How To Ditch Bad Habits

The Best Ways to Break Bad Habits

How To Ditch Bad Habits
Image: Shutterstock

As much as some people hate to admit it, humans are not perfect. We know what we should do— exercise, eat well and get plenty of sleep—but don’t always measure up.

And sometimes what starts as an occasional oversight, slip-up or coping mechanism becomes a full-fledged bad habit.

The good news is that it’s entirely possible to kick your bad habits, and we’re here to help you with that.

Identify the behavior you want to change

Thinking that you have “bad habits” isn’t enough: you need to know exactly what behaviors you’d to change. Over at Psychology Today, Robert Taibbi, a licensed clinical social worker writes:

“You need to prime the habit-breaking process by thinking in terms of specific, doable behaviors — not dumping your shoes in the living room but putting them in your closet; not eating in front of the TV but at the dining room table; going for a half-hour run five days a week; sending your boyfriend a complimentary text once a day, rather than sending him nothing or negative ones. Drill down on the concrete.”

In other words, go in knowing precisely what it is you are going to work on.

Fine yourself for each offense

Make a bad habit a little more painful and you might ditch it for good.

Money is a great motivator, so you can use the “swear jar” method or pay your friends $1 each time they catch you doing that thing you want to stop doing.

It works the other way too: Reward yourself for beating your habit every day. The app 21Habit rewards or penalizes you a dollar a day for 21 days of committing to a habit.

Understand what triggers your bad habits

Understanding how we make decisions is the key to conquering all kinds of bad habits, including those related to money. Often, we repeat bad habits without even realize we’re doing them. There are five cues that usually contribute to every bad habit, though, and being aware of them can help us learn what’s behind those behaviors.

Bad money habits can be hard to break. You decide to put something on a credit card once, and…

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Go slowly and make tiny changes

Forming better new habits takes time and effort, but breaking established bad habits may be even harder.

So be patient with yourself and instead of making dramatic adjustments, try focusing on one habit and the smallest steps you can take to “trick your inner caveman.

” With food and dieting, for example, small changes reducing one pack of sugar or switch cream in your coffee to low-fat milk can make a big difference in the long run and may inspire additional small but meaningful changes.

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Spend a month thinking about your habit before taking action

You might be itching to get rid of that habit right now, but as mentioned above, it takes time. Before you start trying to change a habit, consider thinking about it thoroughly for a month first, listing every reason you want to stop, recording every time you catch yourself doing it, and so on. You could be better prepared to conquer the habit after this preparation.

Remind your future self to avoid bad habits

Even with the best intentions, we fall into bad habits when our willpower fades. You might promise only to have two drinks when going out with friends, for example, but forget that promise completely as soon as you step into the bar. Try setting up reminders in your calendar for yourself for your weakest moments. Future, less-hungover self will thank you.

Find a better reason to quit

Yes, we know that we shouldn’t smoke or eat fast food every day, but that awareness itself may not be enough for us to kick the habit. As Elliot Berkman, Ph.D.

, director of the University of Oregon’s Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab tells Time: “Even if you replace a ‘bad’ habit with a better one, sometimes the original vice will have a stronger biological ‘reward’ than its substitute.

” So for example, in addition to thinking you should quit smoking because it will be better for your health, you can better motivate yourself to do it because it may help you become more active and enjoy hiking in a way you weren’t able to before.

Change your environment

Over time, if you do the same behaviors in the same place, your surroundings can become a trigger—sometimes too subtle to notice. If you go on smoke breaks in your office’s parking lot, the parking lot itself can become a cue to smoke. Switch up your surrounds in even the smallest way.

The 20-Second Rule can help too: Make bad habits take 20 seconds longer to start. For example, move junk food to the back of the pantry to its less accessible, and plant some healthy snacks up front. In this scenario, you’re relying on your laziness to settle for whatever is closest to your mouth.

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Coach yourself bad habits

Lifehacker alum Adam Dachis used a webcam to break his bad habits, recording why he wanted to break them every day and effectively coaching himself to stop nail biting and doing other bad habits.

Now, seven years after his original article, most people can easily take videos with their phones, making this strategy even more accessible than before.

It might seem a little strange at first, but it could work for you too.

Be kind and patient with yourself

As we’ve already established, changing bad habits doesn’t happen overnight, so try not to get upset or frustrated with yourself when the process takes time.

As Taibbi points out, it takes a while for your brain to form new connections and for a new pattern of behavior to kick in. Don’t chastise yourself because it doesn’t happen instantly.

Also, don’t beat yourself up when you have an inevitable slip-up, and do not use it as a rationale for quitting, Taibbi adds.

Do a review when you have a bad habit relapse

Chances are you’re going to have bad days. Setbacks are normal and we should expect them. Have a plan to get back on track and use the relapse as a way to understand what happened and how you can avoid it next time.

If you're trying to build a new habit, chances are you're going to break it. More than once. And…

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Create an “If-Then” plan

Habits are loops that we repeat automatically. A cue triggers our routine, we get the reward from it, and then repeat. An If-Then plan can help you disrupt this cue-routine-reward system and replace bad habits with good ones. Just remember to keep your plan as simple as possible. This flowchart can help you reboot your habit and create the If-Then plan.

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Train yourself to think differently about your bad habits

Even if we hate a habit we’re doing, smoking or biting our nails, we tend to continue doing them because they provide us with some sort of satisfaction or psychological reward. Catch yourself thinking any positive thoughts or feelings about your bad habits and reframe them to remind you of the negative aspects. In other words, in this case it’s good to think a hater.


5 Bad Habits to Ditch Starting Today

How To Ditch Bad Habits

One of my best pieces of advice I have for anyone wanting to create balance and wellness in their life is to change your habits. Habits are powerful. If you can discipline yourself to get the right habits in place, everything becomes easier. 

But we have to be aware of our bad habits too. Bad habits can unknowingly hurt us— by making us miserable or by pulling us further from our goals. When we ditch the bad habits, we give ourselves room to start new, healthy ones. 

This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. You can read my full disclaimer here.

Here are some common bad habits you should ditch starting TODAY:

Bad Habit #1: Sleeping with the TV on

This is a terrible habit of mine. I love to fall asleep with the TV on. If you do too, don’t let it play all night. Sleeping with the television on inhibits your sleep and has recently been linked to weight gain in women. 

Set a sleep timer if you can’t fall asleep without the TV on. That way, you won’t have it playing all night and interrupting your rest. If you need some noise, try a white noise machine. 

Bad Habit #2 Hitting snooze

Hitting the snooze button on our alarms is another awful habit most of us share. I love to sleep, so I used to push the snooze button every morning to try to delay the inevitable.

But the sleep you get after hitting snooze isn’t restorative, so it’s basically useless.  Usually, you’ll only feel worse after sleeping “just another 10 minutes.” 

And if you’re me, you’re probably setting yourself up for a rushed morning. As a mom of 3 with a home business and a part-time job, I need all the time I can get in the morning. 

To break this habit, set your phone or alarm clock across the room so that you’re forced to get bed to turn it off. Once you’re up, immediately brush your teeth and drink a glass of water. 

Bad Habit #3: Checking your phone first thing in the morning

Do you check your phone before you’re even bed? If so, you’re not alone. The majority of us are somewhat addicted to our phones and driven to check it regularly, including the moment we first open our eyes.

You probably know this isn’t the best way to start your day, but did you know that checking notifications/email regularly is linked to higher levels of stress and unhappiness? 

By checking your phone first thing, you’re setting yourself up for a bad start to your day.

How many times do you see something on social media that makes you feel crappy? You never know what’s coming next when you’re mindlessly scrolling, so you risk starting your day off negatively when you start by looking at your phone.

Instead, keep your phone in its place and don’t check it until you’ve done your morning routine. 

Check out this related post: Tips to Help You Break Your Cell Phone Addiction

Bad Habit #4: Filling your schedule to the brim

Our culture sees busyness as a status symbol. Moms talk constantly about how busy life is.

If we fill up every second of our schedule with activities and obligations, when do we rest?

When do we take care of ourselves? When do we find time to spend with the people who mean the most to us? 

You may be in a season of life that feels suffocating, but do your very best to maintain some margin in your life. That might mean saying “no” more often than you’d .

You may even have to say “no” to some good things. But you can’t do it all. And you deserve time to just BE.

Your children deserve a well-rested mom. We aren’t meant to be busy, busy, busy.

Even it’s just a few hours, give yourself some unscheduled breathing room every week.

Bad Habit #5: Checking up on other peoples’ lives 

What I mean by this is that we should give up the desire to know what’s going on with other people. It’s a waste of our time to be scrolling or Instagram just to know what’s going on with others.

Let’s include gossip and celebrity news in this category too. Neither add value to our lives or help anyone else.

In fact, the incessant need to know what others are doing is ly only hurting you. 

If you’re checking up on others because you’re jealous— not good.

If you’re trying to distract yourself from your own life– not good (you need to deal with what’s going on in your life, not avoid it).

If you’re comparing yourself to what you see on social media— not good either. (Check out my post “How to Quit Comparing Yourself to Others” for more on this.)

My point: Unless you’re checking up genuine care and love, knock it off. There are about a million better ways you could use that time.

You might have some other bad habits you need to ditch. When you find yourself doing something automatically, ask yourself “Is this habit helpful or hurtful?”

If you decide that it’s hurtful, get rid of it!

Remember, the first three weeks of change will be the most painful. After that, things get easier. Don’t give up!

Get rid of the bad habits and replace them with some good ones— and then see how much your life changes.

For ideas of some good habits to implement, check out these posts:

10 Habits That Keep Me Well and Balanced as a Mom

10 MORE Habits That Keep Me Well and Balanced as a Mom

Did you know that we now have a community? You can join us here.

If you’re seeking more wellness and balance in your life, check out my FREE 5-day life coaching course “Finding Wellness and Balance as a Mom!” You can sign up here.

If you’re looking for some personalized help, I am now offering a 12-week life coaching program. Email me at [email protected] to get more details and get started!

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The best way to ditch bad habits: what science can teach us

How To Ditch Bad Habits

It’s a new year and many people are in the mood for making a fresh start. And that often means giving something up (cigarettes, alcohol, junk food). Unfortunately, the odds of sticking with new year resolutions are not good. Come February, 80% of people will have given up giving up. So what can we learn from the 20% who make it?

Some might just be lucky, but most – whether they realise it or not – will be using techniques scientific evidence. While you might feel you have little in common with people who overcome drug dependency, you can benefit from the techniques that have been shown to help this group.

Read more: Dry January: a convenient distraction for the alcohol industry

The two Ps

Perseverance underpins most stories of successful change, and it can take anywhere from six to 30 attempts to quit for those dependent on drugs to become abstinent. While these numbers might seem off putting, it’s important to be realistic about the need to persevere. Incremental change is known to be superior to overly ambitious targets – appealing as they might be.

This leads to the second “p” – planning. Conventional wisdom suggests that planning improves the chances of success, but there is evidence that unplanned attempts to quit smoking can be just as successful. Good news for anyone embarking on an impromptu attempt to change.

So although spontaneous attempts can be successful for smokers, picking the right day to start changing other habits is ly to play a part. We know that motivation and energy fluctuate, so think about when you will have maximum levels of both. Starting well gives the initial encouragement needed to get to day two.

Learn from lapsing

Having a lapse shouldn’t be viewed as a failure or used as an excuse to give up. It can be tempting to view change in a binary way – success or failure.

Instead, view a lapse as an opportunity to gain insight, reflecting as honestly as possible on why the lapse happened and how this could be avoided or counteracted on the next attempt at change.

Research has repeatedly shown us that these processes are crucial for changing ingrained habits, so much so that in the world of addiction, treatment is often referred to as “relapse prevention”, to acknowledge that treatment is as much about preventing the negative as it is accentuating the positive.

High levels of self-efficacy (a belief and confidence in personal ability) when trying to change behaviour predict ultimate success. Factors that increase self-efficacy include self-talk (“I can do this”), previous success at changing other behaviour or habits, and affirmations from others.

Cultural differences can influence how comfortable and skilled an affirmation is. The way Americans routinely affirm each other is in contrast to those in the UK who tend to be suspicious of affirmations.

Believing change is possible can be undermined by “anticipatory anxiety” – when a person expects and fears withdrawal symptoms when changing a habit, such as smoking.

The anticipated discomfort is usually greater than the actual experience but can paralyse any attempt to test reality. Rather than focusing on what you are losing by giving up smoking or alcohol, think of what you will gain (more money, better sleep).

A useful exercise to help assess personal benefits is the decision balance sheet.

Decision balance sheet. Agency for healthcare research and quality

Tell someone what you plan to do, you won’t want to let them or yourself down. Weight Watchers employ this type of social contract in some ways to encourage but also as a deterrent to relapse. Shame and guilt are powerful emotions that most people will try to avoid.

So when it comes to adopting a scientific approach to change, the evidence provides some helpful tips. Be prepared for several change attempts, don’t be too ambitious, don’t keep your change a secret and allow yourself to be complimented and encouraged.

Finally, today might be the right day to start. If you’ve only just decided, with motivation and energy on your side, your chances of ditching that bad habit are just as good as those who’ve spent weeks preparing.

Making a change is relatively easy for most of us, maintaining that change is evidently a lot tougher.

So while some might be lucky enough to make a change and stick to it, most of us will have to keep trying, the science suggests we’ll get there in the end.


The best way to ditch bad habits, according to science

How To Ditch Bad Habits

It's a new year and many people are in the mood for making a fresh start. And that often means giving something up (cigarettes, alcohol, junk food). Unfortunately, the odds of sticking with new year resolutions are not good. Come February, 80% of people will have given up giving up. So what can we learn from the 20% who make it?

Some might just be lucky, but most — whether they realize it or not — will be using techniques scientific evidence. While you might feel you have little in common with people who overcome drug dependency, you can benefit from the techniques that have been shown to help this group.

Why Starting Small Is the Best Way to Break Bad Habits

How To Ditch Bad Habits

Illustration: Aliya Ghare

It’s the start of a new year—and, this time around, an entirely new decade. Everybody’s talking about the resolutions they’re hoping to stick to. But, instead of implementing something new in your routine, you’re hoping to do the opposite. You’re eager to let go of some baggage and bad habits that drag you down.

Maybe you have a lifestyle change in mind, finally quitting smoking or saying goodbye to those weekly fast food indulgences. Or, perhaps you’ve set your sights on a habit that’s more work-focused, stopping procrastinating or overworking.

No matter what you have in mind, experience has taught you this: kicking a bad habit to the curb is an uphill battle, and it’s going to take a lot of effort, commitment, and even some frustration to pull this change off. 

Don’t panic yet. While habits are brutal to break, they aren’t impossible. In this article, we’re digging into everything you need to know about your bad habits—including why they’re so enticing and some of the best ways you can bid them adieu once and for all. 

Why Is Breaking Bad Habits So Darn Tough?

If bad habits were easy to break, nobody would have any, right? We’d all eat healthy, make it to the gym at least three times per week, and maintain an adequate work-life balance.

Unfortunately, that’s not reality. But, what is it about bad habits that makes them so enticing—even when we know they’re, well, bad for us? There are a few things at play here. 

1. Bad Habits Are Comfortable

Even if we know they’re detrimental, there’s a comfort level associated with bad habits. They’re sort of our brain’s version of autopilot. And, when you’ve repeated a behavior for a while, it becomes a part of your routine.

That makes it that much harder to cut it out. Sometimes rote learning just takes over and you default to that behavior—before you even realize what’s happening. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 40% of the time, we aren’t even thinking about what we’re doing. We’re just falling back on habitual behaviors. 

So, putting an end to a habit requires a lot of conscious thought, a high degree of alertness, and self-imposed interruptions into your seemingly automatic thought processes. 

2. Bad Habits Are Still Socially Accepted

Everybody knows a diet filled with grease and sugar is bad for you. Lighting up those cigarettes isn’t doing your organs any favors. Increased stress levels from constantly overworking are wreaking havoc on your emotional, mental, and even physical health.

Yet, so many people still stick with those routines—and much of that is because those behaviors (while negative) are still largely socially accepted. 

There are an estimated one billion smokers on earth. 30% of people worldwide are obese or overweight. 91% of employees admit to feeling somewhat burned out. 

That means these bad habits don’t necessarily bring along a stigma or sense of isolation that you’d think they would. In some cases, they actually offer a sense of community.

“We get a sense of belonging that is important to us. We can see ourselves as part of a social structure; it’s very hard to change a behavior if it is still accepted socially,” says Dr. Cindy Jardine, an assistant professor of rural sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada about the research on bad habits she conducted. 

“For instance, stress is bad for us, yet we wear it as a badge of honor. It is seen as a socially desirable thing to be overworking. We don’t seem to have the same respect for people who work a 40-hour week.”

3. Bad Habits Offer Some Sort of Reward

Every single behavior has some sort of payoff for us—otherwise we wouldn’t bother doing it. But, when it comes to something that we know is negative, what’s the benefit there?

Well, put simply, bad habits feel good in the moment. That greasy cheeseburger, while not aligned with our nutritional goals, tastes good. Working overtime, while not compatible with our ideal work-life balance, makes us feel accomplished.

This immediate reward reinforces something that psychologists call the habit loop. Your brain connects that instant gratification to the behavior, which reinforces the automatic process of you doing it again. Before long, it becomes one of those things you start doing without any conscious decision-making involved. 

4. Bad Habits Cause a Battle in Your Brain 

From a purely scientific perspective, there’s a lot that goes into bad habits too. We’ll spare you the detailed neurology lesson, but here’s the rub: your brain’s circuits for goal-directed or habit-directed actions compete for control in the area of your brain that makes decisions.

Basically, your brain is at war with itself about whether to make choices with your end goal in mind or to rely on learned and reinforced behaviors.

And, if we know anything, it’s that science (particularly when it’s related to how your brain is hardwired) can be tough to beat. 

So…How Can You Break Your Bad Habits (and Make The Change Stick)? 

Obviously, you have your work cut out for you when it comes to ditching your bad habits. So, how do you actually make it happen? 

Many experts assert that the best tip is surprisingly simple: start small. 

Breaking a bad habit can feel daunting and endless, particularly if it’s a behavior that you’ve indulged in for a while. Kicking it to the curb in one fell swoop feels a major life change.

But, splitting it into smaller chunks makes the entire process more manageable. For example, imagine that you want to put an end to your bad habit of overworking. Rather than setting yourself up with the unrealistic expectation of immediately hacking your workweek down to a reasonable number, set a goal of leaving the office by 5:30PM two or three days per week.

Once you’ve mastered that? Add another day. And then another. You’ll wade into that life change slowly, rather than trying to adjust to unfamiliar circumstances all at once.

There are a couple of reasons that this approach is so effective. The first is that a dramatic change can be stressful, but these tiny changes have a better chance of sneaking under the radar of your stress response. 

“Simplify any change you make to where it goes under your stress response,” explains Jenny C. Evans, author of The Resilience rEvolution, in an article for Lifehacker. “To the point where you think, ‘That’s so easy, it’s stupid!’ Then you’ll be able to make successful long-term changes.”

Additionally, starting small also offers more opportunities to reward yourself. Rather than needing to wait until you’ve made the major life change in its entirety to feel gratified, you can stop to celebrate when you leave the office on time for a week or stay away from your cigarettes during a stressful day. 

That all ties back to something called the progress principle, which asserts that of all of the possible things that can boost our emotions and perceptions, the most important is feeling as if we’re making progress in meaningful work. 

So, once you’ve dominated one small change, the snowball will keep rolling and that momentum will build on itself. 

3 Other Tips for Kicking Your Bad Habits to the Curb

Starting small can make a big difference. But, it doesn’t hurt to have a few more strategies on your side. Here are a few other tips to help you break your bad habits once and for all. 

1. Know Your Habit Triggers

While your brain can kick into autopilot, there’s usually some sort of event or emotion that serves as a trigger for a lot of your bad habits.

For example, do you overeat when you feel stressed? Or, do you have the tendency to pile too much work on your plate whenever anybody asks you to take something on?

If you aren’t sure what causes that behavior to strike, spend some time preparing before diving in and changing that habit. Keep a journal or dedicate some reflection time to pay close attention to that habit and identify the moments when you find yourself defaulting to that routine. 

It’s far easier to change a behavior if you know what serves as the impetus for it. So, see if you can spot any trends in the root cause of that bad habit. That way, you can change how you respond to those triggers—or even do your best to avoid them altogether. 

2. Find a Greater Reward

There’s probably one major reason you want to part ways with a bad habit: you know that it isn’t good for you. But, as the previous research demonstrated, that knowledge alone isn’t always enough inspiration to ditch bad behaviors—particularly those that are still socially acceptable.

You need a greater source of motivation than simply avoiding something that’s bad for you. Find something that actually resonates with you.

Maybe putting an end to your overworking tendencies because you know stress is detrimental doesn’t really make a difference to you. But, stopping overworking so you have more time to invest in your hobbies strikes a chord. Go with that!

Beyond drawing a line to a greater purpose, you can also identify smaller rewards and incentives to keep yourself on track— treating yourself to your favorite dinner when you’ve left the office on time all week.

Worried that you’re bribing yourself to do something good, when you should be able to muster up that motivation on your own? That’s not exactly true. Rewards aren’t a replacement for your autonomous motivation (the fancy name for motivation that comes from internal sources)—they actually serve as a supplement to it. 

Research has found that “small rewards can help foster autonomous motivation and serve as a tool for behavioral change.” 

3. Show Yourself Some Kindness

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: breaking a bad habit is tough work. That means you aren’t going to do it perfectly. It’s a harsh, but true reality of making a positive change.

You’re going to need to be prepared to be patient and show yourself some kindness and forgiveness when you have a slip up.

If and when you fall off the wagon, resist the urge to beat yourself up. Several studies have shown that type of negative self-talk can increase your stress and decrease your self-esteem (and that certainly won’t help you).

Instead, step back, reflect on what happened, and ask yourself a few questions:

  • What happened that made you return to that bad habit?
  • How did you feel after indulging in that bad habit? 
  • How can you avoid something similar happening in the future? 

That’s a far more productive use of your time and mental energy, and will hopefully help you take steps forward—as opposed to spiraling into a cycle of self-loathing (and ultimately returning to that same habit for comfort). 

Goodbye Bad Habits, Hello Fresh Start

Turning the calendar page to a brand new year is a time when we all start thinking about a fresh start. But, rather than setting a traditional resolution for yourself, why not try kicking one of your worst habits to the curb?

We get it—it’s way easier said than done. However, it’s certainly not impossible. You just need to set yourself up for success. 

Start small by identifying tiny changes you can make to ditch that bad habit in pieces. Then, implement the other strategies we discussed here, and you’ll be well on your way to a habit change that actually sticks.

And the best news? You’re bound to be more successful than those who set resolutions. Those are said to have a failure rate of about 80%. 


This article is part of our series on change: why do we care so much about it, what do we get wrong about it, and is it really as great as we make it sound?

In our series, we’ve chronicled personal change, change in the workplace, and a handful of experiments on changing behaviours. In so doing, we hope to elucidate why we care so much about change.

Resolution-setting is a way to articulate values, and going through a process to confirm and publicly share them could be more helpful than actually making progress on them. 

New year, same you. And yet…there is something you want to change, right? This week we’re tackling change. Why do we place so much hope in the concept of change? What are the psychological components that spur or prevent it? What do we get wrong about it? Is change really as great as we make often make it sound?

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Coming Friday, Jan 10th. 

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