How to break bad habits – 7 simple and proven strategies

Chances are you at some point in your life have tried to break a bad habit but failed. Maybe you failed because you had too much going on. Or maybe because you didn’t have the right tools to succeed. However, how you failed doesn’t matter much, because next time, you’ll be better prepared.

Below we’ll have a look at what bad habits are and the easy-to-use tools that you can use to break them.

A infographic that shows what bad habits are and how you can break them
7 simple and proven strategies to break bad habits

What is a (bad) habit?

A habit is an automatic behavior performed repeatedly. They are the driving force behind our daily routines. According to studies, habits control 40% of everything we do. All habits have short-term benefits, otherwise, we wouldn’t do them. Good habits also have long-term benefits. The bad ones don’t.

Bad habits might feel good now but can keep you from reaching your ambitions and dreams. They can keep you from becoming the person you would like to become.

We all have bad habits. There’s no escaping it. Getting rid of all bad habits is not possible. The goal isn’t to get rid of them all but to eliminate those that have the most impact on your life.

Related: The worst habits for your wellbeing

Examples of different kinds of unhealthy habits

I could mention an endless number of bad habits here. Instead of creating a long list, we’ll focus on small and big bad habits.

Small bad habits

Small bad habits are the most common. The negative impact of the behavior isn’t significant, and they’re easier to break.

These habits can, over time, develop and grow in their influence. Often, these will slowly disappear as you get rid of big habits. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on- or be aware of them. These habits can include:

  • Snoozing 5 minutes
  • Using your phone first thing in the morning
  • Using your phone before bedtime
  • Leaving the trash in front of the door instead of taking it down straight away
  • Skipping the last exercise of your workout

These habits are not a big problem in isolation. But if ignored, they might become one. Stay aware of them and, if possible, work on them.

Big bad habits

Big bad habits (Bad keystone habits) are rarer than the smaller ones. Yet you most likely have some. These habits have more influence and can create ripples throughout your life. These ripples will create other, new unhealthy behaviors in their wake. Getting rid of these behaviors should have your primary focus. Eliminating one of these will cause a significant positive impact on your life. These habits can include:

  • Procrastinating
  • Eating out every night
  • Smoking
  • Hours on Social media
  • Being inactive (Lazy)

Notice that these habits are just more serious versions of the small habits. Often, they are created when you lose control of one.

Related: Find your “hidden” bad habits

How to break a bad habit

We often struggle when it comes to breaking bad habits. Some might think it’s because they’re weak or just don’t want it enough. That’s rarely the case. The most common reason people fail is that they think it’s possible through willpower alone. It isn’t.

Below is four scientifically backed approaches that you can use when trying to eliminate a bad habit. You can use one or two, but the optimal would be to use all four. 

Related: How long does it take to break a habit?

Make new habits in its place

It’s almost impossible to just get rid of a bad habit. Instead, you have to find a new behavior to take its place. However, it isn’t as simple as just doing something else. The new behavior has to fulfill the same needs as the old habit. Often, you won’t be aware of which need is being filled at first.

Using this approach will require a period of trial and error. A period where you will react to the cue and try to create the same reward. However, with different behavior. While this approach might take a while, it’ll be worth your effort.

Let’s have a look at an example.

Every night after dinner, you walk to the supermarket to buy a donut. You eat it in a park on your way home. Let’s have a look at how the process of finding a substitute behavior for this habit could look.

Day 1.

Your first thought is that it’s a calming walk that you crave. You take a walk as the cravings begin. When you come back, you don’t feel satisfied. You now know that the walk alone isn’t what you crave.

Day 2.

The second night you wonder if the small conversation you have with the cashier is what you crave. You call a friend, but after talking with him, you still crave the donut. This wasn’t it.

Day 3.

Maybe you simply want a small snack after dinner. You try to eat an apple, and as you finish, the craving for the donut is gone. Now you know that it’s the snack you crave. You can begin to eat an apple instead of a donut when the craving arrives.

Sometimes you find the substitute behavior on the first try, sometimes on the 10th. Sometimes it’s a combination of multiple behaviors, and sometimes, it’s just one. Try different things and combinations, take notes, and most importantly, don’t give up.

An infographic that shows the process of finding a new habit to replace the habit
Create a new habit, to break a bad habit

Related: How to build good habits

Identify the cue and limit the exposure

The cue is what triggers the craving. It’s what starts the habit loop. A cue can be anything from a physical object to a certain time of the day. With this approach, you’ll identify the trigger and try to limit the exposure.

If you drink or smoke when you’re with certain people, you can try to limit the time you spend with them.

If you tend to spend hours on social media when you should be doing something else, you can leave your phone in another room, turn it off or delete the most time-consuming apps. If you get distracted by notifications, you can turn them off.

If the trigger is possible to avoid and you can identify it, this approach will be an effective way to lose bad habits.

Make the habit difficult

You won’t do the behavior if it requires more physical or mental strain than it will give pleasure or satisfaction. Therefore, making the behavior more difficult is a great way to break bad habits.

If you want to eliminate or cut down on snacking in the evening, you can make sure you never have snacks at home. Chances are that you won’t crave snacks enough to get up and go to the shop to buy some. When you do buy snacks, never buy them in bulk. Only buy what you need.

If you have problems with spending too much time on social media, you can delete the apps from the home screen. You have to search for the specific app you want to use. You can even set a code or time limits to create more obstacles.

The bigger a habit is, the more difficult you have to make it. This approach works best on smaller bad habits.

Start small and be patient

If you expect yourself to make big changes from day to day, you’ll be disappointed. As with anything else, eliminating bad habits takes time. Expecting big things too fast can leave you disappointed and unmotivated. You may feel like you “failed” and give up on the whole thing.

Focus on one or two habits at a time. See every successful day as a victory. Know that the cravings can get intense, but with time this too shall pass. Start small, and be patient with yourself and the process. Use the techniques mentioned above and slowly but surely, you’ll begin to improve. You’ll be happy that you gave yourself time.

Related: How to change habits with the 2-day rule

Tips to break bad habits easier

Use new behaviors to satisfy your needs and limit the exposure to cues. Making the habit difficult and starting small is the four key strategies to break bad habits. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t combine them with other strategies.

Below are three effective tips to make breaking bad habits easier.

Use a habit tracker

A habit tracker is, as the name suggests, a way of keeping track of your ongoing habits. You’ll note every day that you refrain from a bad habit. By tracking behaviors and creating a streak, you create small wins. As the streak grows, the feeling of success will too. You become more motivated and believe that change is possible. Getting rid of the bad habit becomes easier, and your self-esteem will grow.

There’s no wrong way of tracking your habits. It all comes down to your preferences and routines.

Create small milestones and reward yourself

When we try to change, we often focus on the long-term goal. Having an overall objective is fine. However, it can remove motivation if not backed up by smaller goals. The smaller goals you can celebrate, the more small wins you can accumulate. As you accumulate these small wins, making positive change becomes easier.

Related: Reward yourself to create better habits

Prepare for setbacks

Nothing in life is straightforward. Getting rid of bad habits won’t be either. Setbacks and relapses are common. It happens to all of us. The fact that you fail one day won’t matter much. How you respond to it will.

Don’t beat yourself up but see this as an opportunity to learn. Make some notes about why you failed and what you can do to avoid this in the future. Try to get back the next day and don’t miss two days in a row.

Sum up

Around 40% of all behavior is done because of habits. Habits shape us as people. Having too many bad habits is a sure way to avoid becoming who you want to be.

Bad habits can be broken by creating new behaviors in their place, limiting exposure to the cue, making the habit difficult, and not working on more than one or two habits at once.

You can make it easier to break bad habits by using a habit tracker, creating and celebrating many small milestones, and being ready for setbacks.

What to read about next:

Habits- A simple guide to self-improvement with better habits

The Habit Scorecard – How to find your hidden bad habits

Habit tracking – How to easily make good habits stick