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How to break a bad habit: Four best strategies for success

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How to break a bad habit and why most people are bad habit breakers!

Aaaah the moment of firm resolve. You know what I’m talking about right? Moments where you notice that you’re engaging in some bad habit you don’t want  — this could be anything from drinking another can of sugary soda, watching tv over exercising, sleeping in when you’d like to get out of bed earlier. In that moment, you declare that you are going to learn how to break a bad habit – this one for sure and many more. So you say to yourself or out loud to someone: “Tomorrow this is going differently. I’m changing my ways.”

Tomorrow comes and one of two scenarios usually plays out:

  1. You make the change and it lasts for a while. But, eventually you find yourself back in the same rut. Behaving the same way. Ever seen someone with bad eating habits go on salad diet, lose the weight temporarily and then return to their bad eating habits and gain back the weight?
  2. You don’t make the change and you get mad at yourself (maybe even beat yourself up in your head for being a weak person). Eventually, you may simply give up trying to break the habit. You might even start making excuses for yourself so you feel better about the situation: “I look better when I’m thirty pounds heavier anyways!”

There is a third scenario, but it rarely plays out…

You declare you’re going to make a change and then you actually do! You’re successful. But this only happens when you reach an emotional breaking point with yourself. The pain of engaging in the habit outweighs the payoffs you’re getting from it.

Waiting to reach an emotional breaking point to make a lasting change is just not practical. Nor is it fun, at all.

So if you want to kick a bad habit or encourage a new healthy habit to form, keep reading for the 4 most effective ways to do this.

First, a quick lesson in the anatomy of a habit

Most people try to break their bad habits and foster new better behaviors without first understanding how habits work from a biological standpoint. That’s kind of like trying to drive a car with no knowledge of how it functions.

Engaging in bad habits? Learn how to break a bad habit once and for all
Success in life comes down to your ability to form good habits.

So here’s the thing about you, and I, and all humans…

Every single action you take has a payoff. There’s a reason you do it, and that reason is some form of reward. For instance, I drink a cup of coffee in the morning because it makes me feel tremendous joy. I love the taste and the sense of comfort and peace I get from my morning ritual of coffee drinking.

The happy feeling I get from my coffee is my reward. The pleasure I feel encourages me to keep engaging in the action of making myself a coffee every morning.

Now, there’s also a cue that sets me into physically taking the action of going to my coffee machine and brewing a cup. Waking up from a sleep is my cue to go make a coffee. I do it on autopilot.

For every habit you have — good or bad — there’s three components to that one event. Here’s how it goes:

Something happens that sends a signal to your brain to engage in the habit → You physically take the habitual action → You get a reward from the habit

Every habit and every action you take goes through a sequence of


If you want to know what motivates you to do anything you’re doing in life you can look to this sequence and you’ll find your answer. Even bad habits! All bad habits have a reward and cue linked to them.

Here’s a summary on methods for habit breaking:

How to break a bad habit:

  1. Avoid the cue for the bad habit.
  2. Disengage in a bad habit slowly and incrementally.
  3. Reward yourself for new habit formation
  4. Bring yourself to an emotional breaking point

Let’s look at these in detail…

1. Avoid the cue for the bad habit

Identify what the cue is for your behavior and avoid it at all costs. For this method to work you need to create major structures that will have you stay away from the cue. You’ll be tempted.

This method is by no means perfect because it has you avoiding situations and stimuli. It’s healthier to train yourself to live comfortably with your cue but for some people it’s really not possible. Your body will be too hardwired to behave in the ways you consciously don’t want to when you’re around the cue. So for some people staying away is the best way.

This is why anyone with substance abuse challenges often needs to make serious lifestyle changes because being in the cue environments will set their brain into action regardless of whether they consciously want to engage in the habitual behaviors or not.

2. Disengage in a bad habit slowly and incrementally

Your habit has been built over time through the wiring of the same circuits in your brain over and over. So, it makes much more sense to incrementally unwire yourself to disengage in a bad habit, or train yourself in a new habit in order to replace the old one.

Small incremental progress works to slowly change your habit. This method takes time but is often more effective and less painful than a “cold turkey approach”.

For instance if you want to lose weight and eat better don’t replace your chocolate bars with kale overnight. One chocolate bar at time! Or, if you want to wake up earlier don’t try to wake up at 6am when you usually get up at 9am. You’ve conditioned your body to wake up at that time.

Make smaller changes, overtime, and work with your biology not against it.

3. Reward yourself for new habit formation

Make sure you reward yourself for good behavior. Really take the time to dissect why you engage in your habit by considering the cue, action and reward.

Let’s say you want to have better money management skills. You’re great at spending but not great at saving money and you would like this to change. So, your first step is to go to the bank and open up a new savings account. Then every month you start putting money in.

It’s really important that every time you put money in your savings account that you go buy yourself something nice as a reward. This will teach you that saving money is good. You start to create a pleasurable feeling connection with saving money. Eventually you won’t need to reward yourself by buying something because you’ll get the payoff of saving. But in the beginning especially, you need to reward yourself.

Have bad eating habits and want to exercise more? Go for a 30-minute run and when you come home don’t eat salad, eat a piece of cake. It’s your reward! You’ll start creating a brain connection with exercise that’s pleasurable. Eventually you won’t need or want the cake.

4. Bring yourself to an emotional breaking point

Remember how I said you can change your behaviors if you reach an emotional breaking point? For instance, you go bankrupt and that has you change your ways around being more responsible with money.

You can force yourself into this emotional breaking point by visualizing, spending time thinking about worst case scenarios and/or physically putting yourself in those worst case scenario environments.

Your brain doesn’t know the difference between imagining doing something and actually doing something. So visualize and think about the worst case scenarios. This can force you to start to take better actions.

Dissect the bad habits you want to change by figuring out what’s really going on. When you know what your’ edoing that doesn’t work for you, you can then create an strategy to change it. Did this article help you learn how to break a bad habit? Let us know what results you got by sharing on our Facebook page.

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