13 Ways to Break Yourself of Unwanted Habits (And Make It Stick)

breaking bad habits

We all have habits, some good and some not-so-good. It’s a normal part of life. There’s nothing wrong with practicing habitual manners unless they hurt you and those around you. 

Good habits, such as preparing your lunch in the evenings for the following work day, are worth the time and effort. They not only make your life more organized but also contribute to your overall well-being. Unwanted behaviors, however, can be harmful or, at the very least, annoying. 

Breaking unwanted habits can be difficult, especially if you’ve been engaging in them for a long time. However, understanding how habits form and the triggers that sustain them can significantly ease the process.

1. Identify Triggers

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Triggers are usually the first step in developing a habit. Being able to identify the triggers behind your habitual behaviors is crucial to moving past them. Spend a few days tracking your habits to recognize patterns. Note where the behavior happens, the time of day, your feelings, the involvement of others, and if it follows another activity. 

For example, if you want to stop staying up past midnight, you might notice you stay up later watching TV or chatting with friends after dinner. Instead, read or take a walk, stop watching TV, and turn off your phone by a reasonable time on weeknights.

2. Focus on Why You Want to Change

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Why do you want to change a habit? Research suggests it’s easier to change behavior when the change is valuable to you. Take a few minutes to consider why you want to break the habit and the benefits of doing so. Write down your reasons and keep a list of where you’ll see them regularly, like on your fridge or bathroom mirror. 

Seeing the list can keep your goal fresh and remind you why you want to keep trying, even if you slip up. This added motivation can help reinforce your commitment to change.

3. Disrupt Your Routine

Woman cross off day with routine in her Habit Tracker in a Bullet Journal.
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Once you identify the cues behind your bad habits, you can disrupt them to help break the cycle. For example, if your alarm triggers the habit of hitting the snooze button, move your alarm clock to the other side of the room. This forces you to get out of bed and turn it off, disrupting your routine. 

By making engaging in the unwanted behavior harder, you create a physical interruption that helps weaken the habit. Over time, these disruptions can diminish the habit’s power, making replacing it with more positive behaviors easier.

4. Replace With a Positive Behavior

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Research indicates that replacing a bad behavior with a good one is more effective than simply trying to stop it. This approach works because the new behavior “interferes” with the old habit, preventing your brain from going into autopilot. For example, if you decide to eat a piece of fruit every time you crave a cookie, you are substituting a positive behavior for a harmful habit.

This substitution helps you avoid the cookie and creates a new, healthier habit. Over time, your brain will start associating the cue with the new behavior, making it easier to stick to your goal and reinforcing the positive change.

5. Keep It Simple

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Understanding the science behind habit formation can be empowering. For instance, changing a habit can be difficult because the behavior has become automatic and effortless, largely due to the role of the basal ganglia

On the other hand, adopting new behaviors can be challenging because this ‘autopilot’ part of the brain has not yet taken over. One way to make integrating new behaviors easier is to simplify them, which can help them become a part of your autopilot routines.

6. Think Long-Term

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Habits often develop because they satisfy immediate impulses, like chewing your nails, which can quickly calm your nerves. However, these short-term gratifications frequently lead to long-term negative consequences, such as unsightly, damaged nails and potential infections. Focusing on the long-term benefits of breaking such habits is crucial to changing them successfully. 

This perspective helps reinforce why the effort is worthwhile, reminding you that investing in healthier habits now will lead to better outcomes in the future. For instance, avoiding nail biting keeps your nails looking better, improves overall hand hygiene, and reduces anxiety triggers over time.

7. Don’t Give Up

athletic mature man after run in park.
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Research shows that past behavior predicts future actions, making established habits challenging to break. However, with persistence, new behaviors can become habits too. Consistency is key; although getting up at 5 a.m. for a jog may initially be challenging, it will become second nature over time. 

This transition happens because the brain’s neural pathways adapt to repeated actions, making them easier and more automatic. Thus, the more you practice your new routine, the more ingrained and effortless it becomes, ultimately replacing the old habit with a healthier, more beneficial one.

8. Reward Yourself

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Breaking a habit is challenging, so it’s important to acknowledge your progress and reward yourself along the way. Recognize your achievements, no matter how small, and celebrate them. Small rewards, such as positive self-talk or treating yourself to something enjoyable, reinforce your efforts and can help boost confidence. 

Focusing on progress rather than setbacks helps maintain a positive mindset, reducing the risk of discouragement and negative self-talk, which can hinder your motivation. Celebrating milestones keeps you encouraged and committed to your goal, making the process more manageable and rewarding.

9. Enlist a Friend’s Help

Woman comforts her friend in cafe during coffee break.
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If you and a friend or partner both want to break a habit, try doing it together. For example, quitting smoking alone can be tough, but facing cravings with someone else might make them easier to handle. Cheer each other’s successes and provide support through setbacks.

Even if your friend doesn’t have habits to change, they can still help. Tell a trusted friend about your goal so they can encourage you during tough times and gently remind you if they see you slipping back into old habits. Sharing the journey can make the process more manageable and successful.

10. Practice Mindfulness

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Mindfulness enhances your awareness of thoughts, emotions, and actions. Observing impulses without judgment or reaction gives you insight into habitual behaviors and their triggers. This awareness empowers you to explore alternative responses, like avoiding triggers or refraining from acting impulsively. 

Mindfulness is a practice that cultivates a pause between stimulus and response. This pause allows for intentional choices rather than automatic reactions. This intentional choice can effectively support breaking or changing habits, allowing you to take control of your life and make positive changes.

11. Leave Yourself Reminders

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To reinforce new behaviors and break old habits, strategically place visual reminders in your environment. For instance, place stickers on the fridge to remind you to skip soda with meals. Leave notes on light switches to remember to turn them off when leaving a room. 

Designate a spot for keys near your entryway with a visible dish. Utilize smartphone alarms with motivating messages like “Turn off the TV!” or “Enjoy an after-dinner walk!” These reminders prompt mindfulness and encourage positive actions throughout your day.

12. Prepare for Slip-Ups

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Breaking a habit can be daunting, as some habits prove more resilient than others. It’s easy to fall back into old patterns, especially when new ones aren’t firmly established. Your habits didn’t form instantaneously, so you won’t successfully break them overnight. 

Prepare mentally for setbacks to avoid feeling guilty or discouraged. Consider journaling about your feelings during the habit or practicing a brief breathing exercise. These tools can help you manage your emotions and stress levels. Learn from slipups by honestly evaluating what triggered them. Adjust your approach accordingly to maintain progress toward your goals.

13. Change Your Environment

Young woman leaving the office building holding takeaway coffee and smiling.
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Your environment significantly influences your habits. For instance, if you’re trying to curb takeout expenses, seeing menus on your fridge might tempt you. Replace them with easy recipe printouts to encourage home cooking. Similarly, leave a journal or hobby items on your coffee table instead of social media distractions. Spend a few minutes tidying up nightly to maintain a clutter-free space.

Consider altering your morning route to avoid tempting cafes. Also, remember that the people around you affect your habits. Take breaks from those who enable or don’t support your efforts to break a habit.

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With a passion for travel, great food, and beautiful art, Julie put aside her 15-year career in the tech industry and dove head-first into a more creative sphere. Utilizing her degree in Communications, she is pursuing freelance writing. An avid traveler, Julie has experience writing and documenting the amazing spots she has visited and explored, the delicious food she has tasted, and the incredible art she has admired and purchased! When she’s not writing, she can be spotted around Austin, TX, at various art gallery openings, having a delicious meal with her husband and friends, and playing with her two dogs.

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