How To Get Out Of A Bad Habit

I regularly take the the top voted question from readers and answer them in a post. With 62 votes, today’s winner was:

How Do you Get Out of A Bad Habit

There is plenty of advice today about habits and how to change them. I’m no expert, and you can find plenty of well regarded books on the subject. While the topic hasn’t reached mainstream knowledge yet, I hope it does. Our habits define who we are more than our dreams do. All schooling is an attempt to change students habits, but we are never taught how to change them on our own. The fancy word to know is metacognition, which means thinking about how you think. This is a key element in changing habits and many other things about yourself, as thinking about how you make decisions is exactly what you need to change your own habits.

A better question is: how to get into a good habit. Framed this way you have positive psychology on your side, increasing your odds. A goal like “I want to lose 50 pounds!” is far too vague and negative, compared to “I want to eat a healthy salad for lunch 5 days a week.” That second goal is specific, positive and thoughtful, and easier to achieve. Start by defining the goal in something you can do on a daily basis and that is positive.

We like dramatic goals since it’s easier to get initially excited by them, but they’re too abstract. Because of their grandiosity we feel worse when we’re not making progress, not better. It’s easier to quit a goal that feels impossible than one that’s merely about a small decision we have to make today.

1. Get your own data

If you have a bad habit you probably don’t realize how often you do it. Start by simply accounting for your habits. Exactly how many Oreos do you eat per hour? How many times per day do you check Facebook? Have a place, on a whiteboard or on your phone, where you mark down every time you do the thing you’re trying to do less, or more, of. You don’t have to change your habits yet: that comes later. But for now build in awareness of exactly what your current habits are.

You might be surprised by the patterns you find. And the simple act of recording it might motivate you to do it less. Maybe there’s a habit you don’t even realize you have that sets off the habit you want to change. Perhaps it’s the time of day when you have the most stress that the habit is most pronounced? Or when you’re with certain people? This is data about you that no book or expert can provide: you need self-awareness if you want to change yourself.

And by writing down every time you do something you’re teaching yourself an important skill: how to form a new habit. Without even changing the old habit, you’ve put a new, healthier pattern in place. Give yourself credit for how many days in a row you document what you’re doing. Writing things down every day is an easy habit to learn: we all had it in elementary school. There are plenty of mobile phone apps that help with this.

2. Find A Partner

We are social creatures and many bad habits involve other people to share them with. Find a friend who has something they want to change, and partner with them. Websites like stickk and 43 things make setting and sharing goals with friends into a game. This uses the forces of peer pressure to push you in a direction you want. Many of our most common bad habits are done socially (drinking, smoking, overeating), but so are many of the habits we want (exercising, volunteering, connecting). Think through who in your life most contributes to your bad and good habits and shift how you spend your time accordingly, or even invite friends that you share bad habits with to join you or your goal for a better habit.

Simply being around people who are engaged in habits you want to adopt will change your perception of the habit and of yourself. Many of our deepest habits are learned from the most intimate relationships we’ve had: our families. You will feel differently about the daily walk around the block you are proud of if the people you like spending time with take a daily 2 mile hike. You’ll naturally want to participate, and it will be a nudge towards a habit you want that will feel good, not bad.

3. Pick smart rewards, not just old ones

Many people use bad habits as rewards: an extra cupcake, a third beer, or a four hour TV binge. Think about things you enjoy that are entirely positive, where the reward doesn’t work against the very goal that earned the reward in the first place. Experiences, like going to the movies or a play, make for great rewards since they’re about an experience you don’t often have but probably enjoy and can look forward to. The concept of a cheat day makes sense in it sets up a controlled escape valve for natural desires to experience old habits, .

4. Choose alternative behaviors

After you’ve made recording data a habit, you have to find alternatives. The joke of course is, like the Lloyd Bridges character from the movie Airplane!, it never seems like a good day to make a change. When under pressure we compulsively want comfort and that means our old habits.The mistake Bridge’s character made though wasn’t about the day he chose. It was about what his lack of forethought for feeling pressure to return to the old habit. He had no alternative, had no partner, and wasn’t recording data about what he was doing.


This is where the practice from #1 and #2 above come into play. If you have a partner, odds are they’re not experiencing a craving for old habits at the same time that you are. If you reach out to them they can help talk you through the feelings you’re having and sort them out without using the old behavior. If you’ve been tracking your habits, looking at the last few days or weeks of data will remind you how much you’ve achieved so far, and inspire you to stick with it another day. You’ll be reminded it’s not just about the moment you’re in – it’s about the long term, and it’s the long term view that made you want to try changing your habit in the first place.

It’s best not to depend on willpower. No one really has very much of it. The basic notion of a habit is to be able to do something without much conscious effort. Use the  willpower you do have each day to do the simple things that will influence your behavior in the long run. It’s what you do each day that allows the natural pull of habituation to move you towards the behaviors and goals you desire.

2 Responses to “How To Get Out Of A Bad Habit”


Leave a Reply

* Required