How to break bad habits (and build good ones at the same time)

According to researchers, 40–45% of our daily actions aren’t controlled by conscious decisions, but habits.

Habits power our lives. But not always for the better. Sure, you can build good habits, like drinking water throughout the day, finishing projects you start, or flossing before bed. But you can also just as easily build bad habits, like checking social media the second you wake up or flipping over to your inbox every 5 minutes.

Habits take time and effort to create. But with half our days controlled by them, it’s in our best interests to do everything we can to break our bad habits and fill our days with good ones.

Before we dive in… Building good habits is just one part of  what it takes to hit your goals. We covered everything else you need know in our free Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals

How to break bad habits in 5 steps

1. Remove the stress and boredom that are causing your bad habits

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, explains how every habit is made up of three distinct parts: a ‘cue’ that sets the habit off, the ‘routine’ we go through, and then the ‘reward’ we get from completing it.

Go through this loop enough times and you’ll form a habit.

bad habit loop

However, when it comes breaking bad habits, where most people go wrong is by focusing solely on the routine. It might make sense to try to change the habit itself, but it’s really the cue that controls our actions.

The secret to replacing bad habits with good ones starts with understanding the underlying factors that are triggering them. When you break down what triggers our habits, nearly every bad habit is triggered by either stress or boredom.

We build a habit of procrastination because we’re stressed about the work. Or we check social media throughout the day because we’re bored. But how often have you said “I’m going to try to be less bored” rather than “I’m going to spend less time on social media?”

It can be difficult to realize what’s actually triggering your habit. Which is why Duhigg suggests spending a week documenting any time you catch yourself going through with a bad habit. Write down when it happened, what you did, and how you’re feeling. Are you stressed? Tense? Worried about something in your work or home life?

After a week of writing these down you should be able to see some patterns appear.

2. Try the ‘bait and switch’ method to replace habit triggers

Now that you have an idea what is triggering your bad habits, how can you get rid of them? Or at least lessen their effect?

A common approach is to simply push them away and hide any known triggers. But again, that’s not really how habits work. For example, when I wanted to stop checking my social media accounts on my phone so often, I decided to start by removing the icons from my phone’s homescreen.

Which seems like a good idea, right? Less visibility means less triggers means less social media.

Bad habit phone
Social media and email on the last page of my phone

But it didn’t work that way. A week later, I was back to checking Twitter and Instagram as much as before. Simply getting rid of the cue wasn’t enough.

In fact, research shows that “thought suppression has counterproductive effects on behaviors.”

The more you try to ignore something, the more you end up thinking about it.

Instead, psychologists have found that our habits are most effectively eliminated when replaced by new and different ones.

So, the next time you feel yourself triggered to do a bad habit, try switching the action, not ignoring it.

New York Times’ Carl Richards calls this the ‘bait and switch’ method. And, as he writes, it doesn’t really matter what you replace the behavior with, as long as it’s something better than the bad habit:

“Peel an orange, go outside, do a push up, sing a song. Whatever works for you. It doesn’t matter what you do instead of resisting the behavior, just so long as you do something else.”

3. Schedule your new, better habits so you stick with them

If you want to get rid of bad habits and start building better new ones, you need to give them space in your life. More than that, you need to be purposeful in performing your new good habits over and over until they become automatic.

There’s a couple ways you can go about this.

First, you can schedule your new habits into your calendar. As author James Clear writes:

“Want to get back on track with your writing schedule? 9am on Monday morning. Butt in chair. Hands on keyboard. That’s when this is happening.”

The next option is to tie your new habit to a current one.

What this means is using a current good habit to trigger a new good habit. This could be forcing yourself to floss (new habit) after brushing your teeth (current habit). Or only checking email (new habit) after you have your afternoon coffee (current habit).

It’s nice to tell yourself you want to build better habits. But being specific about when and how you’re going to do them is the only way they’ll become ingrained in your life.

4. Use a commitment device (or partner) to track progress

The hardest part about breaking bad habits is that we often try to do them in private.

Maybe we’re ashamed or simply don’t want to bother other people. But this is a mistake. How often do you diet in private? Or quit smoking without telling the people around you? The fact is, that we’re better at changing our behaviors and sticking to them when there are outside forces keeping us accountable. And the science backs this up, too.

So, when you’re trying to break a bad habit, pair up with someone and keep each other accountable. Celebrate your victories together, and be supportive when you fail.

You can also use a tool like RescueTime to be accountable to your digital behaviors. RescueTime accurately tracks how you spend your time for you, and can let you know if you’re slipping up on your new habits. For example, if you want to build a habit of spending less time on Facebook, you can set a RescueTime Alert to tell you after you’ve spent half an hour on social media in a day.

5. Talk to yourself in the third person when you mess up

Finally, breaking bad habits is so hard because it’s usually not until after we’ve done them that we realize what’s happened. At which point we usually feel pretty bad and angry with ourselves.

But we all mess up sometimes and berating yourself with negative self-talk won’t help you change your behaviors. In fact, studies have shown that how we think has a powerful impact on how we act.

Researchers discovered that imagining a movement over and over can have the same effect on our brains as actually practicing it physically. So what do you think happens when we constantly blame ourselves for screwing up when we’re trying to change our bad habits?

The more negative we are in our self-talk, the more those thoughts become ingrained and chip away at our confidence.

One quick way to deal with this is to switch the way you talk to yourself. When psychologist Ethan Kross studied the pronouns people use during self-talk, he found that switching from “I” to the third person can help mitigate your emotions.

When you use “I”, it’s easier to be more emotionally driven. However, when you use your own name, it moves you from an emotional state to a rational one. Instead of feeling like you screwed up by falling into your bad habits, you start coaching yourself on how to do the right thing the next time around.

In fact, Kross even found examples of everyone from basketball star Lebron James to activist and Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai using this method to help talk through difficult decisions and actions.

Habits drive nearly half of our actions every single day. So it’s in our best interest to make sure we’re building good ones and getting rid of the bad ones. If you want to take back control of your habits, start by understanding how they’re formed and how you can replace them with better ones.

And remember, changing your actions takes time and effort. Go easy on yourself as you try to make these changes and make sure you have the support you need to stick with them.

How have you broken bad habits? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

One comment

  1. Powerful advice. Thank you!

    But what’s an integration partner gotta do to get some love in that “Use a commitment device / track progress” section? 🙂 Cuz that’s our whole schtick (not to be confused with our competitor, StickK!).

    Another quasi-competitor worth mentioning when talking about lifehacks for breaking bad habits is Pavlok.

Comments are closed.