Tip Sheet: How to Break a Habit

Don't try harder—try differently.

By Thomas Plante, published March 11, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Why is it so hard to stop smoking/shopping/biting your nails, even though you really want to? Part of the problem is that people rely on their own motivation and willpower, which often fail. Instead, try more specific strategies for habit breaking. 

Change the Frame

Can't kick a problematic behavior? The key is changing something in the external environment, which you can control, rather than in your head, which takes more effort. Instead of willing yourself to skip dessert, remove all sweets from the house, and instead of just wanting to jump up off the couch and exercise, get a big dog who makes that a necessity.

Use Your Words

Working to end a longstanding habit may involve feelings of deprivation—but try not to sulk about it. The choice to sidestep an old weakness can be empowering. A simple language adjustment—saying "I don't eat sugar," for example, instead of "I can't eat sugar"—may help people stick to their goals, suggests a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Remove Your Blinders

Blind optimism can leave you unprepared for inevitable setbacks. Instead, identify the biggest roadblock to kicking your habit, so that you can devise a way around the obstacle in advance, suggests Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University. One study found that people who did this exercised twice as much as those who simply set a goal.

Attack the Weak Point

When trying to change a habit, we often aim to switch up a routine while ignoring the cue that triggers it and the reward we gain from it. But the routine itself is often the most deeply ingrained, explains Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit. We're better off attacking a habit's weakest link: Avoid the cue and then find a new source for the reward you seek.