From biting our nails to eating junk food, we all have bad habits. Some of us have figured out how to break these bad habits, while others continue to carry out harmful habits in our daily lives.
Bad habits drain the energy from our lives and prevent us from achieving our goals. The most dangerous thing about bad habits is that most of us aren’t aware that we have them in the first place.
We’ve talked previously about how to design productive morning routines and how to make it stick when you learn something new, so in this article we’re going to share how to break bad habits and replace them with good ones.
First, let’s discover how bad habits begin.
How Bad Habits Start
No matter what habit we’re forming — good or bad — it starts with a habit loop. The loop is a three-part process that starts with the “cue,” which tells our brain to go into automatic mode and let the behavior unfold.
Then there’s the “routine,” which is the behavior itself. The last part of the process is the “reward,” which is what will help your brain remember the “habit loop” in the future.
When you repeat the habit loop enough times, your brain requires less and less energy to perform the same activity again. As the behavior starts to become automatic, your brain can almost shut down while performing the action. This is a real advantage because it means that you can devote all of your energy towards to something else, whether that’s learning a new skill or building a new habit.
The bad news is that this can be a double-edged sword. Since the habit loop can be applied for bad habits as well as good habits, you can find yourself carrying out bad habits without even realizing it.
According to human behavior expert James Clear, most bad habits are caused by two things: stress and boredom.
Like solving any problem, if we can get to the root of what’s causing our stress and boredom, then we can reduce the likelihood of forming another bad habit. It could also be the case that your bad habits are actually caused by deeper issues that you’ve experienced in your life.
Ask yourself: are there limiting beliefs or fears that are holding you back or causing you hold onto something that is harming you?
For example, opening up social media or your email inbox in the morning may be a bad habit you have. It’s hurting your productivity, focus, and ability to get things done. But the deeper cause of this could be rooted from not being as connected with the people important in your life.
The point here is, instead of cutting out a bad habit completely (i.e. quitting social media), the more realistic and effective thing to do is to replace it with a positive habit (i.e. calling your best friend or family member once a day to feel more connected).
How To Break Bad Habits
Let’s dig deeper into how to break bad habits. Before you move on to the next section, try to come up with one bad habit that you’re trying to eliminate in your life. This leads us to our first point:
Become Hyper-Aware Of Your Bad Habit
The natural thing to do is ignore our bad habit behaviors and hope they will vanish eventually. But according to James Claiborn, a psychologist and co-author of The Habit Change Workbook: How To Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones, the opposite is true. We should increase our awareness of these bad behaviors.
“One of the things I’m likely to suggest is some sort of record keeping — it may take the form of making a checklist to find out how often you’re doing things and under what circumstances you’re doing them,” he said. “We need to understand the behavior before we can change it effectively.”
“What gets measured, gets improved.” — Robin Sharma
Just like you would measure and track your progress at the gym to improve your results, you should do the same to improve your habits.
Get Rid Of The Bad Triggers
Triggers (or cues) are what start the habit loops in the first place. In order to eliminate a bad habit, we need get rid of the triggers causing them.
If you want to stop drinking, then don’t go to the bar. If you want to stop eating junk food, then throw it all out. If you want to stop going on social media, download a web blocker app like Facebook News feed Eradicator (plus you’ll get some awesome quotes with it).
Relying on our human willpower can only take us so far. If your environment is making it harder for you to break your bad habits, it only makes sense to change your environment.
“The more you manage your environment, the more likely you are to succeed.” — Art Markman, professor of psychology at University of Texas
Replace Your Bad Habit With A Positive Habit
Eliminating a bad habit alone is not enough. You must take steps to replace it with a positive habit.
Since stress and boredom are the two leading causes of how a bad habit forms, it’s natural for our brain to crave the bad habit again if we have nothing else to do.
We need to plan ahead of time what we will do to substitute the bad habit that will instead serve us.
Instead of going back to the bar, we can pick up a new skill to fill the time, like re-learning a language. After throwing out our junk food, we can take healthy cooking classes or sign up for a gym membership. Instead of going on social media, we can take read more books, take language classes, etc.
Find An Accountability Partner/Coach
According to our Ultimate Guide to Learning Anything Faster, there are 5 main reasons why we quit anything:
1. You run out of time (and quit)
2. You run out of money (and quit)
3. You get scared (and quit)
4. You’re not serious about it (and quit)
5. You lose interest (and quit)
By understanding these reasons before we try to break a bad habit, we can prepare ourselves for the moment when they inevitably happen. More importantly, we can significantly increase the chances of success without giving up by finding someone to keep us accountable.
Depending on what bad habit you want to break, it may require a professional (i.e. personal trainer, therapist, etc.), or it could just be a close friend who’s there to keep you aligned.
Realize You’re Only Human
We can always hope that you’ll have a perfect record, but it’s more likely that you’ll slip here and there. That’s 100% okay. If you skip a workout, wake up late, indulge your sugar cravings, or miss a language lesson, it’s not the end of the world. It makes you human.
Instead of beating yourself up for it, forgive yourself. We all make mistakes, even some of the greatest athletes and world-class leaders slip up once in awhile. The important thing is that you get back up and move on. Figure out what made you slip back into the bad habit and plan for success next time.
That’s all there is to it.
To put this into action, here are some follow-up steps that we recommend you take:
- First, pick a bad habit that you want to break (self-awareness)
- Track how many times a day, a week, or a month, that you’re performing this bad habit (gathering data)
- Try to figure out what triggers the bad habit: a particular time of the day, who you’re with, where you are, etc. (analyzing the data)
- Select your good habit to replace your bad habit with (i.e. cut out social media and learn a language)
At the end of the day, learning how to break bad habits is only 10% of the equation. The other 90% comes from taking action and persevering through the difficult struggles that will inevitably come.
Most people who end up breaking their bad habits have failed multiple times before they made it work. The most important part is that they never gave up. Remember that you may not have immediate success, but if you can forgive yourself quickly and get back up, you’ll figure out how to break bad habits in no time.
The good news is that once you discover how to break one bad habit, you can break all the other bad habits in your life as well.