27 Proven Steps to Break a Bad Habit (without the Cravings)
Habits run our daily life. Pretty much everything you do is based on a habit you’ve developed at some point in your life.
Some habits are helpful, while others can also work against you. Even worse – there are a few “bad habits” that can have a negative, long-term impact on your capacity to live a fulfilling life.
Smoking. Hoarding. Eating junk food. Drinking too much alcohol. Even spending too much time on the Internet. We all have those bad habits we’d like to break.
Fortunately, it is possible to eliminate a negative routine – all you need is a plan-of-action.
In this lengthy article, we’ll cover 27 strategies that will teach you how to break a bad habit. Specifically, you’ll learn how to do it in four distinct phases:
- Plan for the Habit Change
- Understand Your Habit Loop
- Build a Support System
- Overcome Challenges
I encourage you to take notes or print out this article, because each of these strategies builds on one another. Then, once you’ve completed this article, I recommend picking your worst habit and creating a plan for how you’ll overcome it.
Let’s get started by talking about the first phase.
Phase I: Plan for the Habit Change
Before doing anything else, you must prepare for a habit change. Odds are you’ve tried to break this routine in the past. And in all likelihood, you failed because you didn’t have a plan or relied too much on willpower.
Failure in the past doesn’t mean you’ll fail in the future. Usually it’s a direct result of not having a solid strategy for breaking this bad habit. In other words, you didn’t follow the age-old adage:
So before doing anything else, you should implement these seven strategies to make sure you’re positioned for success.
Strategy #1: Focus on One Habit at a Time
In psychology, there is a term called ego depletion, which basically means your willpower has a limited amount of energy every day. When it’s overexerted, it becomes hard to control your impulses.
In a way, willpower is like a muscle. It can get tired and worn out from too much use. If your days are filled with stress and constant battles to control your emotions or thinking, you often won’t have the capacity to resist temptations.
How does this affect habit development?
It’s simple. You won’t succeed if you try to change multiple habits at the same time. Each one requires a significant amount of willpower to resist, which leaves you in a glucose-depleted state.
Most people don’t have the “willpower energy” to focus on multiple habits. So when they’re in a depleted state, it becomes too easy to give up on all of them, instead of just one.
Strategy #2: Do a 30 Day Habit Challenge
Your goal for the next month or so is to focus on eliminating one habit. That’s why you need to have 100% commitment. The easiest way to do this is through a 30 Day Habit Challenge (30DHC).
A 30DHC is where you structure your entire life around the completion of one specific habit goal. Sure, you’ll do other things, but a large amount of your time (and willpower) will be spent working towards this goal.
Sometimes 30 days isn’t enough. For the really challenging habits, like smoking or drinking, you’ll need more time to make this change stick. Don’t be afraid to plan for more time. There’s nothing wrong with blocking out 60 to 90 days to focus on this goal.
Strategy #3: Set a Start Date
Write down the date where you’ll start this habit change. It’s important to take this goal seriously, so having an official “countdown” will help you stay on track. Moreover, you should tell friends and family about this goal to get their support. (More on this later.)
Having a start date creates energy and excitement for this new change. Your aim is to dramatically improve your life, so you should feel energized about this countdown.
Strategy #4: Identify the Target Goal
Eliminating a bad habits is like setting a goal. You won’t achieve it, without having a specific outcome in mind coupled with a target date.
For instance, you can’t say: “I want to eat healthier.”
Instead, you need to identify what foods to eat, what to avoid and the date when this change will happen.
So a better goal would be: “On August 1st, I will no longer eat fast food from places like McDonald’s or Burger King. Instead I will eat home-cooked meals that combine vegetables, lean protein and unrefined carbohydrates.”
Notice how this outcome has a deadline with a specific outcome. By August 1st, you’ll know if it’s working or not. That’s how you set a goal for breaking a habit!
Strategy #5: Avoid Cold Turkey Solutions
We’ve all tried the “cold turkey” solution before. You make a promise that you’ll never do a bad habit again and then a few days later, you’re doing the exact routine you swore to forever eliminate.
True, quitting cold turkey sometimes works. We all know someone who gave up smoking or drinking through a force of will without falling off the wagon. But for every success story, there are hundreds of people who try the “cold turkey” solution on a regular basis, only to experience failure each time.
The main problem with cold turkey is the overemphasis on perfection.
Most people have this negative mindset:
One mistake = FAILURE!
Nobody is perfect. Having a goal of never again leaves you with no wiggle-room when you cave into the temptation of doing the habit you’re trying to eliminate. Trust me, we all slip from time to time, so focusing on perfection is not the way to change a routine.
Moreover, cold turkey can make a bad habit even worse. Often when people have a “100% perfect goal” they develop a “what the hell” mindset when they make a mistake.
By doing the bad habit, they’ve already broken their never again rule. So they subconsciously decide that since they’ve already done it one time, they might as well go on a binge. The result? The person will do more of the habit than they ever did before. (More on this later.)
Strategy #6: Set a Baseline Metric
The best way to make a permanent change is to focus on daily, incremental improvements. Your aim is to wean yourself off this habit by setting target goals where you consistently decrease the quantity or time that you do it.
The first step of this process is to establish a baseline metric. This metric can vary according to the specific habit you’re trying to change:
- The number of cigarettes smoked every day
- The times each day you bite your fingernails
- How much you currently weigh
- The number of calories you consume on a daily basis
- How many drinks you consume while “going out”
- The amount of time spent on Facebook or surfing the Internet
- The amount of time spent watching television
Strategy #7: Create Incremental Goals
Like I’ve said, quitting cold turkey isn’t a realistic long-term goal. Instead, it’s better to focus on incremental goals where you slowly move away from doing the bad habit.
Let’s say you’re a smoker who averages 20 cigarettes a day. Your ultimate goal when you think about how to break a bad habit, is to get rid of it entirely. But for now, you’d stick to these incremental goals:
- 15 cigarettes each day for weeks 1 to 2
- 10 cigarettes each day for weeks 3 to 4
- 5 cigarettes each day for weeks 5 to 6
- 3 cigarettes each day for weeks 7 to 8
- 1 (or less) cigarettes each day for weeks 9 and beyond
Obviously, your numbers will be different. Plus, there will be times when you’ll fail with this goal. The key here is to make slow changes to your life. Breaking a habit in a methodical manner gives your body and mind a chance to diminish its constant craving.
Phase II: Understand Your Habit Loop
Since you’re a reader of DevelopGoodHabits.com, I’ll assume you’re interested in making a permanent change to your life. In reality, it’s not enough to make incremental changes. The best long-term strategy is to identify your habit loops and understand the underlying motivations behind each routine.
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg talks about “habit loops,” which are the actions that bring you from cue to reward. Understand these actions and you’ll take that first step towards making a permanent lifestyle change.
The best way to forever eliminate a habit is to slowly replace or “imprint” negative habits with healthier routines. That means instead of focusing on what you’re missing, you’ll follow new routines that give you the same reward.
Once you’ve scheduled a “start date,” you’ll follow these strategies to reprogram your mind:
Strategy #8: Identify the Habit Routine
Every habit follows the same three-step pattern:
- The Cue: A situational trigger that is based on a reward you’re seeking.
- The Reward: The satisfaction you seek by following the routine.
- The Routine: A physical or emotional action you take to obtain the reward.
To illustrate this concept, check out this flowchart that Duhigg offers on his blog:
(Click to see a larger version)
All habits have actions and thoughts that occur beforehand. The cue is the trigger that creates a craving to get a reward. The routine is the action you take to satisfy this impulse. The reward is the satisfaction you feel from following this routine or it’s the removal of stress that the cue created.
The best way to understand this process is to go over each of the individual components, so let’s talk about how to do that.
Strategy #9: Record the Habit Triggers
We are constantly bombarded with cues to take certain actions. Sometimes they’re external where a sight, sound, or smell creates a craving. Other times, it’s an internal sensation that sparks this desire.
To make a permanent change, you need to fully understand when and why these “triggers” occur. You can easily do this by recording five pieces of information whenever you feel the need to complete a bad habit:
- Location: Record where you are
- Time: Write down the exact time when you felt the urge
- Mood: Record your emotional state
- People: Who is with you or who is around you?
- Action: What did you just do? What are you currently doing?
The key to this exercise is repetition. Focus on recording these five data points in the first few weeks of the new habit change. Do this for awhile and you’ll notice a number of patterns that provide amazing insight into your bad habit.
Let’s say you’re trying to curb your consumption of alcohol. On the surface, it might seem like an innocent activity. But this drinking habit has led to a number of problems: arguments at home, decreased productivity at work and even a DUI last month. What was once a fun activity has now turned into a serious issue.
In addition to seeking help from others (more on this later), you’d get insight on this habit by tracking its triggers. After careful recording, you notice that these five patterns stand out:
- Location: At O’Brien’s Bar & Grille
- Time: 3:13 PM
- Mood: Stressed out
- People: With “The Guys” – Frank, Bill and Dave
- Action: Watching the baseball game
Your goal is to minimize your drinking. So after tracking this habit for a few weeks, you realize that the problem most occurs when you’re stressed out or feel like hanging out “The Guys” and watching the ballgame.
By analyzing these triggers, you now know that your drinking is caused by a desire to feel relaxed and reduce stressed. More importantly, it’s an activity you prefer to share with other people.
Strategy #10: Try Different Rewards
The interesting thing about bad habits is they often come from a desire to get a subconscious reward. Usually we do them because we want to feel relaxed, happy, energized, accepted or loved. The good news is you can substitute the bad habit and still get this positive result.
That’s why it’s important to experiment with various rewards. Create a few different strategies you’ll implement whenever you experience a cue. The goal here is to find a positive routine that will provide the same feeling you get with a bad habit, without following the negative routine.
Let’s go back to the example from before – consuming too much alcohol. After identifying triggers for a few days, you realize that the drinking habit comes from a need to feel relaxed and reduce stress. It’s also a byproduct of a desire to socialize and have fun.
So you can plan different strategies whenever you feel the need to relax:
- Going for a 10 minute walk around the neighborhood
- Avoiding O’Brien’s Bar & Grille
- Doing a different activity with friends instead of drinking
- Making new connections and building up your social network
- Mediating for a half-hour
Not all of these strategies will be right for your situation, but this strategy is important because you’re trying to find that one new routine that provides a reward that’s similar to the bad habit.
Strategy #11: See What Works
Whenever you follow a new routine, take stock of your mood afterwards to see if you still feel a desire to do the bad habit. If it’s still there, then you know the result of this new routine is not the reward you’re seeking.
Let’s go back to our drinking example.
You found that exercise and meditation aren’t reducing your stress levels. What did work was forming new friendships with people who don’t spend their time in a bar. These positive people help you feel relaxed, which ultimately minimizes the tense feeling you experience before having a drink.
Moreover, you know that Dave (one of your buddies from O’Brien’s Bar & Grille) loves hiking, which is an activity you also enjoy. This means you can minimize your drinking while staying connected to one of your friends.
Whenever you experience a “bad habit trigger,” you should substitute it with a new routine. This will be hard to do at first, but eventually you’ll start to follow a different routine without thinking about it.
Sidebar: Sometimes you’ll realize that certain people trigger bad habits. That means you have to make a decision – either you spend less time with them or you keep doing something that’s not good for you.
Sure, it’s not easy to “let go” of certain people, but sometimes you need to sacrifice the relationships that lead to self-destructive habit loops.
Strategy #12: Formulate a Plan
It’ll take a few weeks of experimentation to identify the perfect replacement habit, but eventually you’ll find something that works. At this point, you should align your actions to this activity instead of the bad habit.
The best way to make a lasting change is to follow a step-by-step plan whenever you experience an impulse. Get started by taking the common triggers from strategy #9 and creating a plan for each of these cues.
The goal with this exercise is to reprogram your mind to take a different action, even when you feel a craving to do the bad habit.
Once again, let’s go back to the drinking example. Here are a few new strategies you can follow:
- “When Dave invites me to O’Brien’s, I will suggest a hike instead.”
- “On ‘Football Sunday,’ I will go to activities from Meetup.com instead of hitting the bar.”
- “At 5:00 every day, I will go for a 30 minute walk to reduce stress”
What you’re doing here is identifying your “weak spots” and creating a plan for how you’ll act. This will be your first line of defense against a bad habit impulse. So whenever this craving strikes, you’ll know exactly what to do instead.
Strategy #13: Understand the “Hot-Cold Empathy Gap”
“All plans are great until the first shot is fired.” – An old military expression
Every plan looks perfect on paper, but they rarely work when you experience a major temptation. You might do well for awhile, but it’s hard to stick to a new routine when your life is full of stress and triggers.
Moreover, it’s hard to remember what it’s like to feel that psychological and physiological craving when you’re making a plan. You might say you’ll never cave in, but this hard to do when you’re stressed, tired and just want to do the one thing you’re trying to eliminate.
When this happens, it’s important to remember something that George Loewenstein discovered in one of his studies. Basically he determined that people suffer from a hot-cold empathy gap when it comes to the plans we make for dealing with temptation.
When it comes to the hot-cold empathy gap, people often fail to predict how they’ll feel in a “hot state” when there’s a strong desire to do a bad habit. In other words, no amount of planning will help understand what it’s like to experience a strong craving.
While planning is important, you’ll also need a strategy for dealing with slip-ups. Just remember that mistakes are mistakes. Caving in doesn’t mean you’re weak. Instead, accept that occasionally giving into a desire is a natural part of making a permanent habit change.
Strategy #14: Use “Habit Reminders” to Stay the Course
Habit reminders are a great way to keep following a new routine. These can be written down on a piece of paper that you keep with you at all times or they can be part of an alert that pops up on your mobile phone. Yes, these reminders might seem silly, but they’re a great way to keep this habit change at the forefront of your mind.
Phase III: Build a Support System
Making a commitment to yourself is just half the battle. Really, you can’t make a lasting change on your own. Instead, it’s important to build a support system of people who will help you follow through with this goal.
People can either make or break your success. By including them in your habit change plan, you can get assistance whenever you’re feeling tempted or weak.
Here are a few strategies for creating a dynamic support system.
Strategy #15: Keep an Accountability Journal
Track your day-to-day attempt to change a habit, including every stat or metric. The more information you include, the easier it is to understand what affects your mood or impulses.
Depending on the habit, here are a few things you can include in an accountability journal:
- Number of times you do the bad habit
- Amount of time you spend doing this activity
- Total calories, broken down by individual foods
- Current weight and/or body mass index
- Feeling, emotions and impulses
- Challenges you’re currently experiencing
Let’s say you want to quit smoking. Every day, you would target a maximum number of cigarettes you want to smoke. Then you’d record the amount you actually smoked. Plus you’d record the feelings and impulses that led you to light up.
The key with an accountability journal is to provide 100% disclosure. You need to write down everything– even if you fail with your goal.
Strategy #16: Make a Public Declaration
Social networks have become a major part of our daily existence. A great way to harness these friendships is to request support for your habit change goal.
Nobody wants to look bad. Post updates on your habit change on your social media account and you’ll get encouragement from your friends. This can be a simple Tweet or Facebook post. Or you can use a mobile phone app like Coache.me, which automatically updates your account with progress reports.
Never underestimate the power of social approval. Simply knowing you have to be accountable for your actions keeps you focused on a habit change.
Strategy #17: Find an Accountability Partner
You don’t need to walk this road alone. Instead, you should regularly communicate with someone who shares a similar desire to make a lasting change. Talk or meet with this person a few times each week to share your experiences. You can even take it one step further and follow a new routine with each other – like walking 10,000 steps.
Another idea is to find a “sponsor” who can help you get through those moments of weakness. Simply call this person when you’re feeling weak and they’ll get you past this temptation.
An accountability partner doesn’t have to live nearby. It’s not too hard to meet people on forums and Facebook groups who share a similar desire to develop good habits. All you have to do is install a tool like Skype and you can talk for five minutes, a few times each week.
Strategy #18: Ignore the Naysayers
Sadly, there will be people who will subconsciously (or consciously) try to sabotage your efforts at self-improvement. They could be random strangers, close friends or even family members. Their words can be poison because they’ll flood your mind with self-limiting beliefs. Listen to their “advice” at your own peril. The moment you start believing them, is the moment you’ll take that first step towards failure.
Having a plan for handling naysayers is as important as knowing what to do when you’re tempted by an impulse. You need to know what to say and what to do whenever a person says something that causes you to second-guess a habit change. My suggestion is to find a way to ignore their comments or immediately rebuff these statements.
Strategy #19: Avoid Trigger Locations
People aren’t the only triggers for a bad habit. Sometimes a location can cause an impulse to follow a specific routine.
During the weeks while you’re trying to change a routine, you’ll want to avoid the places that cause a negative habit loop.
For instance, many people smoke while they’re drinking. So if you’re looking to eliminate the cigarette habit, the best thing you can do is avoid the bar scene. Yes, this might mean ditching your friends for awhile, but this strategy can help you minimize the impulses you’ll feel to light up.
Strategy #20: Seek Professional Help
Let’s be honest here – some habits require a higher level of expertise that goes beyond reading a piece of online content. Often, you’ll need to seek out professional help or attend regular meetings to overcome a strong addiction.
There are many routines that require professional help – alcoholism, drug addiction, binge eating, chain smoking and eating disorders. I can’t tell you where the line is, but you might be at a point where you need help from an expert on addiction.
There are a few ways you can implement this strategy:
- Talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist
- Join a group like NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)
- Join a local weight group that emphasizes permanent life changes instead of fad diets
- Ask your doctor about different (non-addictive) solutions to battle cravings
Don’t be afraid to get help from other others. You might have an addiction that you can’t overcome by following a simple checklist. Odds are, if you think you have a real problem, then it might be time to go get the assistance you really need.
Phase IV: Overcome Challenges
Remember our discussion of the hot-cold empathy gap? This is something you’ll encounter while trying to do any major habit challenge. The key to overcoming this empathy gap is to follow a few specific strategies. Simply implement the following and you’ll be able to overcome any moment of weakness or temptation:
Strategy #21: Live a Healthy Lifestyle
Like I mentioned before, ego depletion can leave your willpower in a weakened state. If you’re always tired, hungry, stressed or depressed, you’ll increase the likelihood that you’ll succumb to a temptation.
A simple way to fight ego depletion is to live a healthy lifestyle. Since this problem is largely caused a low level of glucose, you can fight temptation by:
- Getting a full night’s sleep to feel energized in the morning
- Staying hydrated – drinking at least eight, 8-ounce cups of water every day
- Eating a balanced meal every day – including fruits, vegetables, (good) carbohydrates and lean protein
- Carrying healthy snacks with you when you feel hungry
- Exercising to reduce stress and maintain optimal weight
Don’t underestimate the power of the mind-body connection. When you live a balanced, healthy life, breaking a bad habit becomes that much easier.
(To learn more about this strategy, check out my Kindle book – 70 Healthy Habits: How to Eat Better, Feel Great, Get More Energy and Have a Healthy Lifestyle.)
Strategy #22: Remain Positive
We all experience temptations to do a bad habit. This is a natural part of the process, so don’t let these feelings get you down.
The trick is to know what to do whenever you have an impulse. The moment you experience a cue for a bad habit, reaffirm your commitment to stick to the new plan.
You can even recite a simple mantra whenever you experience a moment of weakness. This could be a silly phrase that you repeat on a regular basis like: “smoke free in three months.” Say this over and over whenever you feel the urge to light up.
Strategy #23: Beware the “What-the-Hell Effect”
As we’ve discussed, it’s easy to slip up with a goal. What you can’t afford to do is develop the “what the hell mindset” where you basically give up and go on a binge because you’ve already “failed” for the day.
So while it’s okay to slip up from time to time, what you can’t do is go off the deep end if you succumb to a temptation. Yes, tomorrow is another day, but it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to go do too much of a bad habit.
For instance, let’s say your goal is to smoke less than 10 cigarettes a day. Unfortunately one day you slip up and smoke 12 instead. What you shouldn’t do is follow the mindset that says: “what the hell, since I’ve already smoked 12 cigarettes, I might as well enjoy the rest of the day and light up whenever I feel like it.”
The what-the-hell effect can be a dangerous threat towards your habit change. Whenever you slip up, simply accept this failure and focus on minimizing the damage. More importantly, never use this as an excuse to do more of the bad habit.
Strategy #24: Forgive Yourself
A major reason why people give up on a habit change is they don’t know what to do after they “fall off the wagon.” Sure, they’ll strictly follow a goal for a few weeks, but they don’t know what to do when they slip up. What often happens is they’ll use this mistake as an excuse to give up.
At the risk of sounding like a touchy-feely psychologist, what you need to do is forgive yourself. We all make mistakes. Beating yourself up over a slip-up is counterproductive to your long-term goals.
While it’s important to be strict about eliminating a bad habit, you want to avoid filling your head with negative thoughts. A mistake is a mistake. It doesn’t mean you’re weak-willed. It means you’re human like the rest of us.
Strategy #25: Reward Yourself
Trying to break a habit can become a grueling experience. You can make it fun by rewarding yourself for achieving specific milestones. The key here is to avoid any incentive that’s directly related to the activity you’re trying to eliminate.
For every week you meet a weight loss goal, you could treat yourself to a movie or a small shopping spree. But you’d want to avoid the all-you-can-eat buffet at Golden Corral.
Set rewards for your habit change. Create incentives for the 1st day, 1st week, 2nd week, 1st month, 3rd month, 6th month and year milestones. The more goals you create, the more you’ll stay focused on the habit change.
Strategy #26: Review Your Plan Daily
Eliminating a bad habit is like any other long-term goal. Basically you need daily commitments and reminders to stick with the plan.
One strategy is to turn your habit change into goal that you review every single day. For instance, I have a morning routine where I go over all my goals and reaffirm the commitment to make changes in my life. (You can learn more about this morning routine in my book, Wake Up Successful)
Strategy #27: Take it Day-by-Day
Don’t worry about tomorrow or next year. Instead, focus on that next impulse, trigger or cue. Have a plan for what you’ll do today and leave tomorrow for tomorrow.
In a way, changing a habit is like running a marathon. You’d go crazy if you thought about running 26.2 miles, but it’s easy to do if you focus on getting to the next mile. Stay focused on what you need to do right now and try to ignore what will happen in the future.
With this mindset, you’ll slowly make incremental changes. At first, you might not notice a shift in your habits. However, on a long enough timeline, you’ll start to develop a permanent change to your routine. Whereas you used to cave into a bad habit impulse, you now can resist this urge.
A Quick Recap…
This blog post is pretty lengthy. So I think it’s important to recap what we learned. To keep things simple, I’ve put the entire article into a simple SlideShare presentation:
The Long-Term Plan for Breaking a Bad Habit
Breaking a bad habit is an ongoing process that doesn’t happen overnight. Throughout this article, you’ve learned 27 strategies that will help you make a lasting change. But at the end of the day, it’s important to remember that they’re just tips.
Real results come from you taking action. I recommend you print out this article and go step-by-step through each idea. Start by selecting one bad habit and making an aggressive attempt to completely eliminate it.
If you have any other specific personal development problems, I suggest reading far and wide on your specific subject. While I would hope you enjoy some of my books, there are a ton of good ones out there that can help you through your issues. I have collected a list of 175+ great self-help books that can help you with a wide variety of issues. This list is divided into sections to help you find just what you are looking for, and will only grow in time with YOUR input.
Just remember that habit changes require a daily commitment. Work hard to stay focused, but don’t agonize over every failure. The important thing is to keep at it and learn from each impulse or trigger.