7 Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

On December 31st, 2010 I wrote my last New Year’s resolution. Why the last? Because that year I realized that New Year’s Resolutions were not the answer to me breaking bad habits or starting new (good) ones. It’s not that resolutions are bad. It’s more that my approach was all wrong. I’ve since created and fine-tuned an approach that works. Most of the time. It’s not perfect, but if you follow along, you’ll get results, too.

I chose to write about bad habits because, well, they’re common to all of us. It doesn’t matter how disciplined you are, every one of us has at least one or two bad habits we want to break.

How useful is it to break bad habits?

The thing is…most everything we do is a habit. From our repetitive thoughts to our daily actions. We’re walking-talking bundles of the things we do repeatedly.

And that’s why this matters.

Outside of random occurrences, the life you have tomorrow is a direct result of the habits you build today.

But first, what are bad habits?

There’s no one answer here, and that’s because some minor habits may seem bad, but are harmless.

Like leaving the toothpaste on the side of the sink instead of putting it in its cup.

Maybe irritating to your partner.

But not quite a bad habit you need to change immediately.

We won’t be addressing those smaller ones today.

This post is to specifically help you break bad habits you have determined are destructive to your life and progress.

Even the ones that part of you rationalizes as harmless (like staying up too late every night), but deep down you know are affecting your quality of life and achievements.

Notice that sentence above where I mention ‘habits you have determined’.

So the first step is you getting clear on what you want to change.

And why.

Determination is key.

The second part of the key is getting clear on why you want to break the habit.

You won’t make any changes unless you’re clear on how this habit is hurting your life.

And how breaking it will enhance your life.

Get clear on this first.

All clear?

Good. So you’re clear on the habits you want to break and why. Now, let’s get going.

Here’s how to break bad habits

1. Gain self-awareness

Everything starts with awareness. No, really…everything.

You have to become aware of the moments when you’re engaging in the bad habit, but more importantly, try to gain an awareness of the moments right before you take action.

This is self-observation. The most powerful life-skill you can develop.

Become more observant of your feelings, thoughts, and those that turn into actions. Notice yourself.

But do not judge. When we judge ourselves, the inner critic comes out to play (and that little sucker is always ready to play). Then you beat yourself up and you’re even more tempted to engage in the poor habit.

That’s not the point of self-awareness.

Just observe.

Journal write if you’d like to. This especially works if you have a lot on your mind. That way you don’t have to rely on trying to remember one more thing. Jot down a few notes either right when you engage in the habit or at the end of the day.

Remember: No. Judgment. Just observation.

2. Look for patterns

You’ve probably heard the little phrase: ‘you are what you repeatedly do’.

I’ll add to that. You are what you repeatedly feel, think, and take action (and inaction) on.

Looking for patterns helps you see if the habits are preceded by something specific.

Again, Journaling is a powerful (pretty much free) tool you can use to increase your awareness and look for patterns. You looking to see what triggers the habitual thoughts/actions. Start writing about the habit, when you tempted, was there anything that triggered the feelings, how did you feel after, etc.

Is it always around the same time of day? With certain people? After something specific happens? Do you do something particular after?

You’re just looking for patterns.

For example, I noticed that if I had a stressful day at work, I would find myself driving to a fast-food drive-through on my way home or I’d stop at a gas station and grab (a few too many) snacks and a king-sized candy bar. Even if I had healthy, pre-prepared food at home waiting for me.

What helped me stop this bad habit?

Learning to de-stress and deep relaxation.

Most of us haven’t done anything deeply relaxing in years. And, no, collapsing on the couch with TV/Netflix doesn’t count. Both can actually cause more (emotional and mental) distress than a state of deep relaxation. Have you watched the news lately? Not exactly relaxing.

Here’s the meditation for today (as part of this Self-Love Series).

Can’t finish this meditation now? Subscribe to the YouTube Channel HERE and come back to it later.

3. Figure out what’s at the root of the bad habits

What causes this urge to do something that you know isn’t good for you? For bad habits that aren’t destructive, figuring out the root may be simple. But not as simple with more destructive ones.

And the root may be tied to something much deeper than just what immediately preceded the action. For example, above I mentioned I’d eat junk after a stressful day at work. And every day was pretty much stressful.

This took some digging (and facing a few hard truths) to unravel the root cause.

The root here was not stressful work. The root (which I figured out years later and after much self-reflection. For some, this may require therapy) was that during my teenage years, I developed this habit of eating many chocolate bars and potato chips when feeling like a High School outcast and all alone.

I didn’t have a stable family home, either. And I used to eat every sugary and salty thing I could get my hands on.

As an adult, I realized that candy had become my cure-all. It was what I’d turn to when I felt stressed, sad, alone. This had become a conditioned reaction. Automatic. Like an (anti) coping-mechanism.

This may take time to figure out. Depends on the habit and your life.

But the time it takes to figure out will be worth it.

Changing habits, even little ones, can have a massive positive impact on our life.

So, you’re building your awareness and getting clear on root causes, what now?

4. Reinforce your self-belief

This may sound corny to you, but without deep self-belief that you can break this (and any of your bad habits), nothing will change.

Start believing it.

The more disruptive the habit, and the longer you’ve had it, the more belief-reinforcement you’ll need.

A few suggestions:

*Try writing positive statements (that you can change), such as affirmations or journal prompts.

*For many, speaking these affirmations also helps.

*When (not if) you do slip up and repeat the bad habit, do not beat yourself up. Read that one again.

If you start with negative self-talk and criticism, you’re reinforcing the idea that you can’t make the change. And you’ll keep cycling in and out of trying, not succeeding, beating yourself up, around and around.

You know you slipped up. It happened. Keep going.

5. Habit replacement

If you take something away, you’re best to put something in its place

This is one of the fastest ways I’ve found to break bad habits.

Replace the bad habit with something good.

For example, Instead of stopping at the drive-thru on the way home from work, stop at the park for a quick walk.

But like any habit building, this takes reinforcement.

Meaning, one day, you’ll do something healthier (instead of the bad habit you’re trying to break), but that doesn’t mean you’ve now broken that bad habit permanently.

Habits take time to build.

Building a habit, good or bad, is a process. But as you’ve probably experienced, it feels a lot easier to build bad ones than good.

Stick with it. The initial phase is always the hardest.

But that phase doesn’t last forever.

6. Do nothing

Sometimes you just need to stop. And. Do. Nothing.

This is harder than replacing the habit with something else, but it’s even more powerful. When you can do nothing, you know you’re making progress.

Or do something that feels close to nothing like taking deep breaths. (You have to breathe, anyway, might as well take a few deep ones).

In this case, you don’t try to replace the bad habit with a good one. You simply notice the thoughts and urges, take a few deep breaths, and refocus on something else you need to do for the day.

It takes time to get to this place. But it’s possible.

7. Embrace small shifts

I believe that tiny life changes and habits, lead to big results (my personal mantra).

If you try to make big changes, suddenly, you’ll find it’s harder to succeed.

Have you noticed this happen? There are a few rare times when you need to make a big change and you go for it, and it works.


For most habits, think small, incremental changes.

That’s all you need.

One small change followed by another.

Let each tiny increment build on itself until you have a snowball. Momentum and big changes are happening.

What will you do today to move you toward breaking a bad habit?

Quick: grab a piece of paper and pen. Decide which habit you’d like to nix, and right it at the top of the paper. Decide now to notice when you feel triggered or patterns around that bad habit that keep repeating. Make the commitment to yourself to stop in that moment and observe your thoughts.

Then, as you notice yourself noticing yourself (that’s not a trick sentence), you can start replacing that bad habit with a good one, or refocus onto something else.

Originally published at https://journeyjoy.net on June 26, 2019.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store