THE BLOG
08/31/2016 06:04 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2017

4 Science-Backed Techniques to Help You Break a Bad Habit

We all have bad habits, whether we like to admit it or not. Maybe it's something simple, like biting your fingernails, but maybe it's something more dangerous, like driving without a seatbelt or never proofreading the emails you send out. In any case, your bad habits are putting your life, your health, your career, or your relationships in jeopardy. You know they're there, and you want to get rid of them--but you also know from experience that it's just not that easy.

Fortunately, there are some strategies that can make it easier.

Why Breaking Bad Habits Is Hard

First, let's take a look at why breaking bad habits is hard in the first place. Habits are, hypothetically, a good thing. They're our mind's way of putting our bodies on autopilot, enabling us to go about a specific routine or a specific task without dedicating the mental or physical resources to navigate that routine as if it were new. From an evolutionary perspective this is advantageous; if we're able to repeat an action under similar circumstances (i.e., eating breakfast at the same time every morning), this action is considered "safe," and it's worth repeating. It's one problem in your life that's solved, and you no longer have to think about it. It's why hitting the "snooze" alarm feels so automatic, and why the drive home from work is something you often forget about.

Unfortunately, this habituation isn't always a positive development, especially in the modern world, where the threats faced by our long-ago ancestors of predation, starvation, and poisoning aren't nearly as common. But because habituation is evolutionarily hard-wired into our brains, it can be hard to break free from something that's already ingrained in our heads as "safe" or "worth repeating."

4 Techniques That May Help You Break Free

Any one of these four techniques, or some combination of them, could help you wrestle free of your bad habits:

1. Substitution.

The first method is substitution. Rather than focusing on trying to break your bad habit, this method involves gradually replacing it with a new, good habit. For example, let's say you have a smoking habit and you're trying to cut it out. Rather than trying to "quit smoking," start a habit of taking something up that's more positive, such as jogging around the block or eating raw vegetables. When you get a craving to engage in the bad habit, engage in the good habit instead--every once in a while at first, but gradually expanding to become more frequent. Because the bad habit is so ingrained, it's often easier to replace it with something than to get rid of it altogether.

2. Cold Turkey.

Most people's instinct is to phase out a bad habit gradually, but there's some scientific research to support that the cold turkey method can work even better. Why? Because engaging in your bad habit, even in a limited capacity, reinforces some of the neural structures that made it a bad habit to begin with. So quitting cold turkey, all at once, might be exceptionally hard when you first start out, but it could lead you to a faster elimination of the habit.

3. Consistency.

There's a brilliant productivity strategy sometimes referred to as the "Seinfeld method" of productivity, due to its popularization by Jerry Seinfeld. The goal of this method is to avoid "breaking the chain," by engaging in a certain behavior or taking a certain action every day, without fail. This level of consistency helps you remain committed, but it has one obvious fault point; if you break the chain, you'll have to start all over again. Try either breaking your bad habit or substituting a new one by taking this one-day-at-a-time approach.

4. Refocus.

Bad habits consume us because they steer us, almost automatically, in the direction of the undesired behavior. Rather than fighting against this autopilot-like steering mechanism, it can be advantageous to simply refocus its direction. In the metaphorical sense, this could mean steering slightly further to the left than usual. But in a practical sense, it could mean restructuring your morning routine to become more efficient--such as creating a task list instead of merely freaking out about how much work you have on your plate.

There's No Single Best Way to Break a Bad Habit

When I introduced these four techniques, I was careful how I defined them. They aren't techniques that "will break your bad habit;" instead they are techniques that "may help you" break a bad habit. That's because, despite all our scientific advancements and general understanding of how bad habits work, habits are still a deeply personal and subjective experience, and there's no single tactic or strategy that will work the same for everyone. Some people may find that all the above techniques work well; others may find that none of them do. Some may break their habit in a matter of days; others will take months.

If you're going to be successful in breaking your bad habits, you need to adopt the mindset that it isn't going to be easy, that it won't work the same for you as it does someone else, but that it's also completely possible to overcome. Stay committed, and don't be discouraged if the first strategy you try doesn't pan out; it takes a lot of work to get rid of a bad habit, no matter who you are.