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How to break a bad habit for good

Reviewed by Monika Cope-Ward, LCSW

A woman lays in bed scrolling on her laptop and drinking coffee

Just about everyone can name at least one “bad” habit they have. This could be any behavior that seems to be holding you back from your full potential. We may not be fully aware of when or why bad habits show up, but with enough repetition, they tend to become automatic.

Bad habits can take a while to break, which may be a struggle because most people thrive on instant gratification. We want to feel better and to be better, and we want that to happen right away.

The hardest part of breaking habits is forming new habits to replace them—it takes about 66 days on average.1 But it’s definitely not impossible.

Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of “The Power of Habit,” has a straightforward strategy for changing bad habits. According to his theory, there are three main parts to any habit: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

Cues (or “triggers”) signal us to perform a habit. A cue can be an action, behavior, thought, emotion, sight, sound, physical sensation, scent, taste, or time of day. For example, when I open the kitchen cabinet (cue), I immediately grab a sugary snack (habit).

Routines are how we perform habits. They’re the actual behaviors that result from our brains being triggered by cues. 

Rewards are how we reinforce habits, both good and bad. If we enjoy doing something, or if we receive positive feedback when we do something, we’re more likely to do it again. 

How to break a bad habit

Once you understand the cue-routine-rewards loop of a bad habit, you’ll be in the right place to start correcting it. The best way is to substitute another behavior that offers similar rewards but doesn’t have unwanted side effects. Here’s how.

1. Define the bad habit

Think about how you would describe the bad habit very simply to a friend. For example, “I smoke every time I drink alcohol” or “I check my email as soon as I wake up in the morning.”

If several actions are involved that make it a more complex habit, be sure to describe them also. This represents the “routine” part of the habit loop.

2. Figure out what triggers the bad habit

Be honest about what’s really going on behind the scenes of your bad habit by asking yourself some of these questions:

  • What emotional state is triggered when I need to perform the ritual for this bad habit? Are there certain emotions that trigger the habit, such as anger, boredom, or sadness?
  • Is there a specific time, location, person, or object that triggers the urge to perform the bad habit?
  • What do I typically find myself doing, or how am I typically behaving, right before I get the urge to engage in the habit?
  • Think closely about how the urge intensifies, then ask: What situations make it more likely for me to perform this bad habit?

The goal is to identify the cue that sets off the habit. You may find more than one, such as a certain time of day as well as a particular emotion.

3. Reflect on the rewards of the bad habit

Think about the payoff you get from performing the habit. Then ask yourself: Is it worth it?

For instance, if you browse social media for an hour when you get home, consider whether the reward you get from it (such as stress relief or entertainment) is more valuable to you than spending that time with family, exercising, or working on a personal project.

4. Pick a healthier habit to replace the bad one

What rewards would you enjoy more, and what kind of habit could achieve that? For the most part, people don’t like doing what feels like “work,” especially everyday tasks.

When it comes to picking a new habit to replace a bad one, design it in a way that allows you to practice it consistently. You may not necessarily get results from it right away, although that will come in time.

Consider trying one of these healthy habits that can be scaled down or simplified to help you get started:

  • Meditation: Sit without distractions for five minutes at the same time every day.
  • Yoga: Do three poses as soon as you wake up to help energize you.
  • Fitness: Walk or run for 20 minutes a day.
  • Work: Focus on just one task at a time.
  • Eating: Eat one meal a day without any distractions so you can be more mindful of how each bite tastes and feels.
  • Sleeping: Unplug from technology and get in bed before you feel tired.

5. Create an action plan for your new healthy habit

Now that you’ve picked a new habit, it’s time to use the cue, routine, and reward discussed earlier to help you shift your bad habit to something healthier.

Step 1: Plan for the cue

You now know what triggers your bad habit (the cue), which means you can learn to expect and anticipate it. Practice becoming aware of it right before it happens, as well as when it’s happening. How do you feel? What else do you notice?

Step 2: Pick a new routine to associate with the cue

The more aware you are of the cue, the more you can use it to help trigger a positive new routine. For example, if you always eat candy on the way home from work, you could associate the cue of getting into your car with a more nutritious snack instead.

Step 3: Notice the rewards

Your new habit needs a reward for it to stick. Think about what you’re getting out of performing this new healthier habit. In the case of replacing candy with a healthier snack, the reward might be feeling better because you’ll avoid a sugar crash.

What if your replacement habit doesn’t stick?

The cue-routine-reward habit loop formula can be very effective, but it doesn’t necessarily work all the time. Not all bad habits are created equal. For instance, forgetting to floss every day will likely be much easier to remedy than an addiction to drugs or alcohol.

If you find yourself backsliding on your commitment to better habits, you may be dealing with more stubborn patterns of thought, emotions, or behaviors. Browse our therapist directory to find a mental health professional who can help you get to the root of the problem and work to change your bad habits—once and for all.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.

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