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Habit, Productivity

How to Break a Bad Habit Fast

Written by Ben Willmott
Productivity and Project Management blogger for at work and at home
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Learning how to break bad habits can be daunting as habits are often described with negative connotations:

  • “I’ve got so many bad habits.”
  • “I’ve picked up this bad habit of always doing X.”
  • “I’ve noticed you have a habit of always doing Y.”

You rarely hear someone saying:

  • “I’ve got a good habit that lets me do X.”
  • “I love that habit you have of always doing Y.”

All of the habits that have a positive impact on our lives tend to go unnoticed, which isn’t surprising since they often don’t present us with problems. As such, the negative ones we feel naturally gravitated to since they are more on our minds than ever before.

What You Must Know About How to Break a Bad Habit

The trick to breaking bad habits is to find an approach that works for you and the particular habit – beyond going cold turkey. Not all habits are created equally, and they can’t all be broken in the same way. That said, it is possible to be getting over bad habits quickly when the right method is used.

A habit is a set of recurring tendencies that are often hard to give up and are usually performed subconsciously. It’s essential to understand what a habit is before you start to try and break or change one. Luckily it’s straightforward, which helps when you need to recognize when you’re about to go into the habit loop.[1]

First, there is a trigger. This could be a location, a specific time of day, behaviour patterns of those around you, or just the emotional state you’re in.


The trigger starts a routine, a routine you may not even know you’re following.

Finally, you get the reward or the result. The reward isn’t always the best word to use, certainly with negative habits, but this is what keeps you coming back to the habit over and over again.

Before you learn how to break a bad habit, you should start by noting your triggers, routines, and rewards for each habit. Once you know these three steps for each habit, you will have started to build a defense for fighting bad habits as you’ll recognise where you are in the habit loop.

Why Is It So Hard to Break a Habit?

Habits are formed much faster than you can imagine. Broadly speaking, we are hardwired to respond to stimuli that expect something to happen followed by an action.

For example, if you visit a bar near your place of work every Friday, your brain will learn about this and start sending signals for you to go there. It might start off on only Fridays, but eventually, you’ll go there during other days of the week. You might even go there alone. Next thing you know, you find yourself with a drinking problem.

This means a lot of willpower needs to go into breaking bad habits. However, other aspects tell us why habits are hard to break. Those being the following:

1. Lack of Awareness or Acceptance

Many don’t consider some of their habits all that bad in certain cases. That or they may be aware of certain habits causing problems but refuse to see it as an issue.

Bad habits still feel good. Even though going to a coffee shop every single day and spending thousands per year on coffee can hurt us financially, it still feels good to go in there and get a nice warm brew from your favourite place. Beyond that, even things like smoking and drinking alcohol can still make us feel good, even if the person though these habits are bad.


2. Lack of Motivation

Some will understand a habit is bad for them, and they need to change it, but they’ll fall into a negative cycle when they try to stop. Kicking a bad habit normally comes with making some lifestyle changes. However, not everyone is willing to make that leap or be fully committed to that. As a result, they relapse.

In some extremes, people sense that breaking a bad habit forces them to recreate themselves. This is overwhelming in most cases, and it will end in failure in most cases.

3. Mental Health Issues

Conditions like depression and ADD can make it difficult for people to deal with these issues. Furthermore, many people’s understanding of these mental illnesses is lacking. You might be suffering from depression or ADD and not even know it.

Stress works in all kinds of ways, and it can contribute to some bad habits. For some people, bad habits are needed to cope with everyday life and stresses. We also deal with upward comparisons.

How to Break Bad Habits Quickly

When you’re ready to learn how to stop bad habits, the following tips can help.

1. Replace a Habit With a New One

Part of the habit is the routine that follows the initial trigger, so to reduce the impact of stopping a habitual behavior, you can replace it with another habit that has a more positive and healthy impact on your life.

Smoking is one of the most common habits people are looking to stop, and a great example to use for this approach.


There are numerous things you could swap out for when you’re tempted to smoke. Some examples are:

  1. Chew a piece of gum
  2. Eat some fruit
  3. Get a drink
  4. Go for a walk
  5. Play with something in your hands

It depends on your situation, but for any habit replacement, the key is to distract yourself long enough that the temptation to perform the negative habit passes.

Dopamine plays a huge role in whether a habit sticks or breaks. According to research by the National Institutes of Health, “enjoyable
behaviors can prompt your brain to release a chemical called dopamine. If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more.” [2]

2. Dig Into the True Sources

Habit replacement is the key, of course, but it’s not as simple as replacing the habit, and you’re all done. There are many nuances on how to control bad habits and overcome them. One of them being motivation.

As mentioned above, some people can’t find the motivation to change, even in situations where they know the habit is bad. The simple desire to change isn’t going to cut it. For example, wanting to spend more time exercising and getting fit requires you to leave the house and move even on days you don’t want to get out.


Dig deeper. Think about what exercise is going to do for you on a personal level. Think about who else is going to benefit from you getting fitter. People who exercise every day tend to have better mental health and emotional well-being, which helps personal relationships. [3] Think about what’s going to change in your life if you take this commitment seriously.

3. Look For Your Fears And Excuses

Not long after you show a bit of progress, we often run into two other deterrents: fears and excuses.

These are notable foes as our fears shake us, and we are all masters of excuses and can justify our way out of anything. They create stories that we eventually believe when they’re said enough times.

  • “Smoking relieves my stress.”
  • “Eating makes me feel good, even when I’m already stuffed.”
  • “Drinking a few glasses of wine every night is the only way I can deal with my stress.”

Those stories are powerful, and changing them to something else can be difficult to do. We also use those stories for things we think we can’t do. Understanding the stories that we tell ourselves uncovers our fears and excuses, and given time, you can train yourself to change those stories around.


4. Celebrate Small Successes

Breaking a habit can take time. It can depend on how many times per day or week you repeat the habit you want to break or how ingrained it is into your lifestyle.

Whether you are breaking a habit in 21 days or 21 weeks, you need to celebrate every day where you haven’t repeated the habit. If you can only manage two days before cracking, then celebrate those two days. Don’t expect to break every habit immediately. It takes time.

Keep in mind, that researchers from the University College London surveyed over 96 people over three months, and found that new habits took an average of 66 days to stick.[4]

5. Transform Your Habit Loop

Even with all these strategies in place, you can still be stuck on how to stop a bad habit permanently. Another alternative method is to pay attention to your habit loop and learn to break it that way.

A habit loop is broken into three parts:

  • The cue, or trigger: signals the brain to start the habit.
  • The routine: actual action that’s inspired by the cue.
  • The reward: outcome you get from the action.

Because there are three points, you can learn how to quit bad habits in three fashions from this. Those are:

  • Recognize your cues: Things like stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, celebrations, or other such moods could be what starts the habit. Every habit we get into begins with a trigger or emotions of some kind.
  • Challenge the routine: Make it tougher to perform the routine or work to replace it. Have a bad habit of watching too much TV? Hide the remote. Spend too much time on your phone? Get it off your desk or out of the room you’re in. In the case of replacing it, you can look at another activity to break up the sequence that gives you the same relief to those emotions from the cues above.
  • Mix up the reward: One way to look at bad habits is to make the reward unsatisfying. For example, if you eat a lot of junk food and want to eat healthy, rely on the deep feelings of junk food and how they make you feel sad or not well. Another angle is looking at what other rewards can make you feel the same way you’re feeling from before. For example, if you drink a lot of soda, replace it with water and focus on how refreshing it is compared to soda.

6. Use Digital Tools to Your Advantage

Digital or just general cell phone use is one well-known habit that many of us are trying to cut down on.

Typically, it’s scrolling through social media without noticing how long we’ve been doing it, constantly getting distracted by notifications, or just picking up our cell phone to check it as a distraction from work or life in general.

However, digital tools can be used to help us break a habit, either through reminders to keep us on track or rewards when we’re changing or creating a new positive habit. Keeping track of a newly formed habit in the form of a “streak” is a great way to keep you focused and motivated.

There are plenty of streak apps that let you create a streak, set reminders, and receive mini visual rewards when you hit certain milestones.

Rather than cutting out social media completely, change the reward of a particular habit to a set period to look at your social networks. By using social media on your terms rather than the other way around, it can become a positive addition to your life.


7. Find a Habit-Crushing Partner

Breaking habits is hard, but finding support from a friend or partner can be incredibly helpful in keeping you focused on repeating your new habit or stopping you from repeating an old one.

Look at when your triggers typically happen and find a partner who will most likely be with you when these triggers occur. Have an open and honest discussion with them on what habit you’re trying to crush and explain how they can help.

Help from a partner could come in the following forms:

  1. Simply asking how you are doing with stopping your habit — this keeps the habit in the forefront, so you don’t relapse.
  2. Helping you remove the triggers from your shared environment, so the temptations are reduced.
  3. Sharing the new reward with you if you’re changing a habit rather than removing it.
  4. Finding a habit your both want to stop and doing it together.

8. Stack Your Habits

Stacking habits is a quick win when it comes to creating new positive habits.

We have thousands of tiny habits we do every day without even realizing it. This could be actions involved in brushing your teeth, the steps of making a cup of coffee when you first get up, putting the radio on when you go in the kitchen, etc.

For example, if your goal is to learn 10 minutes of French each day, you do this after you’ve made your coffee each morning. If your goal is to practice visualization daily, you spend 3 minutes doing so when your alarm goes off each morning.

It’s that simple: link old habits to new ones.

9. Visualize New Habits

Visualization can help with breaking habits. However, the important part isn’t visualizing the outcome but visualizing the process or the routines you need to create to achieve it.

A study from UCLA found this by comparing students who visualized the process necessary to achieve their goal versus visualizing the actual achievement of the goal. They found that students who did the former enhanced their studying techniques and improved grades.[5]


Practicing visualization also helps to reduce anxiety around breaking a habit. In some cases, the habit you’re trying to break might cause you to stress simply by thinking about it. Visualizing a positive routine helps with this, even if you do it for only 2-3 minutes daily.

10. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment and being aware of your thoughts and can, therefore, be a useful tool when learning how to break a bad habit.

By practicing mindfulness and becoming more aware of your triggers, you will increase the likelihood of success in breaking the habit.

Mindfulness doesn’t mean you fight or block these thoughts. It simply allows you to engage with them more productively.

How to Break a Bad Habit Fast

How to Break a Bad Habit Fast

5 Action Steps
5 Actions
How to Break a Bad Habit Fast
Identify the Trigger: Triggers are what sets a routine to do something, which can eventually turn into a habit. While happy hour is nice once in a while, going to happy hour once a week can easily turn into two or three times a week.
How to Break a Bad Habit Fast
Get to the Root of It: Fears, excuses, lack of awareness, and acceptance all contribute to keeping bad habits. Get to the root of why you want to get rid of your habits and use that to motivate you. 
How to Break a Bad Habit Fast
Set Goals: While the 21-day rule is a well-known marker when breaking and sticking with habits, research shows that this does not apply to everyone. One research shows that 66 days was the sweet mark.
How to Break a Bad Habit Fast
Digital Tools: Utilize phone apps that can help you keep tabs on streaks and milestones that you have reached.
How to Break a Bad Habit Fast
Celebrate Small Wins: Celebrating progress is vital to breaking bad habits. Trying creating a reward system to help you look at bad habits differently.

The Bottom Line

Everyone is different, so try different approaches to breaking habits. If you fail, look at why, adapt, try again, and don’t forget to celebrate what you have done well.

Remember that the basics of changing a habit can include these five steps:

  1. Identify the habit you want to break or change.
  2. Discover what is triggering this habit.
  3. Identify the routine that follows the trigger.
  4. Define the reward you are getting for following the routine.
  5. Pick an element to change depending on whether you want to break or change the habit.

To break a bad habit, you need to replace something you do many times a day, and this can be a difficult but worthwhile process. By staying mindful of what does and doesn’t work for you, you can begin to create the lifestyle you have always wanted.

Featured photo credit: NeONBRAND via unsplash.com


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