How to Break Bad Habits

Elsa Lee

Elsa Lee

Man running up mountain

The Power of Habit

Habits define our lives. Brushing your teeth and tying your shoelaces are unconscious activities learned through repetition. Our days are filled with seemingly mundane activities that are really a series of habits. 

“Habits are an adaptive feature of how the brain works,” says Russell Poldrack, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. You learn habits by repeating activities over and over with minimal energy or effort.

Building good habits (such as personal hygiene and exercise) are beneficial. Bad habits—gorging junk food and aimlessly scrolling through social media to pass time—can significantly harm us.

Everyone hopes to break bad habits. Actually doing so is never simple.

For example, roughly 70% of smokers say they would like to quit. Drug and alcohol abusers struggle to give up addictions that destroy their health and ruin relationships. Many of us carry excess weight that we'd shed if we only ate healthier or exercised more.

So why don’t we do it?

The Pleasure Principle

Habits often develop when pleasurable events trigger the brain’s “reward” centers. Pleasure-based habits are much harder to break because enjoyable behaviors prompt your brain to release dopamine, which regulates movement, emotion, motivation...and pleasure.

When you try to stop a dopamine-producing action, your craving only seems stronger. How then do we break a bad habit?

Once you have chosen a habit to break, identify the three Rs:

  • Reminder: What trigger initiates the behavior?
  • Routine: What behavior or action do you take?
  • Reward: How do you benefit from the behavior or action?

Each step verifies and strengthens a behavior loop that repeats itself—unless the cycle is broken.

For example, if you drink while watching TV, this is your loop:

  • Reminder: A TV show starts at 8 pm.
  • Routine: You grab a beer from the fridge before sitting down to watch.
  • Reward: You drink beer the show is on.

The goal is to create a new habit. 

Man in bed on phone

4 Steps to Better Habits

Know your triggers

You can break habitual loops if you know the trigger that starts the cycle. Avoid the context where you tend to engage in the behavior. Changing your environment or routine can help. In the TV example, moving your beer to a harder-to-access space in the fridge might remind you to break the habit, as can changing the time you watch TV.

Replace a bad habit with a good one

Instead of trying to completely stop a behavior, start doing something else. A 2010 study published in Psychological Science found that smokers who tried to restrain their thoughts about smoking wound up thinking about it even more. We're action-oriented animals. Instead of smoking, chew gum. If you feel the urge to pick up your phone, play with a pen or tap your fingers to music instead. Pick an activity that provides an equal amount of pleasure to ensure that it "sticks." 

Set better goals for yourself

Integrate breaking your bad habit with an intrinsically-motivated goal. Instead of focusing on “not grabbing dessert after dinner,” set a larger goal that means more, such as “I will eat healthier by incorporating more fruits and vegetables into my diet.” This will make it easier to munch on celery instead of a cookie while not directly mulling over the habit you're trying to break.

Remember why you started

Keep the motivation behind breaking habits in mind. What are the direct results of breaking a bad habit? How will better habits impact your life? Cause and effect statements help you remember your motivation.

If I stop spending two hours a day on social media, I'll have more time to read or learn a skill.

Breaking a bad habit is never easy, but it's always possible. The road map above provides an outline for accomplishing this goal.