Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Habit Formation

Breaking Bad: How to Break Up With Your Bad Habits

Understand triggers that drive bad habits and break free of the habit loop.

Key points

  • Our habits can profoundly impact our lives.
  • We automatically engage in our habits, good and bad, with little thought as to how they impact our lives.
  • Breaking bad habits means understanding your habit loops and identifying situations that cue behaviors.

We are creatures of habits, both good and bad. What separates the good from the bad are the negative consequences that result from the bad ones, ranging from mildly embarrassing—say, nail-biting when nervous—to problematic, like scrolling social media sites into the wee hours. This can lead to loss of sleep and exhaustion among other potentially life-altering consequences such as substance use and risk-taking behaviors. Our habits can leave us that leave us stuck, sick, struggling, and alone.

What Makes Habits So Hard to Break

In her 2019 article, "Creatures of Habit: The Neuroscience of Habit and Purposeful Behavior," neuropsychiatrist Alana Mendelsohn explains that our habits “serve a critical purpose in making our behavior more efficient, reducing the decision burden we face each day and freeing up mental energy for more demanding tasks.”

Habits are, by definition, automatic behaviors. What makes our habits so hard to break is that we engage in them, for the most part, with little or no thought. Rarely do we stop to examine, challenge, or reflect on how problematic habits may be impacting our lives.

Cue, Routine, Reward: The Habit Loop

In his 2016 New York Times article, "How to Form Healthy Habits in Your 20s," Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, describes the neurological habit loop as a three-part process consisting of "a cue, a routine, and a reward.” Our automatic routines or habits kick in as the result of a cue. We carry out a habit or routine without much thought, and our actions result in a reward.

Say, for example, you are unhappy in your job and look forward to your weekends as a time to relax, unwind, and press pause on the major stressors in your life. As the weekend winds down and Sunday night rolls around, you find yourself falling into a negative habit of self-soothing by overindulging in comfort foods, drinking too much, or spending time and money online shopping. Any of these behaviors or habits might deliver part three of the habit loop: the reward, or distracting you from the anticipatory anxiety of the looming workweek and a return to dreaded daily routine settings.

Breaking the Habit Loop

Here’s the good news: When it comes to our bad habits, breaking up is hard—but not impossible—to do. In a 2019 post, Judson Brewer describes a powerful three-part mindfulness-based approach to breaking bad habits. This approach involves examining the quality of the reward and determining whether this reward delivers harmful consequences, paying attention to the actual behaviors related to a habit, and replacing a negative behavior and reward with a more positive, healthy one.

Self-Awareness and Self-Compassion

As we strive to manage or eliminate bad habits, we need to remain both present in the moment and compassionate with ourselves. We need to allow ourselves time and patience as we work to eliminate entrenched habits and patterns. We need to banish an all-or-nothing mindset that can derail months of progress when we slip up and veer off track. We need to stay connected to our feelings and have compassion for ourselves when we feel vulnerable or at risk of falling back into old habits. And we need to seek support from friends, family members, and mental health professionals when we are struggling.

6 Powerful Strategies to Help Break Bad Habits

1. Build awareness around what you want to change. Awareness is always the first step to making meaningful change. Admitting to yourself that you repeatedly overwork, turn to alcohol or drugs, or distract yourself with online shopping, comfort foods, or binge-watching TV to numb or avoid uncomfortable feelings, situations, or settings sets the stage for deciding to do better for yourself.

2. Decide to change. Make a promise to yourself to eliminate a habit or pattern of behavior with negative consequences. Remember, a bad habit typically involves negative consequences. These are consequences that negatively impact your life in some way.

3. Get to know what triggers the habit you wish to eliminate. Identify the situations and settings that cue behaviors and provide the reward—such as numbing uncomfortable feelings—that you wish to eliminate from your life.

4. Address your triggers and cues. If you need help managing overwhelming trauma, low mood, anxiety, or stress, seek the help of a professional.

5. Bring in compassion for yourself as you strive to make changes and seek help and support when you need it. Give yourself time to break entrenched habits and patterns.

6. Replace habits and patterns that no longer serve you with positive, enjoyable, and healthy interests and pursuits.

More from Monica Vermani C. Psych.
More from Psychology Today