How Can You Break Bad Habits?

The Best Ways to Break Bad Habits

How Can You Break Bad Habits?

As much as some people hate to admit it, humans are not perfect. We know what we should do— exercise, eat well and get plenty of sleep—but don’t always measure up. And sometimes what starts as an occasional oversight, slip-up or coping mechanism becomes a full-fledged bad habit. The good news is that it’s entirely possible to kick your bad habits, and we’re here to help you with that.

Identify the behavior you want to change

Thinking that you have “bad habits” isn’t enough: you need to know exactly what behaviors you’d to change. Over at Psychology Today, Robert Taibbi, a licensed clinical social worker writes:

“You need to prime the habit-breaking process by thinking in terms of specific, doable behaviors — not dumping your shoes in the living room but putting them in your closet; not eating in front of the TV but at the dining room table; going for a half-hour run five days a week; sending your boyfriend a complimentary text once a day, rather than sending him nothing or negative ones. Drill down on the concrete.”

In other words, go in knowing precisely what it is you are going to work on.

Fine yourself for each offense

Make a bad habit a little more painful and you might ditch it for good.

Money is a great motivator, so you can use the “swear jar” method or pay your friends $1 each time they catch you doing that thing you want to stop doing.

It works the other way too: Reward yourself for beating your habit every day. The app 21Habit rewards or penalizes you a dollar a day for 21 days of committing to a habit.

Understand what triggers your bad habits

Understanding how we make decisions is the key to conquering all kinds of bad habits, including those related to money. Often, we repeat bad habits without even realize we’re doing them. There are five cues that usually contribute to every bad habit, though, and being aware of them can help us learn what’s behind those behaviors.

Bad money habits can be hard to break. You decide to put something on a credit card once, and…

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Go slowly and make tiny changes

Forming better new habits takes time and effort, but breaking established bad habits may be even harder.

So be patient with yourself and instead of making dramatic adjustments, try focusing on one habit and the smallest steps you can take to “trick your inner caveman.

” With food and dieting, for example, small changes reducing one pack of sugar or switch cream in your coffee to low-fat milk can make a big difference in the long run and may inspire additional small but meaningful changes.

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Spend a month thinking about your habit before taking action

You might be itching to get rid of that habit right now, but as mentioned above, it takes time. Before you start trying to change a habit, consider thinking about it thoroughly for a month first, listing every reason you want to stop, recording every time you catch yourself doing it, and so on. You could be better prepared to conquer the habit after this preparation.

Remind your future self to avoid bad habits

Even with the best intentions, we fall into bad habits when our willpower fades. You might promise only to have two drinks when going out with friends, for example, but forget that promise completely as soon as you step into the bar. Try setting up reminders in your calendar for yourself for your weakest moments. Future, less-hungover self will thank you.

Find a better reason to quit

Yes, we know that we shouldn’t smoke or eat fast food every day, but that awareness itself may not be enough for us to kick the habit. As Elliot Berkman, Ph.D.

, director of the University of Oregon’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab tells Time: “Even if you replace a ‘bad’ habit with a better one, sometimes the original vice will have a stronger biological ‘reward’ than its substitute.

” So for example, in addition to thinking you should quit smoking because it will be better for your health, you can better motivate yourself to do it because it may help you become more active and enjoy hiking in a way you weren’t able to before.

Change your environment

Over time, if you do the same behaviors in the same place, your surroundings can become a trigger—sometimes too subtle to notice. If you go on smoke breaks in your office’s parking lot, the parking lot itself can become a cue to smoke. Switch up your surrounds in even the smallest way.

The 20-Second Rule can help too: Make bad habits take 20 seconds longer to start. For example, move junk food to the back of the pantry to its less accessible, and plant some healthy snacks up front. In this scenario, you’re relying on your laziness to settle for whatever is closest to your mouth.

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Coach yourself bad habits

Lifehacker alum Adam Dachis used a webcam to break his bad habits, recording why he wanted to break them every day and effectively coaching himself to stop nail biting and doing other bad habits.

Now, seven years after his original article, most people can easily take videos with their phones, making this strategy even more accessible than before.

It might seem a little strange at first, but it could work for you too.

Be kind and patient with yourself

As we’ve already established, changing bad habits doesn’t happen overnight, so try not to get upset or frustrated with yourself when the process takes time.

As Taibbi points out, it takes a while for your brain to form new connections and for a new pattern of behavior to kick in. Don’t chastise yourself because it doesn’t happen instantly.

Also, don’t beat yourself up when you have an inevitable slip-up, and do not use it as a rationale for quitting, Taibbi adds.

Do a review when you have a bad habit relapse

Chances are you’re going to have bad days. Setbacks are normal and we should expect them. Have a plan to get back on track and use the relapse as a way to understand what happened and how you can avoid it next time.

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Create an “If-Then” plan

Habits are loops that we repeat automatically. A cue triggers our routine, we get the reward from it, and then repeat. An If-Then plan can help you disrupt this cue-routine-reward system and replace bad habits with good ones. Just remember to keep your plan as simple as possible. This flowchart can help you reboot your habit and create the If-Then plan.

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Train yourself to think differently about your bad habits

Even if we hate a habit we’re doing, smoking or biting our nails, we tend to continue doing them because they provide us with some sort of satisfaction or psychological reward. Catch yourself thinking any positive thoughts or feelings about your bad habits and reframe them to remind you of the negative aspects. In other words, in this case it’s good to think a hater.


5 Science-Approved Ways to Break a Bad Habit

How Can You Break Bad Habits?

Having habits can often be a good thing. When you drive to work for example, you don’t need to wonder whether you should turn left or right; the route becomes habit.

“We want the brain to learn how to do those things without energy and effort,” says Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. “Habits are an adaptive feature of how the brain works.”

But sometimes, habits can lead us astray—whether it’s turning to comfort food when we’re sad, or taking a cigarette break when stressed.

Since habits take practice and repetition to form, the same is true when it comes to breaking them, says Elliot Berkman, director of the University of Oregon’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab. In order to eliminate those pesky habits—whatever they may be—start with these five strategies.

Sink your stress levels

Many habits—including smoking or excess sugar consumption—involve the brain’s dopamine (or reward) system. Dopamine is a “feel-good” chemical that transmits signals between neurons in the brain.

The first time you engage in a new, “rewarding” behavior, you get a euphoric feeling from doing it as a result of a dopamine release, notes Poldrack.

This leads to changes in both the connections between neurons and the brain systems responsible for actions—and can largely account for why we start to form bad habits in the first place.

Many of these rewarding stimuli— sugar or substances—are powerful, too. And our physiological reaction to them in present day can be linked all the way back to evolution, says Poldrack.

In the cavemen days, meat wasn’t salted, dry-rubbed or grilled to perfection. “Our brains aren’t well-equipped to deal with the big rush one gets from these sorts of things,” Poldrack says.

As a result, the frontal lobe, the brain’s “control center,” gets overwhelmed, he says.

“You’re more ly to do the thing you don’t want to do when you’re stressed out,” Poldrack says.

There are however, ways to address the root cause of these seemingly detrimental habits.

Some solutions? Try to get more sleep, exercise regularly and opt for stress reduction techniques meditation, which can all work to increase willpower and overall brain health, says Poldrack.

Know your cues

Habits, Berkman says, have three main parts: a cue, a routine and a reward.

Cues are the context where you tend to engage in the behavior. If you’re a smoker for example, the cue might be work breaks. If you’re a dessert aficionado, it might be simply scouring the dessert menu. “You’re most ly to relapse in the context of when you’ve done it before,” Berkman says.

Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them. Berkman suggests that smokers dispose of items ashtrays that might remind them of their habit or people who are trying to cut back on drinking should avoid walking by the bar they always pop into for happy hour.

Capitalizing on major life changes can also help break an unhealthy habit.

While you might think a cross-country move or a new job is no time to introduce even more changes into your life, Berkman notes that shifts in lifestyle can actually be the ideal opportunity for eliminating a vice. “You’re going into new contexts and situations, so you don’t have those same cues—it’s a chance to form new habits,” he says.

If you’re used to lighting up on your way to work for instance, moving to a new city gives you a chance to take public transportation or to dig into a new podcast instead of a pack of cigarettes, because you are in a new environment, says Berkman.

Replace a bad habit with a good one

Instead of trying to stop doing something—“It’s hard to stop a behavior,” says Berkman—start doing something else.

“We are action-oriented creatures,” says Berkman. Some studies have shown that the more you suppress your thoughts, the more ly you are to think about that thought or even revert back to that bad habit.

A 2008 study in Appetite, found that those who suppressed their thoughts about eating chocolate exhibited a behavioral rebound effect, where they consumed significantly more chocolate than those who didn’t.

Similarly, a 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that smokers who tried to restrain their thoughts about smoking wound up thinking about it even more.

If you’re a smoker and you tell yourself not to smoke, your brain still hears “smoke,” Berkman says.

Conversely, if you tell yourself to chew gum every time you want a cigarette, your brain has a more positive, concrete action to do, he notes. Similarly, if 5 p.m.

has been linked with a glass of wine for years, use it as a time to, instead, double down on hydration and make sure the fridge is stocked with seltzers, cold water and lemon, Berkman says.

But forming a new habit takes time and commitment, so don’t be discouraged if it takes longer than you might expect. A 2010 study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found it took an average of 66 days for a behavior to change (though time varied from 18 to 254 days).

Have a better reason for quitting

Even if you replace a “bad” habit with a better one, sometimes the original vice will have a stronger biological “reward” than its substitute, Berkman says. For example, your brain knows that gum is not nicotine and therefore won’t produce the same euphoric feeling that smoking a cigarette would, he says. This is where the importance of having an intrinsic motivation comes into play.

Intellectually, we know that quitting smoking is good for our health and limiting how many burgers we eat might help us lose weight.

But rooting habit changes in specific and personal reasons—giving up smoking for good may mean spending more years with your family or eating healthier may give you more energy for those outdoor adventures you used to enjoy—provides a stronger dose of motivation, says Berkman.

Set better goals

Rather than focusing on a more general goal— I will not grab a cookie on the way the cafeteria—Poldrack suggests imagining more specifically how you’ll implement this goal into your daily life.

Examining how you’ve responded to the situation in the past and determining what you can do to avoid the cookies in the future, might be all it takes to break the habit, says Poldrack. This may mean simply not walking by the rack of sweets itself.

“It’s always going to be easier to react something you’ve already planned out in the past versus trying to come up with a new plan on the fly,” Poldrack says.

Plus, thinking about how exactly you’re going to do something helps you develop the mindset that you can do something, he notes. And that’s half the battle.

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How to break bad habits: 3 simple steps

How Can You Break Bad Habits?
Jump to: The habit loop | How does the habit loop work? | How do we change our habits? | How long does it take to form new habits? | Take home message

Did you brush your teeth this morning? Lock the front door behind you? Make a coffee as soon as you arrived at work? Without realising it, we engage in a huge number of automatic behaviours and actions every day.

These automatic behaviours are called habits. One paper published by Duke University demonstrated that more than 40% of the actions we perform each day are automatic habits rather than conscious decisions.

So, if we spend so much time carrying out automatic habits, what can we do to break bad or unhealthy habits? This guide explains how to break bad habits and make new, better habits that are automatic in our daily life.

Performing an automatic habit is a three-step process that happens time and time again, forming a loop.

Charles Duhigg, an award-winning journalist and author, described the habit loop in detail in his book ‘The Power of Habit’.

In this loop, the first step is the ‘trigger’, which acts as a cue and tells our brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the ‘behaviour’, which can be a physical, mental, or emotional response to the trigger.

The last step in the habit loop is the ‘reward’, that signals to our brain whether or not it’s worth remembering this habit loop to use in the future.

When our brain remembers a habit loop, and it’s performed over and over again, it becomes more automatic.

To illustrate how the habit loop works in daily life, let’s look at the example of overeating junk food in the afternoon. Many people report wanting to snack around 3/4pm every day.

In this case, the time of day is the trigger. Following this trigger, the behaviour might be going to get a biscuit from the kitchen.

The reward that follows could be reduced hunger, satisfied sweet cravings, or merely a brief break from your work.

Key points:

  • The habit loop consists of 3 steps: trigger, behaviour, and reward.
  • When these steps are performed over and over again they become more automatic.

In a review of how habits work, an animal study done by MIT researchers was noted. This study looked at the brain activity of rats as they developed new habits.

The rats were placed into a maze with chocolate hidden at one end and were repeatedly released to find the chocolate, which was in the same place each time. The rats appeared to be leisurely sniffing and scratching their way around the maze until they found the chocolate.

Interestingly, the rats’ brain activity was very high during the first few times they were released into the maze. One area of the brain, in particular, called the basal ganglia, was frantically processing all the new information.

Then, as the rats become more and more familiar with the maze, their total brain activity decreased. The basal ganglia, however, had stored information about habits and was still activated even when the rest of the brain switched off.

Similar findings have been seen in humans. ‘The Power of Habit’ book explored the research of Professor Squire, on an individual named E.P, who had severe brain damage. E.

P seemed able to learn new behaviours and form habits but could not recall how he was doing them or even remember what they were. Squire noted that the basal ganglia region in E.

P’s brain was intact, even though other areas suffered damage.

The research in rats and humans combined suggests that the basal ganglia brain area is responsible for forming new habits and making this behaviour automatic.

Key points:

  • Both animal and human trials suggest that there is an area in our brain responsible for storing automatic habits.
  • Even when most of our brain is not active, this area is still active and helps us perform automatic behaviours.

So now we know how habits work, let’s discuss how to break bad habits or introduce new good habits. It’s worth noting that if we try to change all our bad habits at once, it’s unly to stick and we might be left feeling more guilty and unsuccessful than we were to begin with. It’s much better to approach one habit at a time and work on it for a while and then move on to another.

Step 1: Identify the reward

The key to breaking a bad habit is to firstly identify what reward we might be looking for when we respond to a trigger.

Taking our earlier example of afternoon snacking, is it that you’re feeling hungry or is it that you need a distraction and break from your desk?

Step 2: Find an alternative behaviour

Once we have identified what reward drives us to act on a trigger, we can better understand how to change our behaviour.

If the reward you’re seeking is reducing hunger, and you want to reduce the number of biscuits you’re eating, try keeping some healthy snacks at work.

Examples include a handful of unsalted mixed nuts, carrot sticks and hummus, a boiled egg, or natural greek yoghurt with berries.

Then, when it approaches 3pm and you feel hungry, go to the kitchen as normal but just have a healthy snack instead of a biscuit.

If the reward you’re seeking is a distraction from your work, consider other ways to enjoy a break. You could have a quick chat with a colleague, go outside and walk around the block once, or make a herbal tea.

Step 3: Practise

Once we have identified what reward we’re looking for and put an alternative behaviour in place, the last step is to practise. Repeating the new habit loop over and over again will eventually lead to this behaviour requiring less willpower and becoming automatic.

Key point:

  • The best way to change a habit is to identify what reward we’re looking for when we experience a trigger, change our behaviour, and then practise our new habit loop over and over again.

Although changing our habits is a simple process, it’s not easy to resist automatic behaviours we already have. Laying down new habits takes time and practice. When we were children, we didn’t suddenly remember to brush our teeth every morning and evening. It took prompting and repetition.

You may have heard the common myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. In reality, the number of repetitions it takes for a new habit to form can vary greatly from person to person, and will also change depending on the type of habit we’re trying to create.

For example, a simple habit drinking eight glasses of water per day may only take 20 days to form. A more complex task, such as going to the gym for three workout sessions a week, can take up to 250 days.

For this reason, it’s really important to have realistic expectations of ourselves and the time it’ll take for these new behaviours to become automatic. Don’t give up if you don’t grasp them straight away, or if you have a slip up along the way. Habits are a process rather than an event.

If you decide to commit to changing some habits, you’ll notice that these new habits become progressively easier over time. This means that we only need to maintain our motivation to continue this new behaviour until the habit is formed. After that, our new habits become second nature, and we won’t think twice about doing them. This is the key to breaking bad habits.

Key points:

  • Depending on the individual and the type of habit we’re introducing, it can take anything from 20-250 days to become automatic.
  • As time goes on, the more we practise our habit the easier they become, until they’re automatic.

Take home message

  • Habits are automatic behaviours that we engage in every day without even realising it.
  • Habits are not set in stone and can be changed with some effort and time.
  • It is best to approach one habit at a time, rather than everything at once.
  • The best way to break a habit is to identify what reward drives us to react to a certain trigger and then change the behaviour associated with that trigger.
  • It is important to manage our expectations of how long it takes for behaviours to become automatic.
  • Practising our habit over and over is key.
  • The longer we spend practising our habit, the easier it gets, until it becomes second nature.


Helping Others Break Bad Habits

How Can You Break Bad Habits?

Anyone who's broken a New Year's resolution knows how hard it is to get rid of bad habits. We could all use support from loved ones in our efforts to change our unhealthy behaviors.

Giving and receiving support, though, is often hard. No one wants to be a nag — or the object of nagging.

When you wish that your mom would quit smoking, or that your best friend would stop drinking so much, how do you help them without annoying them, hurting their feelings or even fracturing your relationship?

We asked Megan Hood, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Rush University Medical Center who specializes in behavior changes, for advice. Here are her suggestions:

Open with an «I» statement

The key is «I» statements. Instead of starting a conversation with, for example, «You're doing something unhealthy,» try simply stating how you feel: «I care about you, and I'm worried about you.»

This approach is less ly to make your loved one feel accused and defensive. 

Work on your timing

How your loved ones respond will depend on how they are feeling about their behavior. Telling your mom not to smoke when she's in the midst of smoking, for example, will only increase her stress and make her feel defensive.

Try to bring up the problem when your loved one is relaxed and not engaging in the behavior that concerns you.

Ask questions

When you do broach the topic, try to be genuinely open and curious and empathic. This can be challenging because you ly feel very strongly that, for example, your friend needs to stop drinking. But just telling her that is not going to change it.

Instead, ask about the role drinking plays in her life. Try to understand where she's coming from and what factors are involved in her behavior. This understanding can help point the way forward.

If you find out alcohol is helping her cope with a death in the family, you can't just take away the alcohol. You've got to find other ways to help her cope before she can leave the alcohol behind.

For example, if she's feeling lonely, you could eat dinner with her a couple of times a week. Don't assume that's what she wants, though. Ask what kind of support would be helpful.


Of course, many people, even if they're open to accepting help, might not know exactly what kind of support would be most useful to them. In that case, brainstorm.

Try asking questions: «Would it be helpful if we went walking together? Or if we signed up for the gym together?» Or, «Do you need a loan to start paying for the gym or for your smoking cessation medications?»

Think about resources your loved one might be able to access: dietitians to help with meal planning, clinical psychologists or therapists to help with behavioral change, exercise classes or other programs to help with weight loss.

Keep it up

Once your loved one has started making changes, continue helping and encouraging them. This is an important time because that's when people tend to drop off from providing support.

To help prevent a relapse, set regular times to check in. If your friend is trying to stay away from alcohol, for example, you could decide to send each other texts every weekend to offer encouragement.

You could also plan activities that don't involve alcohol — such as eating a meal but skipping the wine, beer or cocktails. By avoiding drinks yourself, you can avoid tempting your friend to join you.

It's also important to help people through difficult periods, especially when they fall back into their old habits. Try to normalize the relapse. You can say something , «Okay, we're going to hit reset.» Keeping up your encouragement in those hard times can prevent a brief relapse from becoming a total relapse.

Recognize your limitations

People's attitudes toward change range from total unwillingness to active effort, and can fluctuate from day to day. Sometimes your loved one will have no interest in making changes, and the conversation will just end there.

In those cases, it's important to recognize that you are not in control of anyone else's behavior. Don't blame yourself for your loved one's actions.

If you are feeling overwhelmed with worry for a loved one who seems unwilling to change, make sure you take time to care for yourself. Try relaxation exercises such as yoga or meditation, or talk with a psychologist or therapist.

Help others help you

If you're on receiving end of concerned advice, don't hesitate to help your loved ones help you.

Try saying something , «I know you really care about me and you're worried about my weight, but you lecturing me every time I eat a meal is actually stressing me out a lot more. What would be more helpful is if you would go walking with me every day.»

Be explicit about the type of support that could be helpful. Remember that people are usually coming from a good place and they’re trying to help.

If you believe your loved one presents an immediate danger to self or others, call 911.


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