How to Break Bad and Unhealthy Habits: 5 Effective Strategies

How to Break Bad and Unhealthy Habits
Table of Contents

Your habits will determine your future.
~ Jack Canfield


Think about how your day went today. Were you able to accomplish your to-do list? Did you get a chance to relax? How was your mood? If your day felt largely unproductive, it is easy to blame external circumstances.

Perhaps you were interrupted in the middle of your workday or had a difficult conversation with a friend. While these situations can affect the course of your day, your habitual behaviors have a much more substantial impact on your outcomes.

We develop habits over time as a way to preserve cognitive energy. Our brains quickly recognize the behaviors that bring us immediate rewards [1]. For example, if you feel bored, your brain knows that looking through social media will trigger a pleasurable feeling.

Every time you scroll on your phone to alleviate your boredom, the relationship between your emotion and behavior becomes stronger. Eventually, you’ll find yourself scrolling through social media without even thinking about it. At this point, the behavior has become habitual.

Unfortunately, habits can stick even if they cause long-term harm. This is because the brain is more focused on gratifying immediate needs and isn’t as good at analyzing consequences down the road. This bias can make harmful habits like smoking or overeating very difficult to stop.

Understand the habit loop

It seems strange. Why would the brain support behaviors that do not help us? Understanding the mechanisms behind habit formation can give us some answers.

The habit loop is a cognitive cycle that forms and strengthens habitual behaviors.

The loop starts with a trigger. This could be a feeling or a certain setting that the brain associates with the behavior.

Many people associate smoking and drinking coffee. Since the brain associates the two, the smell of coffee can trigger a craving for a cigarette [2].

The trigger usually leads to a specific, rewarding behavior. The reward can be physiological, like the dopamine response from eating a chocolate chip cooking. Rewards can also be psychological, such as reduced stress or anxiety.

In the case of a bad habit, the benefit of the short-term reward is overshadowed by negative consequences. Even if there are healthier, more productive ways to meet your needs, you are more likely to fall back into your habitual behaviors.

The longer the loop goes on, the more difficult it is to interrupt. If you’ve had a bad habit for a long time, you may not even realize you are entering the habit loop.

The Habit Loop

One common habit loop is watching a streaming series in bed. In this case, your brain has associated lying in bed with watching tv rather than sleeping. Once in bed, you pick up your phone and open Netflix. The behavior is rewarding because you are entertained. However, this habit can make it more difficult to fall asleep.

As the habit loop continues, you will find it more difficult to go to bed without your phone.

This can worsen your sleep quality, raise your stress levels, and make the triggers feel more intense. You can see how over time this habit can wreak havoc on your mental health and well-being.

Bad habits vs. addictions

Habits that get in the way of your goals, health, and relationship are considered bad habits. Most people have at least a few bad habits. Sometimes, habits can become so destructive that they can be considered addictions [3]. Here are a few ways to distinguish a bad habit from an addiction.

  • Interest in other activities declines
  • Hiding habit/behavior from others
  • Habit leads to legal or financial problems
  • Changes in mood or physical appearance
  • Inability to stop the habit
  • Cravings and compulsions to perform the habit

When a bad habit has progressed to an addiction, you may need professional support to stop the cycle for good.

How to stop bad habits and addictions

Breaking the loop of a bad habit isn’t easy, but it is possible. The biggest challenge is shifting from unconscious to thoughtful behavior patterns.

Researchers call this process “self-directed neuroplasticity.” Rather than letting your unconscious brain (which loves a shortcut) determine your behaviors, you cultivate particular habits that you know will benefit you in the long term.

Certified Holistic Health Practitioner Ben Ahrens discusses self-directed neuroplasticity in his video:

Self-directed Neuroplasticity Explained

Taking control of your automated behaviors will require self-reflection and a considerable amount of effort.

Figure out your why

Staying motivated is essential for changing bad habits. Understanding the reasons behind your behavior changes is a strong motivator. Being self-aware will help you set goals that are inspiring and encouraging for you. This makes it much more likely that you will be able to successfully break your bad habit.

The first step to increasing your awareness is examining the habit you want to change.

The following questions can help you get started:

  • When did you start this habit?
  • Has this habit changed over time? (Duration, frequency, etc.)
  • Where do you perform this habit?
  • How do you feel before, during, and after performing this habit?
  • How does the habit affect your life? (Mood, energy, productivity, relationships, etc.)

Once you have more insight into your habit, think about what you want your behavior change to achieve.

  • If you can break this habit, how will your life change? What will improve?
  • How do you feel about breaking this habit?
  • Can you think of any obstacles that might get in the way of your goals?

Identify habit triggers

Disrupting the habit loop is an important part of changing habitual behaviors. If you can anticipate the triggers for your habit, you can change your behavior.

If you’re not sure what triggers your unwanted behavior, HALT is a good place to start. HALT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. They are four of the most common triggers for bad habits. If you find yourself wanting to engage in the target habit, assess if your physical and emotional needs are being met [4]. For example, if you’re feeling hungry, but are eating regularly, you might need more nutrition in your diet. Chronic tiredness could mean you need to review your sleep routine or check for a condition like sleep apnea.

You might know exactly what triggers your behavior. For example, checking your phone notifications might lead to an hour of aimless scrolling. In these cases, you can look for ways to disrupt these triggers. You could install an app that limits your social media usage or blocks these apps at certain times of the day.

Replace the behavior

Even unhelpful habits have a purpose. If you quit a bad habit cold turkey, you are leaving that need unmet. This can make it difficult to maintain the behavior change. For this reason, you should replace a bad habit with a healthy, or at least more neutral behavior.

Take a snacking habit as an example. You may be fulfilling a very real nutritional need when you snack. However, if you are meeting this need by overeating or choosing unhealthy foods, this habit can be harmful. Rather than cutting out snacking, you can replace unhealthy snacks with healthier foods. You can replace chips with unsalted almonds or cookies with fresh fruit.

If you are eating out of boredom rather than hunger, you will need to increase your self-awareness. You can do this by expanding the timeframe between the trigger and behavior. When you get up to go to the fridge, wait 10 minutes before preparing a snack. This gives you enough time to assess if you are actually hungry or are trying to alleviate your boredom.  You may find that the urge has passed, and you do not need to eat. Each time, extend the buffer period by 5 minutes.

You can replace boredom eating with physically stimulating activities such as a short walk, sketching, or yoga session.

Plan for setbacks

Breaking a bad habit does not progress in a straight line. In fact, setbacks are a part of the behavior change process. Unfortunately, many people believe that setbacks are a reflection of their commitment, intelligence, or some other stable trait. This line of thinking contributes to the setback effect, which can reduce the chances of successful behavior change [5].

You can counter the setback effect by planning for failures. Creating if-then statements is useful for brainstorming solutions to possible setbacks.

If…Then…
I smoke a cigarette during my work breakI will review my stress level for the day and see what changes I can make to reduce my stress
I finish a bag of chips in one sittingI will avoid buying large bags of chips
I spend two hours on social mediaI will download an app that limits me to only 15 min per day
I keep experiencing setbacksI will see if I can remove any of my triggers from my environment

You can also manage setbacks by creating a reset routine. This can include reflective journaling exercises that allow you to review your goals, your progress, and your why.

Setbacks are also a good opportunity to reassess your action plan. Perhaps you are taking on too many behavior changes at once. Making changes that are too far from your baseline can also sabotage your chances of success. Reducing your habit gradually is often easier to maintain than a complete 180-degree change [6].

Get social support

The people around us can have a strong influence on our habits. Many negative habits, like binge drinking, overspending, and excessive social media use are normalized in society. If any of your relationships are built around destructive habits, it can hinder your behavior change.

At the same time, a strong support network can keep you motivated [7]. Tell a trusted friend or loved one about your habit goals. They can provide emotional support and accountability.

Letting others know about your goals can also help alleviate peer pressure to engage in counterproductive behaviors. For example, if you are trying to curb overspending, your friends can support you by suggesting low-cost activities, such as a movie at home.

People working towards similar habit changes are also a valuable source of support. You can join communities and forums online where people gather to share their experiences and advice. Depending on the type of habit you are trying to break, you can also get support from a mental or behavioral health professional.

Sources

[1] Stacey McLachlan. (2021, December 22). The Science of Habit: How to Rewire Your Brain. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/the-science-of-habit#1

[2] NSW Government – I Can Quit. (2021). iCanQuit | Quit Smoking | Smoking Triggers | Caffeine. ICanQuit. https://www.icanquit.com.au/staying-quit/look-out-for-smoking-triggers/caffeine

[3] Michael LoRe. (2020, December 16). How To Know When Your Bad Habit Has Escalated To An Addiction. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/connect-to-care/addiction-treatment-recovery/bad-habit-vs-addiction

[4] Cleveland Clinic. (2022, May 24). HALT: Pay Attention to These Four Stressors. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/halt-hungry-angry-lonely-tired/

[5] Arash Emamzadeh. (2022, March 19). New Research on How to Overcome Setbacks | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-new-home/202203/new-research-how-overcome-setbacks

[6] Anthony Silard Ph.D. (2021, September 20). Changing Behavior When Cold Turkey isn’t an Option | Psychology Today. Www.psychologytoday.com. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-art-living-free/202109/changing-behavior-when-cold-turkey-isnt-option

[7] PennState Extension. (2018, June 28). Using Social Support to Help Our Healthy Behavior Goals. Penn State Extension. https://extension.psu.edu/using-social-support-to-help-our-healthy-behavior-goals

Alisha Verly Jensen
Alisha Verly Jensen
I am a freelance wellness writer passionate about positive psychology and gentle productivity. I enjoy studying personal development and sharing what I’ve learned to help others create a balanced and fulfilling life. When I am not writing, I am tending to my garden.