How to Break a Bad Habit

7 simple steps backed by science

Bad habits prevent us from reaching our goals. They drain us both mentally and physically. And they kill all the progress we’ve made and are going to make. So why are we still making them?

With bad habits, we are filling a bucket with holes wondering why it never gets full.

The truth is, it’s often hard to break a bad habit. Even when people are fully aware of the negative consequences associated with their bad behaviors, it’s still challenging for them to get over it.

The real question is: What can we do about them?

Why is breaking bad habits so hard?

Most people believe that when they practice a routine for long enough, the routine automatically becomes a habit.

With the same approach, they would think a bad habit was something they’ve done for a long enough period in the past. And the only way to break a bad habit is to stop doing it, forcefully.

If you’ve tried breaking a bad habit before, you know it doesn’t work. You may have ended the bad habit for a few days, but it quickly snapped back and sometimes became even harder to pull yourself out again.

  • Force yourself not to have dessert for 3 straight weeks and eat a dozen donuts in one evening.
  • Ignore the temptation to watch Netflix during the week and end up binge-watching the entire weekend.
  • Turn down parties for a month, but when the habit snaps back, you’re partying every weekend for 3 months straight.

I’m not sure about you, but it used to happen to me a lot.

The Habit Loop to break a bad habit

Like any habit, a bad habit has its own habit loop with its own trigger, routine, and reward. Unfortunately, a habit loop is proven to be inextinguishable, and that’s why a habit is almost impossible to break—or at least not by force.

7 steps to break a bad habit

So what should you do instead? Maybe you’re dying to stop binge-eating, drinking, or procrastinating. Instead of forcing yourself NOT to do them, follow the seven steps below to break them once and for all.

1. Identify the triggers

As mentioned above, every habit has its habit loop which consists of three main elements: 1) the trigger, 2) the routine, and 3) the reward. The first step to break a bad habit is to figure out its trigger. Ask yourself: what triggers you into the negative routine?

2. Remove all triggers

After you get clear with the triggers, try to remove it. If you binge-eat whenever you see snacks and junk food at home, remove all snacks and junk foods from your house. If you get sucked into the Instagram feed black hole after checking a notification, switch off the notification.

The goal is to create an environment that makes it easy for you to win.

You won’t be able to remove all triggers because some of them might be psychological like stress or boredom but removing external triggers is a great place to get started.

3. Substitute with a good routine

If a habit loop is inextinguishable, what should we do then? Instead of eliminating the bad routine, an excellent workaround is to substitute the bad routine with a good one. For example:

  • Feeling stressful (Trigger) → Substitute smoking with talking a long walk (Routine) → getting a relieve (Reward)
  • See snacks at home (Trigger) →  Substitute junk foods with healthy snacks (Routine) → Taste good (Reward)
  • Feeling bored (Trigger) →  Substitute social media with reading a book (Routine) →  Cure the boredom (Reward)

4. Start small and commit to consistency

You have now learned the science of habit formation, have figured out the habit loop and have completed the assignment of finding a replacement for your bad habits. It’s execution time.

The key tip is to start small and commit to consistency. Instead of focusing on the results you can get, focus only on two things: 1) removing the triggers and 2) substituting the bad routine with a good one whenever you feel the urge.

5. Plan for failures

Changing your habits and behaviors is challenging, so expect to fail and plan for it upfront. Guilt is not a strategy. Instead of beating yourself up when you fall back to your bad habit, pick yourself up quickly and analyze the situation objectively.

This not only helps you gain better awareness when it’s about to happen the next time, but it also helps you to prepare and do better in the future before it even happens.

6. Ask for help and accountability

To take things up to the next level, get someone to join you as an accountability partner. This simple act gives you another strong reason to commit to breaking the bad habit you said you would get rid of.

7. Stay positive

Lastly, always stay positive. Everyone has bad habits, and you’re already taking the first step in learning how to break them. Even if you’ve failed, again and again, you’re still getting ahead because you get to learn a little bit more about yourself every single day.

Your biggest growth is ahead of you, not behind you - Ramit Sethi

Give yourself time and space

We’re the result of our habits. With good habits, we get to live a healthy and happy life of our dreams. With bad habits, it’s likely that we end up in places where we don’t want to be.

Again, it's not easy to break a bad habit. Most people fail before they even get started. If you’re reading this article to the very end, you’re well aware that the compounding effect of bad habits is massive.

Yes, it takes a lot of time and work. But the alternative of breaking those bad habits is to do nothing—and doing nothing is a lousy solution.


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