Everyone has bad habits that they want to kick to the curb. Each night before going to sleep, we might tell ourselves that we’ll stop, but the next day we end up falling into the same trap. Although it’s a frustrating cycle, understanding what causes mindless actions to develop and how to break a bad habit can help you achieve positive changes in your life.
How Does a Habit Develop?
Before we jump into how to break a negative habit, it’s important to understand how they form in the first place. Habits arise through repetition and—whether it happens unintentionally or deliberately. Actions like showering, brushing your teeth, or tying your shoes each morning are habits that don’t require much thought.
A cue or trigger usually kicks off the habit. The trigger could be a location, time, emotional state, people around you, and your last action. That leads to a routine behavior that you do over and over. For example, maybe when you are feeling bored, you pick up your phone and scroll through social media. The last part—the reward—is what makes the behavior stick. Checking your Instagram or TikTok feed relieves your boredom and releases dopamine in the brain.
As these behaviors are repeated, your brain automatically associates that boredom can be fixed by scrolling through social media. And when you try to quit bad habits, your brain goes into fight-flight-freeze mode, as it wants to avoid this “threat.” Even though we understand that it might not benefit us, changing your negative behavior is so difficult because each time you perform the habit, your brain releases dopamine. The pleasurable yet temporary feeling is why your mind clings so desperately to these rituals.
1. Identify bad habits that you want to break
One of the most crucial things is to be specific when you’re thinking about making improvements to your lifestyle. For example, saying “I want to eat healthier” is a great place to start but it’s quite broad. Look at your daily routine. Do you tend to have unhealthy fast-food lunches at work? Do you stay up too late or have poor sleep hygiene? Or do you catch yourself snacking a lot right before bed? Examine all the moments happening in your life that fuel your unhealthy eating.
Not only is being concrete with your plans important, but you should also figure out the “why.” Ask yourself why do you want to stop binge-watching Netflix shows? While the answer may seem obvious, truly think about all the benefits that quitting that bad habit can have on your life. It could even help to write out a list and hang it somewhere you will see every day. Evidence suggests that identifying the value behind your behavioral change provides stronger motivation to reach your goals.
2. Track behavioral patterns and avoid triggers
This step has two parts because they go hand in hand. Let’s use this scenario: You struggle to have a healthy work-life balance. Oftentimes, you find yourself answering emails and calls from your boss after normal work hours. In turn, you end up neglecting your family and friends (among other things too!).
Prevent the unwanted habit by tracking your behavior. Perhaps you notice that after dinner you head straight to the computer to send one quick email. But after checking your emails, you realize how much work needs to get done and you get stressed. Before you know it, you’re sucked into starting a new project and three back-to-back phone calls.
The trigger here: stress. The stress makes you overwork and neglect your own needs. When you track your daily routine, you become more mindful of your internal state and less likely to revert to an automatic bad habit. In this case, avoiding the stress of your job is challenging, but you can certainly change the small behaviors that lead to stress. For example, after dinner, you can aim to play a board game or do a fun activity with your family and power down your computer for the night.
3. Replace habits with positive ones
Another step to breaking habits is to substitute your bad behavior for a healthier one that provides the same satisfaction. Whether they are good or bad, habits are there to address certain needs in your life. If you smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol to deal with stress, that stress will still be there if you simply “just quit.” What happens when you have the urge to smoke or reach for a drink? Instead of simply quitting the action, plan to go for a walk, call a friend, listen to music, play with a fidget toy, exercise, or start writing your thoughts down on paper. The list goes on and on.
4. Let your friends know
Breaking bad habits can also be achieved by telling your loved ones about your goals. And if your friend has a similar goal, you can both push each other. Even if they don’t have any habits they want to quit, they can still encourage you in times of doubt. If you run into setbacks or start falling back into bad patterns, they can remind you of what you’re trying to accomplish.
5. Leave yourself reminders
Leaving yourself notes and reminders around your house can help you quit bad habits as well. For example, if you are trying to stop watching TV before bed, leave a post-it on your remote that reminds you to fill up your time with another activity. Perhaps you can read a book or practice meditation instead. It’s also a good idea to schedule reminders on your phone, especially if you know you’ll be in an area where a potential trigger may arise.
Positive affirmations are another motivator. Practicing self-love affirms who you are and gives you the confidence to deal with tough times. Self-love doesn’t have to look like leaving kind messages all over your house, it can also be setting boundaries for yourself, reframing negative self-talk, and accepting your flaws. All of this can help you have a strong mindset to put an end to your negative habits.
6. Prepare for slip-ups
Accepting that you’ll likely make mistakes along the way is part of the process. While some experts say that it can take anywhere from 2-3 months to break a bad habit, it really varies for each person. It depends on the length of the habit, the emotional, physical, or social needs the habit fulfills, and your support system.
When slip-ups do happen, it’s easy to say, “I’m a failure, I’ll never get it right.” As much as you want to be hard on yourself, this won’t help your situation. You should look to move in a positive direction, rather than striving for perfection. Do this by focusing on your small successes. If you went three days without smoking, and on the fourth day you picked up a cigarette, that still counts as progress.
7. Reward yourself for progress
Stopping your bad habits can be extremely difficult. Most people start off with a lot of enthusiasm that fades as the days go on. Give yourself rewards for the progress you make. If you are trying to cut back your time spent on social media, then reward yourself for small wins. Maybe for two mornings in a row, on your commute to work, you read a magazine rather than scroll on social media. On the third day, you start to get urges again. Plan to give yourself a reward for how far you’ve come.
Rewards don’t have to be an expensive item or vacation either. You can give yourself a bubble bath that night or take yourself out to dinner. You can bake something sweet—do something you enjoy to keep yourself on track.
8. Find professional support
You might have some success getting rid of harmful behavioral patterns on your own. However, if you find yourself struggling with deeper issues, like emotional eating, alcohol or drug misuse, or compulsions, it might be time to reach out to a mental health professional for support. A therapist can take a deeper look at what drives your most persistent habits. They can help you explore alternative habits to replace the bad ones, look at obstacles in your way, deal with negative self-talk and push through setbacks.
Making these life changes are challenging but possible with a strong mindset. Identify your “why” for getting rid of a habit and take it one step at a time. And most importantly, don’t be afraid to reach out for support.