“I’ve got so many bad habits.”
“I’ve picked up this bad habit where I’m always doing X.”
“I’ve noticed you have a habit of always doing Y.”
You rarely hear someone saying:
“I’ve got a really good habit that lets me do X.”
“I love that habit you have of always doing Y.”
Because the habits we’re aware of are often negative, we usually try to break them just by stopping them in one go, which is tough and not always the best solution.
All of the habits that have a positive impact on our lives tend to go unnoticed, which isn’t surprising since they often don’t present us with problems.
The trick for how to break a bad habit is to find an approach that works for you and the particular habit. Not all habits are created equally, and they can’t all be broken in the same way.
What Is a Habit?
A habit is a set of recurring tendencies that are often hard to give up and are usually performed subconsciously.
It’s essential to understand what a habit is before you start to try and break or change one. Luckily it’s straightforward, which helps when you need to recognize when you’re about to go into the habit loop. ((Charles Duhigg: The Power of Habit: How Habits Work))
First, there is a trigger. This could be a location, a specific time of day, behaviour patterns of those around you, or just the emotional state you’re in.
The trigger starts a routine, a routine you may not even know you’re following.
Finally, you get the reward or the result. The reward isn’t always the best word to use, certainly with negative habits, but this is what keeps you coming back to the habit over and over again.
Before you learn how to break a bad habit using the techniques described in this post, you should start by noting your triggers, routines, and rewards for each habit.
Once you know these three steps for each habit, you will have started to build a defense for fighting bad habits as you’ll recognise where you are in the habit loop.
How to Break a Bad Habit Quickly
When you’re ready to learn how to break a bad habit, the following tips can help.
1. Replace a Habit With a New One
Part of the habit is the routine that follows the initial trigger, so to reduce the impact of stopping a habitual behavior, you can replace it with another habit that has a more positive and healthy impact on your life.
Smoking is one of the most common habits people are looking to stop and a great example to use for this approach.
There are numerous things you could swap out for when you’re tempted to smoke. Some examples are:
- Chew a piece of gum
- Eat some fruit
- Get a drink
- Go for a walk
- Play with something in your hands
It depends on your situation, but for any habit replacement, the key is to distract yourself long enough that the temptation to perform the negative habit passes.
2. Celebrate the Small Successes
Breaking a habit can take time. It can depend on how many times per day or week you repeat the habit you want to break or how ingrained it is into your lifestyle.
Whether you can break a habit in 21 days or 21 weeks, you need to celebrate every day where you haven’t repeated the habit. If you can only manage two days before cracking, then celebrate those two days. Don’t expect to break every habit immediately. It takes time.
If you only managed two days on the first try, celebrate next time you make it to a week and so on.
Before you know it, you’ll look back and laugh at the fact you could only manage two days at the start!
3. Change Your Identity
Habits are often hard to break as they’re typically based on changing how we act in everyday life or are linked to a healthy lifestyle change. These are both fine, but it is more difficult if our identity is fighting against these changes.
To make real significant changes in our lives, we have to start thinking about how we need to change our identity first.
For example, if you’re trying to lose weight, but you think of yourself as someone who always struggles with your weight (“It’s just who I am”), then you’re going to continue to struggle to lose weight. Try changing your thought to “I am capable of making positive changes” and see what happens.
One of the most common examples is a smoker saying something like, “I am a smoker trying to quit” or “I like being a smoker but I need to quit.”
It would be best if you decided on who you want to be in life; this is the first step of changing your identity. If you tell yourself you like being a smoker, it’s unlikely you will be successful in the change you’re seeking to make.
“I’m a non-smoker” or “I’m fit and healthy” are things you can say to yourself daily in your head, quietly to yourself and to others. You can slowly start to change how you identify with yourself.
You’ll back this up with small wins, a streak of a few days with no cigarettes or repeatedly going to the gym or eating better.
Changing your identity takes time, but it can be done.
4. Use Digital Tools to Your Advantage
Digital or just general cell phone use is one of the most well known habits that many of us are trying to cut down on.
Typically, it’s scrolling through social media without noticing how long we’ve been doing it, constantly getting distracted by notifications, or just picking up our cell phone to check it as a distraction from work or life in general.
However, digital tools can be used to help us break a habit, either through reminders to keep us on track or rewards when we’re changing or creating a new positive habit.
Keeping track of a newly formed habit in the form of a streak is a great way to keep you focused and motivated. There are plenty of streak apps out there which let you create a streak, set reminders, and receive mini visual rewards when you hit certain milestones.
Rather than cutting out social media completely, change the reward of a particular habit to a set time period to look at your social networks.
By using social media on your terms rather than the other way around, it can become a positive addition to your life.
5. Use Visual Cues
One of the oldest and most effective ways for how to break a habit is through visual cues acting as reminders or rewards.
Placing visual reminders, cues, and trackers around your home gives you a cheap, easy, and effective way to keep your habits in the front of your mind. This could involve using a calendar on the fridge where you tick off every completed day since you’ve haven’t performed a negative habit, for example.
Something as simple as Post-It notes on the bedside table reminding you of your goal for that day can be a powerful mental cue to help you break a bad habit.
Visual cues are great as they become a habit in themselves. Taking the calendar on the fridge example, the trigger is seeing the calendar each morning. The routine is ticking off another day on the calendar, and then the reward is seeing the calendar filling up with ticks.
Simple but addictive!
6. Find a Habit-Crushing Partner
Breaking habits is hard, but finding support from a friend or partner can be incredibly helpful in keeping you focused on repeating your new habit or to stop you from repeating an old one.
Look at when your triggers typically happen and find a partner who will most likely be with you when these triggers occur. Have an open and honest discussion with them on what habit you’re trying to crush and explain how they can help.
Help from a partner could come in the following forms:
- Simply asking how you are doing with stopping your habit — this keeps the habit in the forefront so you don’t relapse.
- Helping you remove the triggers from the environment you share so the temptations are reduced.
- Sharing the new reward with you if you’re changing a habit rather than removing it.
- Finding a habit your both want to stop and doing it together.
7. Stack Your Habits
Stacking habits is a quick win when it comes to creating new positive habits.
We have thousands of tiny habits we do every day without even realizing it. This could be actions involved in brushing your teeth, the steps of making a cup of coffee when you first get up, putting the radio on when you go in the kitchen, etc.
As we already have thousands of habits we do every day, we can add new habits on top of them.
For example, if your goal is to learn 10 minutes of French each day, you do this after you’ve made your coffee each morning. If your goal is to practice visualization each day, you spend 3 minutes doing so when your alarm goes off each morning.
It’s that simple: link old habits to new ones.
8. Visualize New Habits
Visualization can help with breaking habits. However, the important part isn’t visualizing the outcome but visualizing the process or the routines you need to create to achieve it.
A study from UCLA found exactly this by comparing students who visualized the process necessary to achieve their goal versus visualizing the actual achievement of the goal. They found that students who did the former enhanced studying techniques and improved grades. ((UCLA: From Thought to Action: Effects of Process-Versus Outcome-Based Mental Simulations on Performance))
Practising visualization also helps to reduce anxiety around breaking a habit. In some cases, the habit you’re trying to break might cause you stress simply by thinking about it.
Visualizing a positive routine helps with this, even if you do it for only 2-3 minutes a day.
9. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and being aware of your thoughts and can, therefore, be a useful tool when learning how to break a bad habit.
By practicing mindfulness and becoming more aware of your triggers, you will increase the likelihood of success in breaking the habit. By recognizing the trigger before you go into the habit of the routine, you’ll be able to break the habit far quicker.
Mindfulness doesn’t mean you fight or block these thoughts. It simply allows you to engage with them in a more productive way.
The Bottom Line
Everyone is different, so try different approaches when it comes to breaking habits. If you fail, look at why, adapt, and try again, and don’t forget to celebrate what you have done well.
Remember that the basics of changing a habit can include these five steps:
- Identify the habit you want to break or change.
- Discover what is triggering this habit.
- Identify the routine that follows the trigger.
- Define the reward you are getting for following the routine.
- Pck an element to change depending on whether you want to break or change the habit.
To break a bad habit in 21 days, you need to replace something you do many times a day, and this can be a difficult but worthwhile process.
By staying mindful of what does and doesn’t work for you, you can begin to create the lifestyle you have always wanted.