7 strategies for breaking a bad habit

A bad habit can be anything from chain-smoking to something as simple as continuously streaming clips of cats on YouTube. They’re not easy to break, especially if you enjoy doing them! But it is possible. Here are 7 strategies that can definitely help you to break your bad habit.

1. Use rewards 

Harness the power of positive reinforcement to build on gains. After making small changes towards breaking your habit, reward yourself! You could use the money, time or energy saved from opting out of your bad habit to buy or do something nice for yourself. This will increase the desirability and likelihood of further changes.

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2. Get motivated

To successfully break a habit, it’s important to identify why you want to change. Write down powerful, personal reasons to break the habit. What are the upsides of changing? What are the downsides of continuing the behaviour? These reasons need to be strong enough to outweigh the urges you’ll have to continue the behaviour. “Because mum says so” is just not good enough!

3. Analyse the habit

When, where, why, and how do you engage in your habit? How often do you do it and how bad does it get? It’s crucial to understand a behaviour before you start trying to change it. Try monitoring your habit for a week or a month and keeping some notes.  Awareness provides the foundation for change. Trial these or other apps for a helping hand: Way of life, Habitbull, Coach.

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4. Build a plan and plot progress

Once the problem is clear, think about the solution. What does success look like and how will you get there? Going cold turkey might work for some, but starting small and ticking off bigger and bigger steps gradually may be a safer approach. No matter which approach you take, come up with a goal date and/or duration for breaking your bad habit, break this down into smaller goals and track your progress against these as you go.

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5. Replace the behaviour

Research has shown that replacing unwanted behaviours with other (ideally incompatible) behaviours is an effective technique for breaking bad habits. This could be as simple as clenching your fists when you feel the temptation to bite your nails or going for a run to relieve stress, rather than smoking a cigarette. To do this successfully, it’s important to understand the needs that your bad habit met and how you can meet these with healthier habits. If you go to the pub to socialise, then replacing your beer with a soft drink is more likely to work than never going to the pub! 

6. Don't go it alone

The likelihood of breaking your bad habit will be massively increased if you recruit some support. Break the habit with someone else or in a team, tell others your plan, join an online forum, or just ask others not to engage in the habit around you. Depending on the habit, professional help may also be worthwhile. 

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7. Persevere 

Commit to breaking your habit over the long term and expect to have some setbacks. Lapses are common in the process of changing behaviour. Instead of using these as an excuse to give up, try viewing them as a chance to understand what went wrong and how to avoid it next time.

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Last reviewed: 12 August, 2015
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