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How to Break a Bad Habit (And Replace It With a Good One)

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Bad habits interrupt your life and prevent you from accomplishing your goals. They jeopardize your health -- both mentally and physically. And they waste your time and energy.

So why do we still do them? And most importantly, is there anything you can do about it?

I've previously written about the science of how habits start, so now let's focus on the practice of making changes in the real world. How can you delete your bad behaviors and stick to good ones instead?

I certainly don't have all of the answers, but keep reading and I'll share what I've learned about how to break a bad habit.

You don't eliminate a bad habit, you replace it.

Most of your bad habits are caused by two things... stress and boredom.

Everything from biting your nails to overspending on a shopping spree to drinking every weekend to wasting time on the Internet can be a simple response to stress and boredom.

But that doesn't mean that bad habits are useless.

Bad habits address certain needs in your life and for that reason, you need to replace them with habits that satisfy that same need.

For example, if you smoke when you get stressed, then it's a bad plan to "just stop smoking" when that happens. Instead, you should come up with a different way to deal with stress and insert that new behavior instead of having a cigarette.

If you waste time by turning on the TV whenever you feel bored, then you need to develop a new habit to address your boredom.

If you expect yourself to simply cut out bad habits without replacing them, then you'll have certain needs that will be unmet and it's going to be hard to stick to a routine of "just don't do it" for very long.

How to break a bad habit

Here are some additional ideas for breaking your bad habits and thinking about the process in a new way.

Choose a substitute for your bad habit. You need to have a plan ahead of time for how you will respond when you face the stress or boredom that prompts your bad habit.

What are you going to do when you get the urge to smoke? (Example: breathing exercises instead.)

What are you going to do when Facebook is calling to you to procrastinate? (Example: Write one sentence for work.) Whatever it is and whatever you're dealing with, you need to have a plan for what you will do instead of your bad habit.

Cut out as many triggers as possible. If you smoke when you drink, then don't go to the bar. If you eat cookies when they are in the house, then throw them all away. If the first thing you do when you sit on the couch is pick up the TV remote, then hide the remote in a closet in a different room. Make it easier on yourself to break bad habits by avoiding the things that cause them.

Right now, your environment makes your bad habit easier and good habits harder. Change your environment and you can change the outcome.

Join forces with somebody. How often do you try to diet in private? Or maybe you "quit smoking" but you kept it to yourself? (That way no one will see you fail, right?)

Instead, pair up with someone and quit together. The two of you can hold each other accountable and celebrate your victories together. Knowing that someone else expects you to be better is a powerful motivator.

Surround yourself with people who live the way you want to live. You don't need to ditch your old friends, but don't underestimate the power of finding some new ones. If you don't know where to start, then join a Superhuman Meetup.

Visualize yourself succeeding. See yourself throwing away the cigarettes or buying healthy food or waking up early. Whatever the bad habit is that you are looking to break, visualize yourself crushing it, smiling, and enjoying your success. See yourself building a new identity.

You don't need to be someone else, you just need to return to the old you. So often we think that to break our bad habits, we need to become an entirely new person. The truth is that you already have it in you to be someone without your bad habits. In fact, it's very unlikely that you had these bad habits all of your life. You don't need to quit smoking, you just need to return to being a non-smoker. You don't need to transform into a healthy person, you just need to return to being healthy. Even if it was years ago, you have already lived without this bad habit, which means you can most definitely do it again.

Use the word "but" to overcome negative self-talk. One thing about battling bad habits is that it's easy to judge yourself for not acting better. Every time you slip up or make a mistake, it's easy to tell yourself how much you suck.

Whenever that happens, finish the sentence with "but"...

  • "I'm fat and out of shape, but I could be in shape a few months from now."
  • "I'm stupid and nobody respects me, but I'm working to develop a valuable skill."
  • "I'm a failure, but everybody fails sometimes."

Plan for failure. We all slip up every now and then.

As Steve Kamb says, "When you screw up, skip a workout, eat bad foods, or sleep in, it doesn't make you a bad person. It makes you human. Welcome to the club."

So rather than beating yourself up over a mistake, plan for it. We all get off track, what separates top performers from everyone else is that they get back on track very quickly. For a handful of strategies that can help you bounce back when you make a mistake, read this article.

Where to go from here

Breaking bad habits takes time and effort, but mostly it takes perseverance. Most people who end up breaking their bad habits try and fail multiple times before they make it work. You might not have success right away, but that doesn't mean you can't have it at all.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares strategies that make it easier to live a healthy life - both mentally and physically. For fresh ideas on how to boost your productivity, improve your health, and master your habits, join his free newsletter.

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