How to Break Bad Habits

Breaking bad habits isn't about stopping, but substituting.

Posted Dec 15, 2017

It's easy to think of habits falling into black and white categories — exercising good, biting your nails bad. But habits also sit on a continuum in our ability to exercise control over them: Some are mild, like taking off your shoes and dumping them in the middle of the living room every night; others are moderate, like eating dinner in front of the TV, or drinking too much when you go to a party; and then those that are strong and addictive — like smoking.

Habits become hard to break because they are deeply wired, by constant repetition, into our brains. And when you add pleasure to them — like you have with drugs or porn, for example — the pleasure centers of the midbrain get fired up as well.

But habits are also patterns of behavior and it is the breaking of patterns that is the key to breaking the habits themselves. Usually there is a clear trigger to start the pattern. Sometimes the triggers are emotional — the wanting a drink or cigarette or nail-biting driven by stress. Other times the trigger is more simply situational and environmental: You see the TV and couch as soon as you hit the front door, and now your brain connects the dots, and eating dinner in front of the TV on the couch is not far behind. More often it is a combination of both — the mix of social anxiety and the party environment leads to your heavier drinking.

But these patterns are also usually wrapped in larger ones: This is where routines come to run our lives. Here is where, as soon as you hit the front door after work, the dumping the shoes, the grabbing a beer, the sitting in front of the TV with dinner flow together without much thought, just as your morning work-break automatically leads to you and your friend Kate going outside and chatting while you each have your mid-morning cigarette.

Overall these routine behaviors are evolutionary wise and practically good. They keep us from having to reinvent the wheel of our daily lives by making an infinite number of decisions all day long, which in turn provides us with more brain-space to think about other things. The downside of these routinized patterns comes when those patterns land more in the bad column than the good one.

So if you have habits you want to break, here are some steps to get you started:

Define the concrete behavior you want to change or develop

Getting more exercise or treating your boyfriend better may sound great but they give you little to grasp onto. You need to prime the habit-breaking process by thinking in terms of specific, doable behaviors — like not dumping your shoes in the living room but putting them in your closet; not eating in front of the TV but at the dining room table; going for a half-hour run five days a week; sending your boyfriend a complimentary text once a day, rather than sending him nothing or negative ones. Drill down on the concrete.

Identify the triggers

The refrigerator may be enough of a trigger to have you go for the beer once you hit the door, just as seeing the junk food on the counter will when you get bored. Or it may be that spark of social anxiety that cranks up the drinking when you think of an upcoming event with more than three people. By identifying your triggers, you have a way of pushing back and not having that autopilot kick in.

But some people have a difficult time doing this. If this is true for you, that you have a difficult time knowing what emotionally triggers you, you can work backwards — notice, for example, when you are craving a drink or biting your nails, and slow down and use your awareness of these behaviors as signals to ask yourself: What is going on emotionally?

Deal with the triggers

Because we’re wanting to break patterns, you now want to do something about the triggers themselves. Here you proactively get the junk food or beer out the house, or when you realize, while driving home, that you are stressed, and you deliberately sit in the car and listen to music that you like while sitting in the driveway, or do a few minutes of deep breathing to relax, rather than automatically marching into the danger-zone of the kitchen. 

Develop a substitute plan

Breaking habits isn’t about stopping but substituting. Here is where you come up with a plan for managing the party without drinking — getting a mocktail and hanging close by your good friend, rather than grabbing a drink and being with stuck with a bunch of strangers.

Or if you are concerned about your binge-eating at night, plan to bring two cookies up to your bedroom at 10 o' clock and resolve not to go back downstairs for the rest of the evening to keep you from finding yourself wandering around the kitchen all evening and veering towards the kitchen. Or in order to avoid the temptation of internet porn, plan to unplug your computer when you get home and stay away from electronics, and instead settle in with that new book you got for your birthday, or call your mom, all to avoid falling into your set routine.

The key here is mapping this out before that triggers have a chance to kick in.

Change the larger pattern

Here we are widening the context that surrounds the habit-pattern. Here you go to the gym during your lunch break because you know going after work is too hard when you are so tired. Or you realize you don’t sit at the dining room table for dinner because it is so loaded down with papers and such, and so you need to start by both keeping the table clear and setting the table for dinner before you leave for work.

By looking at and changing the larger pattern you are actually not only making it easier to tackle the core habit, but are practicing exercising your willpower on smaller, easier pattern-breaking behaviors. This can add to your sense of empowerment.

Use prompts

These are reminders to help you break the pattern by creating positive triggers and alerts to keep you on track: Putting your running shoes at the side of your bed so you see them first thing in the morning, or putting an alert on your phone to leave for the gym, or checking in with yourself and gauging your stress level on the way home before it gets too high and out of your control.

Get supports

Get a running buddy, or a party buddy, or someone you can call, or an online forum you can tap into when you those cravings start to kick in and you are struggling. Talk to your friend about going to get a quick cup of coffee together rather than standing outside with your cigarettes. Go to AA meetings.

Support and reward yourself

At some point in your efforts to break a habit, you reach a point where you go: Why am I bothering to struggle with this? You feel discouraged, you feel you are emotionally making your life seemingly harder and that there is little payoff.

This is normal, the low point in the process, and you need to keep your eyes on the prize. But you also need to make sure you build in a payoff. Here you deliberately pat yourself on the back for having dinner at the table rather than the couch, even though you won’t immediately feel better. You take the money you would be spending on alcohol or drugs or cigarettes and save it up to buy something else you’ve always wanted—a new outfit, a high-end mini-vacation. Again, you sink into having folks around you to cheer you on and help you realize that you are making progress and are on the right path.

Be persistent and patient

That’s the name of the game, of course: realizing that it will take time for the new brain connections to kick in, for the old brain-firings to calm down, for new patterns to replace the old. Don’t beat yourself up for slip-ups or use them as rationales for quitting. Take it one day at the time.

Consider getting professional help

If you’ve done the best you can and you are still struggling, consider seeking professional support. This may be a doctor who can prescribe meds for the underlying anxiety and depression, a therapist who cannot only help you unravel the sources and drivers of your habits, but also provide some steady support and accountability.

While all habits are not created equally, the overarching goal is the same, namely you taking more charge of your life, being proactive rather than reactive, deliberate rather than routinized.

Ready to take on the challenge?