How to Stop Bad Habits

A latte next to a notebook and pen on a wood table.

Old habits die hard. But that doesn’t mean you can’t break them. 

The key to breaking bad habits is first understanding how, exactly, they are formed in the first place.

Think about something that you do so regularly that you almost don’t have to think about anymore. Something like brushing your teeth, driving a car, or singing along to your favorite song. These are things that you’ve done so many times, over and over again, that they’ve become habitual. How many times have you finished driving your regular route to work or school, for example, and realized that you don’t remember the drive at all? 

Contrast that feeling with your first time behind the wheel. You probably had to really concentrate on every single move you made, double checking your hand position, your mirrors, the navigation directions. The difference between now and then are the habits you have formed. 

Psychologists say that forming habits is our brain’s way of freeing up space to focus on other things. The less you have to focus on small physical actions like brushing your teeth, for example, the more energy your brain can spend thinking about a solution to the problem you’ve encountered at work, or planning your meals for tomorrow. Which is great! 

That is, until you have a habit that you want to break. 

How habits are formed

According to Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit, all habits, from smoking or biting your nails to exercising or driving, are formed through what’s called a “habit loop.” This loop is a three part process made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward. 

Let’s say you have a habit of binge-watching Netflix after work. It can feel like as soon as you send your last email and close your laptop, you’re on the couch with the TV on. 

In this scenario, the cue is the end of the workday, the routine (or the behavior) is closing your laptop and turning on Netflix, and the reward is the feeling of checking out and tuning in to a favorite show. 

Here’s another one: Maybe you have a habit of spending time on social media during the workday. The cue might be a task or project that you don’t really want to work on or the feeling of overwhelm or even boredom. The behavior is pulling out your phone and scrolling on Instagram, and the reward is the feeling of relief from work. 

If there are any bad habits that you have been trying to break, take some time to think about what the cues and the rewards are. Identifying these two elements is the first step toward forming a new, healthier habit. 

6 tricks to stopping bad habits

  1. Replace your bad habit with a new habit: Instead of trying to quit a habitual behavior cold turkey, try to replace it with something else that you *do* want to do. Let’s say you’re trying to break that post-work Netflix habit: Rather than defining your goal as “stop watching TV after work,” try switching it to something like “start going for a walk after work.” This will help your brain out tremendously, because the trigger (in this case, the end of the workday) will still be a trigger for a behavior, it will just be the healthier behavior that you’re choosing instead of your bad habit. 
  1. Start simple and be specific: We talk a lot about the importance of setting specific goals, and the same goes when you’re trying to make or break a habit. “Start exercising after work,” is a great intention and a wonderful habit to try to form, but it’s also incredibly vague and leaves a lot of room for error. A more specific — and therefore more easily achievable — goal would look more like this: “Once I’m done with work, I’m going to change into my workout clothes and go for a 30-minute run.” 
  1. Establish rewards: The reward that your brain gets every time you give into your bad habit is the hardest part to get over when you’re trying to break a behavior pattern. The solution? Create an equally compelling reward for your good behavior. Allow yourself 15 minutes of social media time after 90 minutes of work; eat a square of dark chocolate after a workout. Pick something that’s actually going to motivate you. After enough time, your brain’s habit loop will kick in and the behavior itself will begin to feel like the reward. 
  1. Create reminders for yourself that can serve as visual triggers: The trigger is one of the most important parts of the habit loop. When you’re trying to drop a bad habit and replace it with something healthier or better, creating additional visual reminders can go a long way. Set an alarm on your phone, or leave Post-it notes on your workplace, fridge, or bathroom mirror. The more times you can be reminded about the good behaviors you’re trying to cultivate, the better you’ll fare. 
  1. Track your progress: When it comes to breaking a bad habit, it’s going to take small, consistent steps to add up to the big change you’re looking for. Tracking your progress can keep you accountable and enable you to really notice and celebrate how far you’ve come. Plus, we know that you’re more likely to accomplish your goals if you write them down. The Ink+Volt Progress Pad is the perfect tool to help you with habit tracking: a 7-day log that allows you to track everything from the routine to-dos to new and more challenging activities, behaviors, or practices you want to establish and strengthen, or stop.
  1. Have an accountability partner: Whether it’s your best friend, a sibling, or a co-worker, having someone else in your life who’s able to hold you accountable and help you along the way to breaking your bad habit can be really important. Be clear and up front with your accountability partner about what it is you’re trying to accomplish, and then work together to set up regular check-ins where they’ll ask you about your progress. Sometimes just knowing you’ll have to report to someone is incentive enough to stay on the straight-and-narrow.

Breaking bad habits is hard. If it weren’t, no one would have any bad habits!

So don’t get discouraged when it feels really hard to stop doing something you’re in the habit of doing -- or even if you slip up and give in to your bad habit once in a while. The goal isn’t perfection -- it is consistency and real change over the long term.

You can do it. Stick with it, and you can do anything!

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