How to Break a Habit (For Good This Time)

woman sitting on a bed writing on paper

We all have bad habits. 

Whether it’s poor spending habits, nail-biting, or an excessive sweet tooth, bad habits, by nature, are easy to accumulate. In some ways they make our brains happy, but overall, we know they aren’t doing us any favors. Learning how to break a habit can be one of the most challenging things, but if you understand how habits work, you might be able to kick it for good.

In their simplest form, habits are “routines that are practiced regularly.” You could probably think of a dozen or more habis you have off the top of your head right now.

So, how do you shake a bad one? Psychologists all agree that breaking a habit, just like forming one, is entirely possible. But it’s going to take some work, probably some time, and a whole lot of planning.

Analyze your routines and triggers

Is it stress? Boredom? Your environment? All of the above?

We develop bad habits for a number of reasons, and the silver lining is that it’s not just you. It’s literally part of our psychology. Bad habits are nearly impossible to avoid, especially when life becomes hectic, we’re stretched too thin or we’re on the hunt for a shortcut. Sound familiar?

To understand bad habits, you have to look to the brain. “Every habit starts with a psychological pattern called a ‘habit loop,’ which is a three-part process,” according to author Charles Duhigg, who wrote The Power of Habit. “First, there's a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.”

Scientists have traced the behaviors that lead to habits to a part of the brain called the basal ganglia. It’s also responsible for other functions, such as memory, recognizing patterns and forming emotions. It’s a pretty powerful part of the brain! So it’s no wonder habits can be a difficult thing to break (or build). 

Understanding the process can make finding a solution a bit easier. Knowing your brain operates on a loop of cue, trigger, reward, you can pinpoint where to intervene in order to stop the behavior. 

Perhaps the easiest way to stop a bad habit is to stop your behavior before it starts. 

“When the bad-habit urge hits, ask when, where, and with whom it happens, and how you are feeling, be it sad, lonely, depressed, nervous,” writes Harvard Health Publishing contributor Steve Calechman. “It’s a mixing and matching process and different for every person, but if you notice a clue beforehand, you might be able to catch yourself.”

This might take a little bit of trial and error to get down, but it’s worth knowing where, when or why a bad habit behavior hits. Once you’ve got it down, you can get to work figuring out how to change course: changing your environment, avoiding the trigger or introducing a better habit to counteract the bad one. 

Try reflecting on your day to learn more about your routine and how your habits are formed. The more you know, the more control you have.

Connect with your reason why

Why is it important that you break your habit? 

That’s the first question that you should ask yourself before you begin your journey. That little nugget of motivation will go a long way if you let it. Think about it: If you don’t have a reason, why try at all? 

Sometimes motivation comes from necessity, like for your health, but other times it comes from a place of wanting to challenge yourself and improve your life in little ways. Not all bad habits are life-altering, but they can be annoying or a hindrance, and even those habits require some reasoning. Otherwise, they’d be impossible to break. 

In a lot of ways, finding your reason is like setting a goal. You want it to be specific, but not so specific that you set yourself up for failure. 

For example, “I want to stop scrolling while in bed so that I get to bed earlier and wake up earlier and get more done during the day” is a pretty lofty objective for putting your phone away in the evening. Instead, it might be easier to break the habit by committing your effort to feeling more rested, which in turn will give you more energy to do the things you want to. 

That little shift doesn’t seem like much, but it actually invites in a lot more opportunity and motivates you to go all the way.

Make a plan (not a wish)

Now that you know what causes your bad habit actions and why you want to stop them, you can start the work to squash it. You may have developed your bad habit naturally or by accident, so be prepared for undoing that behavior to be a little more difficult. Making a plan — again, it’s much like setting a goal — can give you a roadmap to success. 

Changing your environment and recognizing your triggers are part of the process. They help you to be mindful about your actions so that you can prevent the ones you want to stop. 

A few methods that might be helpful: 

  • Replace your habit with a new one. Getting rid of a bad habit may be made a bit easier by replacing it with something that’s good for you. In the case of scrolling before bed, try focusing instead on a nighttime routine that’ll help you get to sleep and feel rested.
  • Break it into pieces. As much as we want to believe that going “cold turkey” is our best bet, it’s often not. Try devising a plan in steps, that way it’s more manageable. 
  • Plan for setbacks. Simply put, breaking a bad habit is hard! Plan for setbacks, because they are bound to happen. Having a plan for when you do can help keep you on track. 

“The question isn’t ‘Are you going to be able to avoid that?’” says Duhigg. “The question is ‘What are you going to do next?’”

Don’t forget to reward yourself

Sometimes we become so focused on the task in front of us that we forget to pat ourselves on the back for the progress we’ve made — and that’s a major part of breaking a habit! 

Your motivation might be enough of a reward for you, but every habit and every journey is a little bit different — even every week can be different — so make time to appreciate how far you’ve come.

An added bonus here is that rewards act as a brain hack when you’re trying to beat a habit.  

"The weird thing about rewards is that we don't actually know what we're actually craving," Duhigg says. So make your reward count. When the reward feels just as good - or better - than the bad habit you're trying to get rid of, you'll create a new habit loop that can really stick.

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