The Best Ways to Break Bad Habits


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As much as some people hate to admit it, humans are not perfect. We know what we should do—like 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 like 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 — like 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.”

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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.

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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 like 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 out of 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.

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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.

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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.

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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, like 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 like a hater.

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This story was originally published on 3/28/15 and was updated on 10/8/19 to provide more thorough and current information.