afterwards, we'll do it again and agin and again.
analogies:
—if we want to learn how to play an instrument, we don't simply wait until one day we wake up and magically can fingerpick a guitar, we practice again and again until it becomes habitually ingrained
—most of our bad habits were once attributes we had to deliberately practice; the same with skillful actions

the more we bring awareness into our day to day lives, the more we're practicing catching stressful actions in their nascent stages.

be especially mindful when we're interacting with others:
—noticing before interacting what our underlying moods are
—acknowledging when we've exaggerated or gossiped as a way to make these habits less ingrained

become mindful of when we're procrastinating/avoiding something we should do (resumes, taxes, work).
—avoidance is a self-destructive habit to fall into, and it starts with the small things.
—noticing when we're falling back into habits like facebook, eBay, excessive sleeping.
—reward ourselves for focusing and devoting time to chores we would normally avoid

keep in mind that the mind is an excellent rationalizer.
don't trust long winded justifications of our actions; if we're not sure they're harmless and well intentioned, consider acknowledging immediately we're unsure. them throughout history people have rationalized the most barbaric actions and deeds; the shock test; we're all capable of immediately justifying our unskillful thoughts and actions.

its only through questioning and not taking for granted these behaviors that we begin to change and gain insights.
—the insights are less important than the practice itself. Ajahn Geoff uses the "Goose that laid the Golden Eggs" story; if we try to preserve the eggs (the insights), they'll rot, but if we keep the Goose (appropriate attention) healthy and eat the eggs (insights) as they arrive its a lasting practice.

conclusion
if we want to truly break bad habits, we can't rest on our laurels. simply catching a cat once pissing in the wrong place wont break it forever, much less the other cats. we have to stay calm and observant.

the calmer we get the finer our awareness will be concerning subtle coping strategies. even starting with catching little exaggerations or procrastinations in the act can plant the self-awareness skills to interrupt bad habits.