All of us have habits. Some of them are good, such as brushing your teeth in the morning or hanging up your clothes at night (or at least, I hope those are part of your good habits). But practically everyone you can think of also has plenty of bad habits as well, and they can be tough to break. So tough in fact, that according to a study conducted back in 2009, bad habits took up to 254 days to break, and a minimum of 18 days to break when tested on a sample of 96 volunteers. To me those are some pretty surprising and frankly terrible results.
It’s my hope that this article can help people break their bad habits faster than 18 days, and certainly much faster than 254 days, by compiling tips and stories people have sent us on breaking bad habits. Here’s the question I sent out to people:
For people struggling to break a bad habit (smoking with coffee, eating late at night, cutting out sleep or anything else), what primary piece of advice can you share? Personal stories from people who managed to cut out a bad habit are welcome, along with of course input from therapists, psychologists and mental health experts.
The below is what we’ve received. To sum up some of the great comments people have sent us, the main piece of advice is replace the bad habit with a good habit. For example, if you always drink alcohol at the same time each time, you can listen to an engaging podcast at that time instead (see this comment), or if you’re used to smoking cigarettes, you could replace that with chewing nicotine gums (see this comment). I recommend thinking about what your bad habit is and considering what a close (but much healthier) replacement could be, preferably something that both doesn’t feel like a chore and is actually beneficial to you as well.
Here are some other suggestions people have made that I’ve summed up (many of these are in the form of personal stories) — just click the link next to each bullet point to go to the full comment:
- Know the triggers that cause your bad habits (link), and reflect on why you actually engage in the habit (link)
- Try habit stacking (link)
- Create barriers to make the habitual behavior more challenging to access (link)
- Meditate (link) (EDITORS NOTE: We are huge fans of meditation — see our community discussion on the benefits of meditation)
- Maintain a healthy sleep schedule (link)
- Go for a quick workout when you sense you’re about to slip into a bad habit (link)
- Dedicate some time to yourself every morning (link)
- Stay busy and on top of your organization (link)
- If your bad habit is procrastination and wasting time online, get a plugin to block your browser from accessing certain sites (link) (EDITORS NOTE: My personal favorite plugin for blocking websites is StayFocusd. Highly recommended)
- Have a higher purpose or reason (link)
- Reward yourself (link)
- See if you can join a community that supports you. There are many great online communities (link). Otherwise, a support system can come in the form of a friend, mentor, therapist or anyone else (link)
- Involve others to make yourself accountable (link)
My number one tip for breaking bad habits is to have a go-to good replacement habit.
For instance, at one point I noticed that I would have an alcoholic beverage every day at a certain time after work. It was so habitual, that I didn't really stop to think about whether or not I actually wanted the drink. It was just plain habit.
In an effort to cut down how much I drank each week, I decided that at that hour, when I got off work, my go-to good replacement habit would be to listen to a certain podcast that I enjoyed very much. Quite quickly, the podcast habit caught on and I started looking forward to the end of my day to listen to that.
By breaking the bad habit, I would go days and days without having a single drink which is exactly what I was trying to do.
--Biche Shuke, Chick About Town
Bad habits are often caused and maintained by triggers. Triggers are driven by unresolved emotions. For example, when you don't take the time to process the emotions of sadness this leads to smoking cigarettes. Each time you take a puff you could be managing (rather than processing sadness). If you want to kick a bad habit emotional processing is a must. I have outlined seven steps for emotional processing in my book. One of those steps is to learn how to visualize states of calm, peace, safety and love. Imagine in your minds eye images in nature places you would go to feel this state of mind. Each time you get triggered, notice how it feels in your body and then soften your gaze, breathe and visualize calm and ease (such as the ocean or meadow).
--Sherianna Boyle, sheriannaboyle.com
The #1 tip for breaking bad habits is called Habit Stacking, It's great for getting out of ruts. It works when you take something that you already do (preferably something that you enjoy doing) and link it to something that you are working on. The trick is to be consistent.
Suppose you want to break a harmful habit and you're totally devoted to doing something which is good for you. Stack them together in order to defeat the bad habit and to turn it into something that you're proud of. One example of this is that you sit so much at a computer for employment or social communication purposes that you're losing muscle tone. You're embarrassed to look lumpy and out of shape. A habit-stacked solution would be to run each day, even for a short jog, to perk up your blood flow plus muscle tone plus your ability to think clearly before you begin working at your job. To keep things fresh and to prevent boredom, alternate the jogging with aerobic exercises, bike rides, house work (it is strenuous when done correctly, and a great muscle toner!). Your focus will be clear for workday tasks and your conscience so clear that it won't disrupt your progress.
What if you realize that you can tidy up your home or office in minutes when company is on the way, but somehow you never clean out your bathroom sink for your own pleasure and sanitation needs? That can prove embarrassing when someone shows up unannounced. It also damages your sense of self respect as you realize, day after grungy day, that you don't treat yourself with the respect that you show to other people. A good habit stack would be to ask yourself What if somebody arrives by surprise? and to habitually sanitize the whole bathroom before you begin to settle down for the night. Precede dinner with a swept bathroom floor and emptied trash basket. Spray the sink and shower stall or tub area with a cleanser, and then eat your meal. Wash up the dishes and then scour out the tub or shower, wash the bathroom sink and floor, and make sure that everything is tidy. Now you can indulge in phone calls, family time, computer games or any desired activity with the relief that your home is clean enough for company. You're treating yourself well. Add to your success by making your bed before you leave the house. The activities are linked. Keep doing things that way. Those habits leave you feeling that things are in order and your mind can focus on other demands for the rest of the day.
Okay, now link, aka stack, a desired or necessary habit with other auto-pilot activities and watch how your smile grows to match your increasing sense of satisfaction. Keep doing that for a month or more and watch how much better you'll feel. You'll have a mental plus physical health-promoting habit and be able to function better at other activities, too. Your clothes will fit better, too.
--Yocheved Golani, e-counseling.com
I am a licensed clinical social worker with a private therapy practice in Austin, and I’ve worked with many of my clients on how to break various bad habits - from smoking, to compulsive social media checking, to boredom eating, and everything in between.
The best strategy to break a bad habit is to create barriers to make the habitual behavior more challenging to access. Habits are automatic behaviors that we engage in that provide some short term benefit but end up causing more harm in the long run. Our brains choose the path of least resistance, which often means resorting to automatic behaviors that cause more harm than good.
To break bad habits, we have to put in barriers that make it difficult to engage in that automatic behavior. These barriers make us less likely to fall into automatic patterns and give us space to consciously weigh the pros and cons of engaging in the habit. Some examples of barriers include deleting social media apps (or putting time limits on our phone), keeping cigarettes outside of the house, keeping food we tend to eat late at night out of the house.
Another way to break a bad habit is to increase mindfulness around that behavior. When we get curious about a behavior, we can increase mindfulness around what that behavior is doing for us and find other avenues to attain a similar benefit. Mindfulness can also come through external cues, like our screen time notifications or having a bedtime reminder put on our phone.
Finally, we can change habits by forming new associations. Our brains are highly associative. If we can change what our brain associates with that habit then we can form new habits. If I go for walks instead of eating at night, my brain will start to associate nighttime with walking instead of food. If I start doing deep breathing with my coffee instead of smoking, my brain will form that association.
--Grace Dowd, LCSW, gracedowdlcsw.com
When it comes to breaking bad habits my #1 tip for people is to really reflect and learn WHY they engage in the bad habit. For example, if they are trying to break the bad habit of eating late at night, they should reflect on what is happening before and after they eat. Usually when we are doing something like eating when we don't need to or smoking, we are covering up a negative feeling. If you can uncover the negative feeling, that would be a great first step in breaking the bad habit.
--Dr. Laura Dabney, psychotherapist, drldabney.com
The best tip for cutting out bad habits is meditating. Meditation is the practice of deep concentration and focus. People use it to destress and feel at peace. I'm currently going through a healing process with the guidance of my dating coach. One thing he told me was to meditation. After my first meditation with him I've felt more at peace than I ever did in my entire life and have began to practice more good habits.
--Marcos Martinez, Men Who Brunch
Find a crutch/replacement
I had been a long-term smoker. I have been smoking for the last 17 years. I started in my teens, and college was the time when I was a regular smoker (a pack a day). I tried quitting multiple times, tried various methods – cold turkey, yoga, mediation, self-hypnosis, reading Allen Carr’s books, finding an accountability partner, etc. However, none of them worked. I was super skeptical about nicotine gums at first. However, I still gave it a shot. Ultimately, I was able to convince my mind that this is what it needs. I have broken the habit and have been smoke-free for the last 2 years.
Finding a crutch has also worked for my late-night eating, and sugar as well. Instead of eating something, I have replaced it with green tea or warm water, and it has worked wonderfully. Sugar has been replaced with honey for the last 1 year.
Finding a crutch/replacement works especially well when you are quitting a habit.
--Vineet Jain, DivinioWorld
I have found that having a sleep schedule is really beneficial for breaking bad habits because it allows me to have a present and conscious mindset throughout my days. A common mistake to avoid, especially while working from home, is going to bed and waking up at different times everyday. When you don't have a set sleep schedule your body gets out of a rhythm, which leads to reduced quality of sleep throughout the night and the feeling of grogginess in the morning. As a result you are tired, unproductive, and inefficient throughout your work day, leaving a lot of room for falling into bad habits and poor choices.
--Yasser Elshair, OliveOil.com
Fitness is my #1 tip, always. It’s hard to have an unproductive day after a workout. Whenever I feel any sign of falling into bad habits, I stop whatever I'm doing and go for a quick workout. Even a 20 minute movement of your body will help to refocus and destress your mind leading to better and more conscious decisions.
--Jordan Smyth, Gleamin
When it comes to falling into bad habits, I notice my focus levels drop and I become more likely to make impulsive decisions when I work on one project or task for too long. The obvious solutions to this issue are; take a short vacation, change your work environment, or incorporate small breaks into your schedule. From my experience, I can work much harder on a project that is new, exciting, and challenging. I am not one who thrives in repetitive environments. Consistently having the opportunity to do something different and learn is highly rewarding for me and keeps me motivated and more present. From an employee standpoint, I would recommend asking to be included in new projects or task forces. Also, time blocking your schedule can help to keep yourself on track away from distractions. Making sure you are not overworking yourself by trying to keep up with different time zones if working with people from all over the world. I always stress the importance of rest and work-life balance to all of my employees.
--Jason Akatiff, Boundery
The number one way to maintain a clear and focused mind and break through bad habits is to dedicate time to myself every morning before jumping into the workday. This strategy helps to break up my days, helps to eliminate the feeling of repetitiveness, and gets rid of anxiety or stress from the previous day, increasing my likelihood to succeed by allowing me to start my day with a clear and focused mind. Waking up an hour earlier in the morning and setting aside time for physical exercise, followed by a 10/15 minute meditation, has been transformative for my productivity and organization abilities as well as my mental and physical health. I follow my workout and meditation with a healthy and nutritious breakfast. I like to enjoy the time I have to myself and be present while eating, resisting the urge to be on my phone or use any technology. I have been following this rule since the start of the pandemic and share it with everyone in my life. It is so simple and easy to implement yet so significant when it comes to productivity and staying away from bad habits.
--Ashwin Sokke, WOW Skin Science
My main way to break bad habits is to stay busy and on top of organization. To achieve ultimate organization, I like to break up my schedule by category. I time batch all of my meetings back to back to eliminate unnecessary distractions and breaks. Once I'm finished with my meetings, I move onto my tasks for the day. I try to spend a certain amount of time on each task every day. It's vital to keep pushing each project along instead of getting caught up on just one. Having a strong team around me that challenges me and keeps me going is inspiring. It helps to keep me on my toes, avoid cabin fever, and break up the day a bit. More importantly, remembering to remain positive, starting my day with some positive affirmations goes a long way.
--Brandon Monaghan, Miracle Brand
In my personal experience, this year I started my own online business which requires me to work on the computer a lot. But I'm also a sucker for getting distracted by YouTube. I'd constantly find myself typing y into the search bar, hitting enter without even thinking and voila! The YouTube homepage... my trigger to wasting the next hour watching videos.
To help break this habit I eliminated my trigger by downloading a free browser extension called Block Site. Now whenever I do my sneaky YouTube.com search when I should be working, I get redirected to a different page saying Nice Try.... Removing the trigger to my wasted hours has really helped me kick the bad habit and improved my productivity.
--Nathan Camilleri, Mainline Fishing
Breaking any bad habit is quite difficult. Whether it’s smoking, snacking or screen time, we all want to become a better version of ourselves. The problem I’ve found is that people often spend too much time trying to “stop” something rather then “replace” a negative with a positive. For instance, if every day on your way home from work you find yourself stopping at dunkin donuts grabbing a sugary French cruller, it might have nothing to do with will power and everything to do with a lack of your “after-work routine”. If you’ve already packed a bag of almonds for the ride home, the urge is much less manageable and your almonds become something as second nature as brushing your teeth…another routine.
--Kevin Mecchella, Upgrade My Rituals
My #1 tip for breaking bad habits is having a higher purpose or reason to do so. As an example, instead of trying to quit smoking because it is bad for your health, quit smoking because not doing so would hurt the health of your loved ones who are always around you. Many people are more motivated to help others than to help themselves, so understand your own motivations in order to spur yourself to action in breaking your bad habits.
--James Chong, Top Generator
My primary piece of advice would be to reward yourself every time you avoid repeating the bad habit.
Rewarding yourself is the most reliable and powerful motivation you can use.
Gradually, you keep looking forward to the next reward and your motivation soars to push you to break your bad habit.
--Clovis Chow, TimeOrganizeStudy
I quit drinking alcohol over three months ago. I found it much easier than expected and put some of my success down to online communities. Specifically, there’s a “stop drinking” group on Reddit. It has a hugely supportive ethos, and is somehow entirely free of trolls. It’s also extremely busy, which means there’s always something new to read.
Even though I barely think of alcohol now, I still log on for 15 minutes here and there. Seeing other people at both earlier and later stages of the journey, and hearing from people relapsing, is a huge motivator to keep going.
--Ben Taylor, tinylittlechanges.com
1. Find your driving power - What's a goal you have wanted to achieve?
For instance, if the bad habit you are trying to break is that you are easily angered in your marriage with your husband, think of a goal you both want to safeguard, it could be to rekindle the intimacy and love in the marriage - like when you were first in love again.
2. Visualize your potential worst consequence.
Using the same example, that you are trying to not easily get angry or upset with your husband, you can imagine the potential worst consequence of you continuing the same habit of easily getting triggered by what your husband says or does, regardless of whether he meant to hurt you or not. A potential consequence could be a really bad fight or argument that made both of you lash out all the past grudges towards each other, and you ended up believing that your marriage could not be saved any more.
3. Know your bad habit triggers, and avoid them.
Recall the recent times when you got triggered to get angry or upset at your husband. Where were you? What were you doing? What happened before that? What did your husband say or do that triggered you? What was your emotional state before that? Gather as many information as you can about your bad habit triggers and take practical actions to avoid the triggers, or be alert to recognize when any trigger goes off and exercise self-control to not yield into it.
--Stephanie Cristal, Faithful Salt Solutions
I used to be a social smoker, meaning that I really only ever smoked when I was out at the bar or the lake with a specific group of friends. When I wanted to kick that bad habit of smoking, the only thing that worked for me was cutting the triggers out of my life. At first, I thought that the bar and the lake were the triggers. When that didn't work, I tried eliminating alcohol, which was the other thing those two locations had in common. Turns out it wasn't the location or the alcohol that was the trigger - it was the people I was hanging out with in those two locations. When I severed those ties, I was finally able to kick the habit. Sometimes our bad habits are triggered by people who aren't always good for us, and they are the trigger that we have to cut out.
--Henley Griffin, MBA, Privacy Addicts
I have found that public approbation is an effective weapon - not name and shame exactly, but something similar.
Declare to close friends/family/colleagues that you intend to give up a bad habit - let's say turning up late for an appointment or smoking - and encourage them to remind you of that intention when you fail. To the extent of meting out punishment (a cash fine, let's say, or footing the bill, or some kind of forfeit.
Involving others in your struggle is also a matter of will power. But if you are really serious, the outside help might make the difference. And the shame/penalties might be what finally helps you kick that habit!
--John Peterson, Safe Drive Gear
Finding a support system whether it is a friend mentor, coach, mastermind group, therapist, etc. gives you the accountability of meeting with someone regularly who can provide structure that supports the changes you want to make and help navigate challenges along the way especially when you are first staring out. In my experience these people and networks can also be invaluable sources of inspiration, advice, encouragement and can help you avoid rookie mistakes in particular at the beginning. I have seen several situations where a lot of time and money could have been wasted but was not.. There are times when you need cheerleaders, butt kickers, or people who can be counted on for tough love. Accountability is so important and having friends and family to keep you grounded and humble is critical too, it is easy to lose perspective. It can be consuming if you aren¹t careful. In my experience it takes a village to create positive change.
--Paige Arnof-Fenn, Mavens & Moguls