Well-being & Happiness

How to Break Bad HabitsChange Negative Behaviors to Healthy Ones

Feel stuck in a cycle of negative or addictive behaviors? No matter how ingrained they feel, you can learn how to break bad habits and replace them with healthy, positive alternatives.

What are bad habits?

Bad habits are unhealthy behaviors we engage in so often that they’ve become automatic. While some automatic behaviors can be healthy, such as brushing your teeth before bed or buckling your seatbelt in the car, bad habits tend to have negative effects on your well-being—such as eating junk food, drinking too much, smoking, skipping exercise, or staying up late to binge-watch TV or scroll through social media. All of these negative behaviors can affect your mental as well as physical health, increasing stress, anxiety, and depressive feelings.

Bad habits can also take on the form of social behaviors. If you habitually make yourself the focus of every conversation, for example, it can annoy your friends or significant other and create divisions in your relationships. Or if you’re a people-pleaser who always says “yes” without thinking, others may take advantage of your kindness, impacting your welfare.

Other common bad habit examples include:

  • Skipping meals or not staying hydrated.
  • Pulling your hair or biting your nails when stressed or bored.
  • Being bossy or giving unsolicited advice.
  • Waiting until the last minute to study for an exam or prep for a meeting.
  • Listening to music at a volume that’s harmful to your hearing.

Sometimes the consequences of your bad habits are obvious. You waste weekends nursing hangovers, for example. You face legal issues due to your habitual speeding. Or your bank account reflects your latest gambling or online shopping spree.

Despite the negative consequences, bad habits can be incredibly persistent and difficult to shake. You may have tried many times to drop an unwanted habit, only to find yourself sliding back into the same negative patterns of behavior. Repeatedly failing in your attempts to change can leave you feeling disheartened and hopeless.

But no matter how long you’ve had a bad habit, or how automatic a behavior it seems to be, it is possible to make a real and lasting change. The first step to changing a negative behavior is to understand how habits develop and why they stick around.

How bad habits form and persist

There can be several reasons how and why bad habits form. In some cases, negative behavior patterns may simply be the result of repetition. They allow you to operate on “auto-pilot,” so you don’t have to put much thought into what you need to do next. You have an argument with your partner, so you automatically reach for a bar of chocolate or a tub of ice cream.

Bad habits can also be the result of a habit loop. A habit loop has three components: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward.

  1. A trigger is an external cue to your brain to engage in a behavior. Triggers can come in many forms, such as sights, smells, thoughts, or emotions. For example, if a coworker yells at you, it can trigger you to feel stressed out. Or perhaps you’re bored and then notice someone staring at their phone.
  2. Next, comes the behavior. You reach for a cigarette when you’re stressed about the conflict with your coworker. Or you open your social media app when you see someone else on their phone.
  3. Finally comes the reward. Smoking seems to ease your work stress, or scrolling through social media alleviates the boredom. Your brain finds a benefit to continuing the behavior. The reward could be a negative reinforcer—making something unpleasant, such as stress, go away—or a positive reinforcer—adding something desirable or pleasurable to your life.

Each time you engage with a habit loop, your brain links all three of the components together. This way, certain behaviors become deeply ingrained, especially if you’ve repeated them for years. However, it’s still possible to break bad habits, curb addictions, and replace negative behaviors. The process will require both patience and persistence, but with these tips you can change your life for the better.

How to break bad habits

Rather than focusing on giving up an existing bad habit, it’s often easier to replace it with a healthier habit. After all, when you free yourself of one behavior, some other behavior needs fill the void. This also allows you to use habit loops to your advantage. Essentially, you want your actions to be motivated by healthier, more productive rewards.

Of course, bad habits can be stubborn, so it’s important to have realistic expectations as to how long it will take to replace them. One popular myth suggests that it takes about 21 days to form a new habit. More recent research indicates that 66 days is the average amount of time that it takes for a new behavior to feel “automatic.”

The actual timeline can vary widely based on the person and their goal. In general, the simpler the new behavior, the quicker it will turn into a habit. For instance, it might be easier to make a habit of buckling your seatbelt than it is to start and maintain a daily exercise routine.

Expect to spend two to three months, or perhaps even longer, trying to replace a bad habit with a healthier one. But know that it gets progressively easier the more you stick with your plan.

Replacing multiple habits at a time

If you have multiple bad habits that seem unrelated, you might want to narrow your focus to one habit at a time. You can give a habit your full attention and then move on to the next when you feel comfortable.

However, in some cases, bad habits may complement one another or contribute to a common problem in your life. For instance, your habit of staying up late can fuel your habit of drinking too much coffee throughout the day, or vice versa. Both habits can then contribute to anxiety. When negative behaviors overlap like this, it may be more effective to tackle them all at once.

Whether you’re trying to address one bad habit or multiple negative behaviors, you can adopt a similar approach to making a change. The first steps will involve clarifying your motivations and goals. Then, identifying your triggers and coming up with a plan to address them. Finally, knowing how to incorporate mindfulness and cope with lifestyle changes can help to reinforce healthy new habits.

Tip 1: Explore your reasons for changing a bad habit

We tend to label bad habits as “bad” because we recognize there’s some real consequence to our behavior. Your smoking habit could be severely damaging your health, or your habit of impulse shopping wrecking your budget. Procrastination might be standing in the way of your academic success, or overworking adversely impacting your marriage.

Exploring your own reasons for wanting to change can help you stay motivated, even in the face of setbacks.

Write down what you stand to gain by dropping a habit. Consider the small and large benefits. For instance, maybe you want to drop the habit of leaving your lights and television on all night. The benefits of turning off your electronics could be to improve your sleep, lower your electric bill, and reduce your carbon footprint.

Write down what you don’t want to change and why. It may be unnecessary or even counterproductive to drop certain parts of a bad habit. In the example above, you could decide that you want to leave a sound machine on at night because it helps you to sleep.

Regularly revisit your reasons. Keep your list handy. Put it on your phone or keep a physical copy on your fridge or nightstand. Any time you feel discouraged or disenchanted with your goals, look at the list. You might even decide to add or subtract reasons from the list as time goes on.

Tip 2: Set the right goals

Coming up with the right goal is an important step in breaking a bad habit. If the goal is too general, too difficult, or too hard to measure, you risk sliding back into old patterns of behavior.

“Approach” rather than “avoid.” As mentioned before, you want to replace the bad habit with a healthier one. So, when forming a goal, focus on “approaching” a new behavior (“I want to start using a stress ball when I’m feeling tense”), instead of putting all the emphasis on avoidance (“I want to avoid chewing my nails when stressed”).

Get specific. When objectives are poorly defined, it’s easier for you to move the goalposts and give in to cravings. Some examples of vague goals include:

  • “I want to stop sleeping in.”
  • “I want to stop watching so much TV.”
  • “I want to quit impulse buying at the supermarket.”

Instead, make your goals measurable and time-oriented:

  • “I want to be out of bed by 8 a.m. each day.”
  • “I want to replace one hour of evening television with one hour of physical activity.”
  • “I want to start using a basket rather than a cart at the supermarket to limit my purchases.”

Make your goal realistic. For example, if your bad habit is being messy, don’t expect to drop it completely in several days. Instead, consider setting small goals for gradual improvement. In the case of mess and clutter, you could start with a goal of tidying up just one room or one closet of your home within the next week. As you begin to see the benefits of a neater space, you can move on to tidying the next area of your home.

Track progress. Keeping a tally of how often you engage in the new habit or avoid the bad habit can help you identify milestones. This could be as simple as putting a checkmark on your calendar for each day you exercise or get out of bed by 8 a.m.

Celebrate the small victories. Meeting incremental goals and acknowledging your successes can help motivate you to continue the path forward. Reward yourself with a self-care session (such as a hot bath in the evening after exercising) rather than indulging in new unhealthy habits (opening a tub of ice-cream as a reward).

Tip 3: Identify the triggers of a bad habit

Identifying habit cues can be tricky. Sometimes, they’re obvious—the stress of an argument triggers you to begin chewing your nails, or a push notification on your phone prompts you to begin scrolling. Other times, they’re more subtle—just looking at the clock at the end of the workday triggers you to head to your favorite bar for happy hour.

Getting to know your triggers can help you better understand what drives your habit and then establish a workable action plan. Jot down a list of possible triggers for your bad habit.

Remember, triggers can be:

  • Emotional states, such as loneliness, boredom, or anxiety.
  • Settings that you associate with the habit, such as a bar.
  • People who engage in the habit or encourage your behavior.
  • Time, such as a point in the day in which you typically indulge in the habit.
  • Preceding actions that serve as a cue, such as picking up your phone whenever your screen shows a notification, or smoking after a meal.

If you’re having trouble identifying the cues or believe you’re missing something, try recording the time and location of your last craving. Consider who was around you, how you were feeling, and any events that took place beforehand. Repeat this exercise multiple times throughout the week, and then review your list for patterns.

It’s also possible that a single bad habit has multiple triggers. For instance, you might be more likely to impulse shop when you’re stressed out, browsing online before bed, or in a store with your best friend.

Tip 4: Build your action plan

When it comes to breaking a bad habit, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The action plan that is most effective for you might be different from another person’s, even if the habit you’re trying to change is the same. Try out a few of the following strategies and determine which to incorporate into your daily life:

Create barriers to bad habits. To make overeating more difficult, don’t keep junk food in your home. To avoid sleeping in, set an alarm and leave it on the other side of the room. Delete the app that feeds your scrolling habit. Spend less time around people who pressure you to drink or smoke.

Remove any barriers to the new habit. Maybe you’ve decided that instead of scrolling on social media, you’ll go for a 10-minute walk each day. To make the action as easy as possible, leave a pair of walking shoes, a jacket, and an umbrella near your door. This helps ensure you’re ready to go outside no matter the weather.

Build a routine around the new habit. You might make a cup of coffee and sip it as you walk around the neighborhood. Or you could use that time to chat with a loved one on the phone. These types of actions can also further incentivize you to maintain the healthy habit.

Visualize yourself succeeding. Visualization techniques can be a powerful tool for some people. Use your imagination to strengthen your resolve and set your intention. Envision yourself cooking dinner once you get home instead of ordering out. Imagine yourself being a listener rather than dominating the conversation.

Have an accountability buddy. You might know other people who are also trying to curb a negative or addictive behavior. Chat with coworkers, friends, and family members who share similar goals, and then agree to hold each other accountable. For example, you may decide to go for daily walks with a coworker instead of heading to the bar after work. Even if the other person isn’t wrestling with a destructive habit, they might still offer you support and encouragement.

If you can’t find in-person support, online message boards and support groups can be useful resources.

Tip 5: Use mindfulness to a break bad habit

Habitual behavior involves an element of thoughtlessness. You find yourself reaching for junk food or your phone as if you’re on “autopilot.” Mindfulness, a nonjudgmental awareness of what you’re feeling in the moment, can help you recognize and cope with cravings.

[Read: Benefits of Mindfulness]

The next time you feel a craving arise, try the following method, known as RAIN, to ride out the urge until it passes. The purpose of this activity isn’t to banish the craving but rather to become more familiar with it and see it as a temporary state.

With consistent practice, you’ll have an easier time noticing your craving and enduring it until it passes.

  • Recognize when the craving is starting. Maybe you feel the desire for a sugary treat building, or perhaps you have the urge to make an online purchase.
  • Acknowledge and accept that the craving is here. You don’t need to do anything to solve it. A craving can be uncomfortable, especially if you don’t act on it, but imagine it as a wave that will pass in time.
  • Investigate the feeling. Get curious about your experience. What’s physically going on with your body? What sensations are present? Perhaps your muscles are tensing or your mouth is watering. What are your thoughts or emotions like in this moment?
  • Note the sensations. Label what you’re feeling. Restless thoughts. Fidgeting. Quick breathing. Put the feelings into words and note how they change throughout the wave. After a few minutes, you will likely notice that the craving naturally subsides.

Pay attention to how the bad habit feels

Even when you give into a craving and perform the habit, you can use mindfulness to your advantage. Take note of what indulging in the habit feels like. What does it feel like to bite your nails? How does your body feel after hours of scrolling through social media? What taste is left in your mouth after you finish a cigarette?

Being mindful of these sensations can lead you to realize that the bad habit doesn’t actually feel good at all. What you initially interpreted as a reward is now a consequence. You may even find yourself becoming disenchanted with the action altogether.

Tip 6: Cope with habit changes

Just because you’ve established a healthier habit it doesn’t mean the work is done. In fact, it’s easy—and common—for old behaviors to return. Here are some tips for navigating the road ahead:

Continue to build on your newly formed habits. If you’ve started a routine of daily walking, consider progressing to regular jogs around the neighborhood. If you’ve started to let go of your people-pleasing habits at work, move on to setting firmer boundaries with friends and family. If you’ve replaced junk food with healthy eating habits, continue experimenting with new recipes. All of this will further reinforce good habits as a regular part of your life.

Update the people around you. If the old habit was something you indulged in with others, such as drinking after work, let them know that you’re trying to make a change. This can help cut back on intentional or unintentional peer pressure.

Let go of all-or-nothing thinking. On occasion, you might find yourself sliding back into bad habits. If you feel particularly stressed one week, you might look to your old comforts: eating junk food, smoking cigarettes, or chewing your fingernails. In those moments, it can be tempting to think, “This puts me back to square one. What’s the point?”

  • Self-compassion is important here. When you’re feeling discouraged by a setback, try offering yourself the same level of reassurance and encouragement you would offer a friend or loved one.
  • Remind yourself that setbacks will happen, but they don’t negate all your progress. You’ve developed tools, learned strategies, and built willpower that can help you get back on track and continue making progress.

[Listen: Being Kind to Yourself: A Meditation]

Tip 7: Know when to seek help

When a bad habit seems particularly stubborn or interferes with your daily functioning, consider that it might be part of a deeper underlying condition. Some examples of bad habits that you may need to seek professional help for include:

  • Smoking or drinking to cope with social anxiety.
  • Oversleeping due to feelings of depression.
  • Binge eating due to an eating disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can involve engaging in ritualistic actions that you might label as bad habits. You might constantly wash your hands to alleviate intrusive thoughts about germs. Or always seem to be running late because you spend too much time sweeping the floor or rearranging items on your desk.
  • Other bad habits are actually addictions. When you try to drop them, you experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. For instance, your nightly drinking or recreational drug use is due to a substance abuse disorder.

A mental health professional can guide you through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and help you understand the thoughts and feelings that drive your actions. Even when a habit is fueled by an addiction or disorder, you can also still make lifestyle changes to improve your sense of well-being. Whatever is causing your negative behavior, there are ways to make the journey to breaking your bad habits easier and more productive.

Speak to a Licensed Therapist

BetterHelp is an online therapy service that matches you to licensed, accredited therapists who can help with depression, anxiety, relationships, and more. Take the assessment and get matched with a therapist in as little as 48 hours.

Take Assessment HelpGuide is user supported. We earn a commission if you sign up for BetterHelp’s services after clicking through from this site. Learn more
Last updated or reviewed on June 18, 2024