How to Break Bad Habits Permanently (a Step-by-Step Guide)

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Are you tired of feeling like your bad habits are controlling your life? Do you want to break free from your old ways but struggle to find a way?

Habits often help us save time, energy, and mental resources, making our lives easier. There’s no need to plan how to get in the car, figure out the logistics of starting the engine or spend time deciding which route to take to work. It’s all automated!

But the same goes for unhealthy habits. Maybe you’re used to sitting on a sofa, then turning on the TV and eating junk food. Perhaps your bad habit is smoking a cigarette while having a drink or procrastinating when feeling anxious. We all have those behaviors we want to eliminate, yet achieving that can be very tricky.

Fortunately, with the right tools, strategies, and awareness, breaking bad habits becomes much more manageable and far less daunting.

If you’d like to find out how to break bad habits, read on and learn more about the psychology of habits, their influence on our well-being, and simple actions to take charge of your life!

How Bad Habits Influence Our Well-Being

Bad habits, even though they bring us temporary relief or pleasure, are detrimental to our physical and mental well-being in the long term.

While smoking a cigarette can be calming, it heightens cancer risk. Drinking excessively might serve as a confidence booster during a party, but it contributes to developing an unhealthy coping mechanism and substance abuse issues. These are some obvious examples of unhealthy habits, yet even the seemingly unimportant ones can negatively impact your life.

Let’s say you have a tendency to spend too much time on your phone. At first, this bad habit can impact you a little bit, wasting some of your time and energy throughout the day. The more it happens, the more depleted and unmotivated it can make you feel. Before you realize it, you sleep less, lose focus at work, pay little attention to conversations you have with your friends or replace your self-care routine with mindless scrolling.

When put into perspective, something so seemingly harmless as spending too much time on your phone can prevent you from achieving long-term goals and living the life you truly want.

Additionally, bad habits often tend to erode confidence levels and cause difficulties in personal relationships. Breaking bad habits is by no means an easy task; it requires patience, commitment to self-improvement, and knowledge of how your bad habits work.

If you’d like to learn how to get rid of a bad habit, the first step is to understand how they’re formed and why it’s so difficult to get rid of them:

What Causes a Bad Habit?

Do you tend to reach for your phone when you’re bored? Maybe eating a lot of junk food helps you deal with stress or anxiety? What about procrastination: what causes it?

Most of the time, it is either when we’re stressed or bored that we lean on our bad habits to entertain, comfort, or soothe us. It is our human attempt at coping with difficult emotions and discomfort, even though there are other, healthier ways we can learn, such as mindfulness practices. That’s why it’s essential to get real with yourself, dig deeper and find the underlying reasons behind our bad habits, such as limiting beliefs:

Next time you catch yourself procrastinating instead of studying for an exam or going to the gym, ask yourself: “What is holding me back?” Observe your thoughts and emotions. Perhaps you’re scared of failing the exam or believe you’re not smart enough to pass it. Maybe you feel like other people will judge you at the gym, so you prefer to avoid it altogether.

The Psychology of Bad Habits

Understanding your motives isn’t enough to break bad habits. What you need is to learn a thing or two from behavioral psychology, which offers great insight into how to tackle this issue. It tells us that each habit can be divided into three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward.

It all starts with a cue, which serves as the trigger for the behavior. It can be a place, a situation, a person, or a combination of different stimuli which, when put together, provoke us to engage in a bad habit.

Once we do that often enough, we form a routine. Whenever there’s a cue, there’s also our reaction. But what really makes bad habits so difficult to overcome is the reward we get from performing the behavior since it strengthens the connection between the cue and the bad habit over time.

For example:

  • taking a break from working (cue) might prompt you to smoke a cigarette (routine), which brings you temporary pleasure (reward)
  • feeling inclined to eat popcorn, chips or ice-cream (routine) when binge-watching Netflix (cue), and consuming a lot of sugar (reward)
  • when feeling a bit anxious or restless (cue), you might want to take the edge off with an alcoholic drink (routine), which soothes you for some time (reward)

The more times we practice that same bad habit, the stronger and more entrenched it becomes until we’ve built an automatic reflex that is hard to get rid of. Fortunately, with the right tools and techniques, you can learn how to break bad habits successfully.

How To Break Bad Habits: 10 Tips

"Breaking bad habits is like training a dog; You got to be consistent." - Sanita Belgrave

TIP 1: Awareness is Key

We all want to better ourselves and become a version that doesn’t eat junk food, mindlessly scroll through social media, smoke, drink, or procrastinate too much. Breaking a bad habit, whatever it may be, is a real challenge, especially if you’ve been struggling with the same pattern of behavior for a while.

The first step towards achieving long-lasting positive change is to become aware of the factors that contribute to your bad habit. To overcome your unhealthy tendencies, you need to know the following:

What does trigger your habit?

  • i.e., Feeling anxious and sad prompts overeating.

In what context are you more prone to engaging in your bad habit?

  • i.e., Whenever I go to the bar with these friends, I end up drinking excessively.

When does it occur?

  • i.e., When I get home from work, I sit on a sofa to rest for a moment and turn on the TV.

What is your routine?

  • i.e., On my way to work, I tend to buy a coffee and light up a cigarette.

How does it make you feel?

  • i.e., Procrastinating makes me feel relaxed and relieved short term but significantly induces my anxiety in the long term.

What are you gaining from it? What is your reward?

  • i.e., Binge-watching Netflix keeps me entertained instead of bored.

Take time to identify these elements. Think about the context, environment, places, or people influencing your bad habit. Try writing down scenarios or feelings that prompt your bad habit.

At this stage, it’s incredibly important to be honest with yourself about your bad habit and where it stems from. Awareness comes from openness and honesty and is key to breaking bad habits. Remember that once you know your triggers, avoiding them will be much easier.

TIP 2: Connect to Your Reason for Quitting

Connecting to your reasons for getting rid of a bad habit can be a game changer. Just think about it:

Let’s say you’d like to stop eating unhealthily. There’s a difference between wanting to do it because of social pressure to eat a certain way and stopping that bad habit because you want to become a healthy, strong person. The more specific and personal your reason is, the higher your chances of succeeding.

To understand your reason and your motivation, ask yourself why that bad habit persists in the first place. Maybe you struggle with low self-esteem, and that food comforts you temporarily. Perhaps you believe that you are not capable of learning how to cook for yourself. Whatever your limiting belief may be, take a moment to imagine the version of yourself that does not eat so much junk food and enjoys having a balanced diet. Imagine that it comes to you almost effortlessly, automatically. See the better version of yourself.

From that point of view, explore and pinpoint your reasons for wanting to quit this bad habit. It can feel overwhelming at first, so start small by making a list of reasons why this bad habit is not good for you, such as feeling heavy or unmotivated, gaining weight, having acne or health issues, feeling insecure, etc.

You can also brainstorm the benefits that quitting this habit can bring to your life, such as feeling energized and motivated, having a good relationship with your body, and engaging in self-care.

Writing down these points can serve as a reminder of why you are taking steps to break the bad habit, boosting your motivation along the way.

TIP 3: Remove Your Reward and Triggers

The human brain can remember how rewarding and pleasant it feels to engage in a bad habit for a really long time[1]. Fighting against that requires a lot of willpower, but also you can help yourself by outsmarting and tricking your brain.

So, once your motives are clear, it’s time to act. Firstly, remove the rewarding element of your bad habit as well as the circumstances that trigger it:

  • Do you tend to eat chips when watching a movie? Stop buying chips.
  • Whenever you pass this one shop, do you overspend? Choose a different route.
  • Do you spend too much time on your phone before bed? Leave your phone turned off and out of your reach when going to sleep.

Think about your current environment – probably right now, it’s easy to engage in your bad habit. Find a way then to make it difficult for yourself to do it.

TIP 4: Set Small Goals To Achieve Big Ones

When trying to break your bad habit before, did you set a goal for yourself that was precise and well-formulated? Or was it general and a bit unclear?

The number one rule of goal-setting is breaking the big project down into small, bite-sized pieces. So if you want to smoke less, create a goal that is clear, specific, realistic, and measurable – the more tangible, the better[2]. How will “smoking less” translate into your daily life? How will you overcome the urge to smoke when feeling stressed or during a break at work?

Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, says: “It’s always going to be easier to react based on something you’ve already planned out in the past versus trying to come up with a new plan on the fly.[5] That is why spending time on this stage instead of jumping into action hot-headed can set you up for success later on.

TIP 5: Come Up With a Healthy Alternative

Now, this is probably the most valuable piece of advice.

We often want to stop our bad habits without proposing an alternative. And all our bad habits were formed because of a need to cope with something, whether it be boredom, loneliness, stress, or anxiety. So simply eliminating a bad habit will also mean getting rid of the only source of satisfying our needs and coping with potential issues.

That’s a one-way street to failing.

Besides, research says that if you try to suppress your thoughts revolving around the bad habit, you’ll only end up intensifying them[3]. But, if you think about an action to take, it gives your brain something more specific to focus on.

So replace your bad habit with a healthy alternative that satisfies your needs. Rather than focusing on stopping one thing, you can direct your energy and attention to starting something else. If you tend to reach for your phone in moments of boredom – replace that with doing squats and push ups.

TIP 6: Use Small Treats

Breaking bad habits can be challenging, and sometimes we might lack the motivation to maintain new standards. But, once again – we can trick our brains since they’re significantly impacted and motivated by rewards.

So as you embark on the new journey of figuring out how to break bad habits, consider coming up with a system of small rewards for each milestone achieved on the mission of staying away from unhealthy behavior. It can be incredibly effective and satisfying to treat yourself for each step you take toward a long-lasting, positive change.

Let’s say you want to quit waking up so late, and your new goal is to start your day at 8:30 in the morning. Each time you manage to do so, you can set up:

  • a daily treat, i.e., watching an episode of your favorite series on Netflix,
  • a weekly treat, i.e., going out to a nice restaurant,
  • a monthly treat, i.e., buying yourself a massage.

With consistent implementation, you’ll eventually find it easier to resist your bad habit in favor of healthier ones.

TIP 7: Have an Accountability Buddy

Managing your bad habit and introducing changes are tricky, but remember that you do not have to face that challenge alone. Tell a trusted friend about your situation. Putting your intention to better yourself out there can be a powerful motivation for you to follow through. Besides, your friend will probably support you and cheer you on.

If you feel comfortable with your friend, consider asking them to be your accountability buddy. That way, you don’t have to feel so alone in your bad habit battle – even if you stumble along the way – because having support from another person can give you the courage and strength needed to stay the course.

You could even pair up with one or more friends and join forces to help each other quit bad habits. Sharing your hardships with a close circle of friends has a huge potential, so make sure to use this opportunity instead of missing it. Receiving help from others is nothing to be ashamed of, quite the opposite – going through this together can bring you closer than before and might be a lot of fun!

TIP 8: Learn Different Relaxation Techniques

As mentioned before: we develop many bad habits to cope with stress in our lives. Additionally, it is in these overwhelming moments that our decision-making ability is hindered the most. So, to break your habit, try learning coping skills that are both healthy and simple to implement whenever you feel overwhelmed, restless, or anxious, such as these relaxation techniques from Harvard that can be applied on the spot.

Many daily practices can help reduce stress levels in general, such as:

TIP 9: Overcome Negative Self-Talk

"When you screw up, skip a workout, eat bad foods, or sleep in, it doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you human. Welcome to the club." - Steve Kamb

This one goes out to all the people struggling with perfectionism:

An inevitable part of breaking a bad habit is failing, having slip-ups, cheat days, and so on. Growth is not linear, and screwing up is a natural element of life. Dare I say, without it, there’s no success?

In that vulnerable period of implementing and maintaining changes, it’s easy to be hard on yourself and notice your shortcomings rather than the progress you’re making. But engaging in that negative, often abusive, self-talk will not only not help but sabotage your efforts.

So next time you catch yourself thinking: “I am a failure, this is pointless, I’m never gonna make it,” take a moment to stop and check the validity of that belief. Try to make it less dramatic:

  • Are you a failure, or did you simply skip a workout day?
  • How do you know that you will “never” make it?

Try to coin a new mantra that can serve as a helpful tool, not act as an obstacle. Become your cheerleader, even if you don’t believe it right now. Visualize yourself succeeding and achieving your goal. Try something like:

“I am doing my best. Each day is a new opportunity to put all my effort and intention into becoming a healthier version of myself.”

Don’t judge it before you give it a real try. I encourage you to use your own mantra daily, say it aloud, and see the difference.

TIP 10: You Got This

Breaking bad habits can be one of the hardest tasks we undertake. It requires dedication, consistency, and belief that you can do it.

That being said, it is essential to recognize that bad habit-breaking isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon[4]. There’s no quick fix or magic pill but a series of daily steps and commitments to maintain and hold yourself accountable for.

There’s no question about it: you experience setbacks, obstacles, and low days – like any hero on their journey. What you need to remember is that you got this. You can do it! Believing in yourself doesn’t come effortlessly, so give it an honest try. Don’t give up – bad habits never disappear overnight; it just takes perseverance and repetition to make healthy behavior a true habit!



2 thoughts on “How to Break Bad Habits Permanently (a Step-by-Step Guide)

  1. Thank you for this article.

    1. Thanks for reading!

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