How to Break a Bad Habit: A Step-by-Step Strategy That Works

Top view photo of fast food

Habits are important. 

You don’t say?

Everything about us is the result of good and bad habits. Habits shape the kind of people we are, the kind of life we live, and the kind of things we do.

Ok, the decisions we make also play a big role; of course they do. But then again, decisions are heavily influenced by habits. 

If you want to become a better person, live a better life, and accomplish great things, you need to break bad habits and change them into good ones.

In order to do so, it’s important that you actually understand how habits work, first.

How Habits Work—In A Nutshell

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, describes the habit formation process as a “habit loop” consisting of 3 (+1) key components:

Cue. This is the starting point of every habit. It is essentially something that triggers a specific behavior. It can be anything, really. Most habit cues generally fall into one of 5 categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, immediately preceding action.

Routine. This is the behavior—physical, mental, or emotional—that you perform when exposed to a specific cue. Note that, if the routine is too difficult and boring, you won’t always be able to execute it. Our willpower and our motivation are not infinite, after all.

Reward. Me, you, everyone. We are all reward-driven. It doesn’t matter what the reward is; as long as we like it, we want and expect to get something in return for the things we do. Otherwise, we might as well spend 10 hours a day watching videos of things getting crushed by a machine press.

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it.”

— Nathan Azrin 

There is one more essential ingredient that makes the habit process easier and more effective, and that is…

Craving. This is the “secret sauce” of habit creation. A craving is what really motivates us and drives the habit loop. The main purpose of following a certain behavior and getting a reward is to satisfy our craving. In fact, what we crave is actually NOT the habit itself; it’s the feeling we experience when we get a certain reward.
Habits are so powerful because they create neurological cravings that our brain can’t ignore. That’s why “breaking” a bad habit is so hard.

The habit loop consists of cue, routine, reward, and craving

Every component of the habit loop is essential. Lack effectiveness in any of these, and you won’t form a lasting habit. 

No cue? No habit.

Impossible routine? No thanks.

Unsatisfying reward? Why would I even do it?

Reward not “worthy” of craving? Again, why would I even do it? Especially when watching paint dry is so interesting?

The Simple System For Changing and Replacing Bad Habits

“Changing bad habits? Isn’t this article on how to BREAK a bad habit?”

Yeah, it is. But you know, saying to “break” or “eliminate” a bad habit is actually wrong.

That’s because habits don’t really disappear. The neurological patterns of old habits are always there—they are merely put aside by new ones.

When you break a bad habit, you’re really changing it with a new one. But the old habits are still there, somewhere in our brain.

If you “break” a bad habit but don’t replace it with a new one, failure is the only possible outcome. 

Surely you have noticed, for example, how some smokers (that want to stop) eat candies or snacks almost in a compulsive way.

That’s because, in order to quit smoking, they must replace it with another habit, so they have to do (in this case, eat) something else whenever they feel the need for nicotine. If they didn’t, they would easily fall back to their old habits and start smoking again.

Not that eating too many sweets or snacks is a good thing, but at least the strategy is correct: doing something in order to quit doing something else.

Ok! So how do you go about changing bad habits or any habit in general? 

STEP 1. What behavior do you want to change?

The first step to changing a specific habit is identifying the routine: What is the specific thing you want to stop doing?

I used to have the habit of spending a LOT of time watching not-really-useful YouTube videos. I would waste 2, 3, sometimes even 5 hours. Every single day. 

Let’s just say you have the same bad habit. The routine you want to stop doing is “wasting time on YouTube”.

STEP 2. Do you know what your cue and reward actually are?

You have identified the behavior you want to change, but do you know what your cue and reward are? Really?

Because it might not be that obvious. Of course, your guesses could very well be correct; but why not make sure? You definitely don’t want to waste your time following the wrong “scent”!

Let’s see how to find the real cues and rewards of any habit.

Experiment with different rewards

Rewards satisfy cravings, but what is it that you’re really craving? What craving does your reward attempt to satisfy? It’s not always obvious.

In order to find the right answer, try to implement some changes. Whenever you feel the urge to watch videos on YouTube, resist the temptation and do something different.

(If you’re reading this at lunch time, the opening photo of this article might have ignited a desire for fast food; sorry for that. Make sure to resist the temptation!)

Experiment with anything you believe might satisfy your craving. Though, try not to do something even worse than the bad habit you want to change. 

Do not binge eat sweets, smoke cigarettes, or drink 5 bottles of beer.

Instead, try going for a walk, listening to some music, doing some stretching, eating a fruit, talking to a friend, etc. 

After each “attempt”, set a 15-minute timer (or even one pomodoro, if you want). Then, when time is up, ask yourself, “Do I still feel the need to watch videos on YouTube?”

If the answer is yes, keep trying. 

If the answer is NO, you’ve found the craving—therefore the actual reward—behind your habit.

For instance, I had found that my habit of watching random YouTube videos was motivated simply by the desire for relaxation, which I could satisfy by doing something easy like watching videos. 

I know, in this case it was fairly obvious. But not all habits are like that. Many need a little more of experimentation.

Ok, now that you know the motivation behind your behavior, it’s time to find the trigger.

Isolate the Cue

Most cues generally fall into one of 5 categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, immediately preceding action.

To find out which one your habit trigger belongs to, ask yourself these questions every time you feel the urge to perform a specific habit:

  • Where am I? 
  • What time is it?
  • What emotions am I feeling?/How am I feeling right now?
  • Who is around me?
  • What did I just do?

To continue with our example… In order to stop wasting so much time on YouTube, I tried answering these 5 questions for a few days in a row. It went more or less like this:

DAY 1

Where am I? I’m at home.
What time is it? It’s 17 o’ clock.
How am I feeling? I feel a little tired.
Who is around me? No one is here.
What did I just do? Did some homework.

DAY 2

Where am I? At home.
What time is it? 12:27.
How am I feeling? Happy but really tired.
Who is around me? My brother.
What did I just do? After almost 5 hours, we finished entirely rearranging our living room.

DAY 3

Where am I? At home.
What time is it? 8:00.
How am I feeling? Bored and tired, probably because I went to sleep late.
Who is around me? My parents.
What did I just do? Had breakfast.

As you can see, after only three days it was clear that my cue was tiredness. Whenever I felt tired for whatever reason, I would feel the urge to put other activities aside and go watch random videos on YouTube.

This would often translate to at least 1 or 2 hours in a row. Then, I would be even more tired and unwilling to go back to my tasks, so I would keep watching videos or wasting time doing something else, like a real procrastinator does.

If you have the same problem, try asking yourself those 5 questions every time you feel like you’re craving a certain reward you can obtain only by following a certain routine.

Within 1 week you should be able to isolate your real cue.

STEP 3. Eliminate the cue, or put your habit on “Hard Mode”

Ok, we now have everything we need in order to put our bad habit aside and then “forget” about it; not break it, because, as you already know, you can’t completely break a habit. You need to replace it.

If you don’t have a new habit to take its place, the old one will always emerge again.

Let’s see what we can do about it.

Eliminate the Cue

As you remember, a cue is what triggers the habit. If we can get rid of it, the habit loop won’t start.

In our example, our cue is “tiredness”, so all we need to do is get rid of it completely. By doing so, we won’t crave a break for relaxation, and we won’t feel the need to go watch videos on YouTube. 

If only it were always this easy! 

Maybe, if the trigger was something avoidable, you could delete it easily. For example, you could simply turn off our phone or put it in airplane mode, and you could simply avoid passing in front of a fast-food restaurant on our way home.

But you can’t get rid of tiredness. You could (and should) do things like getting better sleep or using the Pomodoro Technique (ideally both) to increase and replenish your energy, so you get tired or sleepy less easily, but you can’t avoid it completely.

So what do you do when your cue is something you can’t avoid? The answer is simple: you don’t. But we’ll get back to this later, in step 4.

There’s another thing you can do, first.

Select Difficulty Level → Hard

This is the strategy you should always use against bad habits: make them difficult. 

Yes, even if you can actually eliminate the cue. You’re never sure if and when a bad behavior is going to attack and take over again.

For example, to avoid wasting time on YouTube (routine) every time you feel tired (cue), make it difficult.

Use an app or software that blocks your access to certain websites for a set amount of time. This takes care of the routine. 

Also, as you’ve read in the previous point, sleeping better will make you more energetic. This makes the cue (tiredness) appear less frequently and less strongly.

Just remember: no matter what bad habit you want to change, always put the game on “Hard Mode”. 

STEP 4. Follow the Golden Rule

The Golden Rule of habit change: you can’t truly extinguish a habit, you can only change it. To do so, you must keep the same cue and reward, and shift the routine.

I would add just one more thing to make the Golden Rule more correct: it’s not true that you can only change a habit; you can—and actually must, in any case—also replace it. 

The reason for this is simple: as we’ve discussed in Step 3, eliminating a cue is not always possible, but when it is, you can effectively stop the bad behavior from happening. In this case, you don’t need to change the old habit; you can just replace it with a new one.

Remember to always replace a bad habit with a new one, even if you are able to delete the old cue and prevent the bad habit from happening, because if you don’t follow a new routine, the old one will resurface.

You will go to the supermarket and you will buy unhealthy snacks, even if it’s a pain getting dressed, driving to the supermarket, shopping, and driving back home.

So, what new behavior will you execute instead of the old one? 

By following the previous steps—especially the part about experimenting with different rewards—you have already found a new (and better) routine that is triggered by the same cue, gives the same kind of reward which satisfies the same craving.

For instance, in order to stop wasting time on YouTube, I kept the old cue (tiredness) and reward (relax), and purchased a super-duper $70 piano keyboard, so I could play it whenever I felt tired from work or study. It provided me with a feeling of peace and relaxation, even though, as a 20-year old beginner, my piano skills sucked and the sounds I produced were… not pleasant

But it worked for me. You also need to find what works for you, and just so you know, you don’t have to buy anything. I mean, the only reason I bought the keyboard was that I wanted to learn piano. But I had already found that simply walking 5 minutes and looking at the sky was enough for me to relax and get back to whatever task I was working on.

STEP 5. Define an Action Plan

Once you have identified your cue and your reward, and have decided a new routine, it’s important that you make a plan.

The habit loop, as you remember, is cue-routine-reward (+ craving). Your plan will be based on that.

For example, the plans I followed to change my bad habit were these:

When I feel tired because of work or study (cue), I will play some piano (routine), so I can relax myself (reward) and be ready to work or study again.

And, if I wasn’t at home and couldn’t practice piano:

When I feel tired because of work or study (cue), I will take a short walk and look at the blue sky and the green trees (routine), so I can relax myself (reward) and be ready to work or study again.

Why is a plan so important? Because you know better than I that, in situations of uncertainty, most people (you and me included) tend to freeze and waste time in an attempt to figure out what to do, only to end up doing nothing.

A clear plan solves that problem—it relieves you of the responsibility of decision-making. All you have to do is just follow your plan which, of course, needs to be effective. If you follow all steps correctly, you won’t have problems with creating a good one.

Go ahead, write your own plan:

When    CUE    , I will    ROUTINE    , because it provides me with    REWARD    .

As you’ve probably noticed, this simple framework can be used not only for changing a bad habit, but also for creating a new one from scratch. 

When it’s 6:30 am, right after I wake up, I will read a motivational quote, because it motivates me and gives me the energy I need in order to rock my day!

Change Your Habits, Change Your Life

Now that you know exactly how habits work and how to properly “break” a bad habit by replacing it with a good one, it’s time to take action.

Create your own action plan and follow it until your habit becomes a habit.

Remember, however, that not every habit is the same; some require more time and effort than others.

But, no matter how hard it is, you know it will be worth it. 

Because to change your habits is to change your life.

No doubt about that.

Need more tips on habit building? Check this list of 14 (+1) tips to develop good habits and stick to them.

[BONUS: Do you want to know the best habits for a better life? I hope you do! So fill the form below and download the free PDF containing the 14 best daily habits that will definitely improve your life by A LOT.]

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