6 Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

I have some really bad habits. I know everyone does, but mine are pretty detrimental to how I want to live my life. Most of my bad habits waste a ton of time, others make me less healthy or damage my social relationships. They all stand in the way of the person I want to be.

I’ve been reading Atomic Habits by James Clear for a few weeks now (I read multiple books at once, currently six, which might be considered a bad habit to some but I’m actually pretty okay with it), and I’ve picked up quite a few tips on how to break a bad habit, establish good ones (still working on that) and how to distinguish between the two.

James Clear describes a good habit as any habit that supports you in who you want to be or in attaining a goal you’ve set for yourself. Bad habits do the opposite: they stand in the way of you achieving what you want to achieve or being who you want to be.

From the book Atomic Habits, other books I’ve read and my own experience, I’ve created this list of 5 steps you can take to start breaking a bad habit. Doing this thoroughly can make the difference between staying clean or relapsing (also for non-drug-related habits).

Step 1: Identify the habit and its cues

To change a habit, you have to know what to change. To actually identify a bad habit, you have to start by becoming aware of it. Especially when the habit has become subconscious (and most habits eventually do), it can be hard to see in ourselves. You can raise your awareness in a few different ways. One way is to observe yourself during a specific time of the day, e.g. your morning or evening routine, when you get back from work or when you have some spare time, and write down what you do. At first, it’s important not to label habits as being good or bad. They just are.
You can also ask someone who knows you well to list some habits they see you having (if you’re very courageous, ask them to list which habits they think are ‘bad’. Just don’t chastise them for it when they do!)

Apart from identifying the habits themselves, it’s also worth trying to figure out what triggers your habits. When exactly is it that you go to the cupboard for a bag of chips? During which breaks do you spend your time scrolling through TikTok? What thoughts, actions or events precede your bad behaviour?

Step 2: Evaluate

Now we get to the labelling. Yes! I like this step. It gives you such clear black-and-white results. Few areas in life are truly like that.
Anyway, moving on… how do you select which habits are good and which aren’t? As I mentioned above, you see whether these habits support the person you want to be or the goal you want to achieve. Some habits may be neither supportive nor unsupportive of the person you want to be. The fact that I usually put on the radio while I drive has little impact on my goals or my sense of self.

Step 3: Identify the purpose

Everything we do serves a purpose, even the ‘bad’ things we do. Bad habits are there because they are giving us something good. Smoking may kill you in the long run, but it can provide a sense of relief and calm at this very moment. Watching tv instead of exercising helps us relax after a long day. Running away from conflict helps us avoid, you know, conflict, which can be very unpleasant. When you see habits that you might want to change, look at what they are bringing you. Often we change one habit (e.g. Facebook) to fill it up with something else that might serve the same purpose in our lives (e.g. Instagram). Becoming aware of the purpose behind a habit means we can consciously choose how to replace a bad habit, how to meet the underlying need or deal with the underlying cause. I often get home and grab my phone right away. This is mainly due to the fact that I’m not clear on what I need to do right away and feel I deserve a moment to relax. Consciously planning in 5 minutes to relax after which I write out my plan of the day would be a great way to tackle that bad habit.

Step 4: Make it difficult

Making it difficult is one of the crucial steps in James Clear’s strategy for changing bad habits (if you want to create a good habit, you would do the opposite and make it easy, e.g. put a bottle of water on your desk if you intend to drink more water). By making something more difficult, increasing the steps involved, for example, it becomes less appealing. On Monday, I decided that I’d had enough of my endless facebook scrolling and that I wanted to quit Facebook during weekdays. I deleted the app from my phone, logged out on all browsers and removed the password from my google account. I’m not sure how many times I found myself mindlessly typing ‘fa…’ into the browser, and how many times I’ve seen the login screen this week (at least 10 times daily), but because I had to consciously choose to log in, it gave me enough pause to decide not to do it.

In the same manner, you could decide not to buy cookies you can’t stay away from, or to unplug your tv after every use and put the remote far, far away. The more deliberate steps you have to take to do something, the more conscious you will be about doing it, right?

Step 5: Make it unattractive

In Atomic Habits, James Clear offers a variety of strategies to make a habit less attractive. He shows examples of people who write contracts stating that they will have to pay if they do (or don’t do) something. This is a kind of ‘punishment’ you install yourself, so you have control over it.

Another way to make a habit unattractive is by reframing it. When you start to see things in a different light, you often see them differently as well. If you figure out that your habit to check on celebrity gossip is a way to put yourself above them (check!), then that habit becomes far less attractive because it shows a part of yourself you’d rather not indulge anymore. Picking apart the ingrediënts of a fast-food burger can make the meal seem so gross you only need to remind yourself of how it’s made to avoid eating it.

6. Get back on the wagon

You’re going to fall off the wagon, we all do, all the time. Nobody is perfect and quitting habits is one of the hardest things we can do because we have to fight our own subconscious. I’ve sometimes put the cookie in my mouth before I’ve even realised I wanted it. And I’ve made a snide remark at someone before I realised I was feeling insecure or threatened. Our patterns are so ingrained that it takes a lot of breaking and changing them before the new circuits are built. And even then the train may invariably turn to an old track once more.

The thing is, you can ALWAYS start over. Always. It’s never too late to start eating healthy, exercising or to start writing that book.

Of course, the caveat is that this may also seem like you have forever to start (that’s where my mind jumps), but if I remind myself to notice the adverse effects of my bad habits, and imagine that I want my life to change now and not in 5 years, I can usually motivate myself to take steps toward that change.

What are some of the habits you’d like to get rid of? What are some you’d like to implement? Have you ever been successful in changing in long-standing habit? Or in adding one?

Please share below!

P.s. Bad habits can also lead to great songs, such as the one below

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