- What Exactly is a Habit and Why Should You Care?
- What Causes Bad Habits?
- How to Break a Bad Habit
- How to Build Good Habits Instead
- How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?
If you want to change your life, change your habits. But it takes more than wanting to change to break a bad habit, it takes strategy and dedication. Along with replacing your bad habit with a healthy habit instead. However, the good news is that after the initial hard work, your new healthy habits become second nature and life gets way easier.
Here’s your ultimate how to break bad habits guide with life changing steps to build healthy habits that last.
What Exactly is a Habit and Why Should You Care?
A habit is a behavior choice that has become an unconscious pattern or automatic routine through repetition.
In the famous words of Aristotle, excellence is not an act, it is a habit. We are what we repeatedly do, meaning our habits literally define the person we are and who we become.
You are not one action, in the same way a single meal or workout won’t transform your health. You are a culmination of all the decisions you’ve made over your lifetime so far. And every decision you make is a vote for or against the type of person you want to become moving forward.
The goal is not to go about every day perfectly, but to stack more chips on the side of what you want to become.
This is true consistency. Learn how to master it and your entire life will change for the better.
This mentality will also save you as you go about trying to transform your health. Take things one thing at a time and continually ask yourself - “does this action help or hurt my goals”?
What Causes Bad Habits?
It’s not your lack of willpower or motivation that is driving you to make poor decisions (1,2). Oftentimes, our habits have become so ingrained in our day to day that we don’t even realize what our bad habits are.
This is the basic foundation of all habits, good or bad. Something triggers a behavior whether it is a visual reminder, a feeling or sensation, time of day, or a previous behavior. Then the action is followed by feedback, either positive or negative. If the feedback seems like a reward the action is more likely to be repeated. Then after continually repeating it, a habit is formed.
This is also referred to as reward based learning.
How to Break a Bad Habit
You can break bad habits by reverse engineering them and then ultimately replacing a bad habit with a better one. Here’s how to do this:
Step 1. Identify Your Bad Habits
The first step to breaking bad habits is identifying them. This is much more complicated than one might think and requires a lot of self awareness.
Once you start to identify some of the habits you want to break, you may feel overwhelmed. However, keep in mind that you don’t need to change everything all at once to see results. Not only is this difficult, but will likely set you up for failure. The trick is to identify one or two behaviors that are holding you back and start there. In other words, you only need to break one bad behavior pattern at a time.
When trying to improve your health or lose weight, making small dietary changes is often the most effective approach. Most of us likely have some idea of where this work needs to happen (like cutting out junk food), but it isn’t always super clear for everyone. To figure out exactly where to start, download a nutrition tracking app and start logging everything you eat or drink. Within a few days to a week, you’ll start to notice trends and areas where you can change things up.
For example, if you are finding that a large portion of your calories are coming from junk food, snacks, or sweetened beverages, consider dropping them altogether or scaling back.
Congrats, you’ve just identified your first small goal. Now write it down somewhere and get ready to get to work.
Step 2. Learn What Triggers Your Bad Habits
Once you know what habits you want to break, take a moment to discover what could be triggering them in the first place by identifying the "cue". The cue is what happens right before you act.
Do you notice that you snack at a certain time every day, when you are bored or stressed, or maybe you just have a lot of tasty snack options in sight at the office or in your home?
Whatever it is, take note and practice being more aware of this trigger when it comes up again. If you are able to remove the trigger, such as putting snacks out of sight or no longer buying them from the store, this can help. But if you’re feeling stuck, turn to step #3.
Step 3. Add Some Friction
The harder you make it to repeat bad habits, the less likely you are to keep them up. Adding some friction can help you stop and rethink a decision, and it can also provide negative feedback to reduce your likelihood of repeating it.
This can involve changing your environment, such as physically leaving the room or removing the snacks altogether. Adding an additional step, like the need to go to the store or head to the pantry in the garage. Or changing the feedback by adding a dollar to a jar every time you engage in a behavior you want to stop.
Here are some ideas to add friction:
- Unplug your television
- Brush your teeth after eating
- Rearrange your kitchen pantry and fridge
- Log everything you eat and drink in an app
Step 4. Replace a Bad Habit with a Good Habit
If you can’t change the trigger, one of the best solutions is to try and change the reaction by substituting one behavior for another. For example, instead of snacking every afternoon, try going for a walk, mediating, or calling a friend.
Choose a healthy routine that is easy to repeat and provides some sort of reward, whether it is an endorphin release or sense of wellbeing. Then keep repeating it until it sticks. If you're having trouble, it might not be the right fit, so consider trying a few different healthy habits and going with the one that you enjoy most.
How to Build Good Habits Instead
Now here comes the fun part, figuring out the person you want to become and then systematizing your life so that you can achieve even the biggest of goals. It all comes back to the habits you create.
Here’s your step by step guide to creating a new healthy habit that will last a lifetime.
Step 1. Change Your Mindset
Mindset is everything. Whatever you do, don’t go into a change with an all or nothing mindset. This is the easiest way to set yourself up for failure and disappointment. Instead go in with the understanding that this is a never ending process and if you can't figure out how to enjoy it, you’ll never reach your goals or truly be happy.
One of the best ways to do this is to set identity goals instead of outcome goals. It's easy to set goals based on a goal weight or outside reward. Thinking only about an outcome means you aren’t actually thinking about the steps you need to get there. Plus, outcome goals can make us want to quit when we inevitably don’t measure up to the picture in our head or struggle with the process.
Try setting an identity goal by identifying the person you need to become to reach your desired outcome. Then it becomes a lot easier to make day to day decisions because you are stepping into the mindset of the person you want to become. Additionally, telling yourself that you are “said identity” even during the process can help you believe and achieve it.
Say it with me now, “I am the person who ______”. Now go become that person.
Some more tips to take to heart when getting your mindset correct include:
- Stay positive
- Be patient
- Practice mindfulness
- Prioritize self love
Step 2. Have a Better “Why”
It’s pretty hard to change anything without a good enough motivation. Most of us are good at identifying a surface “why”, or extrinsic motivation - like losing 10 pounds, fitting into a favorite pair of pants, gearing up for a summer vacation, etc. But those of us who are truly successful at maintaining a habit long term are good at understanding our deeper, intrinsic motivations (5,6).
Extrinsic motivations are anything reinforced by outside rewards. While these motivators work great for short-term progress, they likely aren’t going to help you stick to your guns long term. And they usually can’t hold up against temptations when willpower is gone and motivation is fading.
To identify a solid reason to keep going, you’ll want to dig a little deeper and look for intrinsic motivators. Intrinsic motivation comes from within such as pride, self love, or sense of achievement. In a sense, having an intrinsic “why” means you are doing it for the joy of doing it.
To find your true motivation, keep asking yourself “why” you want to achieve this goal until you get to the heart of it.
- I want to lose 10 pounds
- So I can look better this summer
- Because it will make me feel more confident
- Because I feel better about myself when I take care of myself
Reminding yourself that you feel better about yourself when you take care of yourself is a much stronger motivation than wanting to lose 10 pounds or look good in a swimsuit. Getting to the root of your “why” and identifying a really good intrinsic reason to stick to the process can take your goals so much further.
Once you find your "why", write it down and keep it close by to remind yourself often - especially when you want to quit.
Step 3. Systematize Your Habit
Similar to how friction can help you break a bad habit, removing friction can help you build better ones. One of the best ways to ensure you repeat a behavior is to make it easy on yourself because the more seamless the action becomes, the more likely you are to keep it up.
One way to do this is by building systems. This involves structuring your life to optimize routine behaviors through a series of systems that save you both time and effort.
How to do this:
- Identify a behavior you want to make routine.
- Evaluate your pain points and execution. How can you remove friction, save time, save money, or make it more enjoyable?
- Upgrade the routine with a new system
- Fine tune as you go
- You want to eat a healthy lunch every day.
- You are spending a lot of time prepping and cooking your lunch each morning and don’t really enjoy cooking. This often leads to skipping the process and eating out more than you’d like.
- Consider doing weekly meal prep or using more healthy prepared foods in your lunch to save you time throughout the week. You can also opt for a meal prep delivery service that will send you ready to eat meals that you only need to heat and eat.
Congrats, you’ve just made this behavior simple AF and it is on its way to becoming a solid healthy habit.
Step 4. Stack Your Habits
You can also use triggers and habit stacking to your advantage. If you tend to go about your day willy nilly and not follow a routine schedule, you may start to notice sticking to a healthy habit becomes more challenging. Think about the times in your life when you were most productive and successful, I bet you had a lot going on and had to juggle a busy schedule.
That’s because too much free time can work against us. When we don’t have routines, this forces us to stop and think about every behavior throughout the day. And because habits are ultimately unconscious actions, this can make sticking to a habit pretty darn hard.
While you don’t have to follow a jam packed schedule, even just having a morning routine or eating at the same time every day can help add a bit more welcomed structure.
To reinforce a healthy action, pick a cue or trigger to repeat every time you want to do the desired behavior. For example, if you want to work out every morning, make it a practice to put on your gym clothes as soon as you wake up. Before you know it, this will become automatic and you will find yourself going to the gym most mornings without even thinking about it.
Step 5. Get Support From Your Social Network
Enlisting support from a friend, support group, or accountability partner can be crucial to your success. The relationships you keep will influence your daily thoughts, actions, and overall the person you want to become. So find someone or a group of someones to have in your corner. Or, consider building a better habit with a like-minded community or friend.
This can be as simple as having a running buddy, doing a weight loss challenge, or joining a community based fitness center or sports team that encourages social interaction.
Not only will your social network help hold you accountable, they’ll also be there to pick you up when you need it, give you words of encouragement, inspire you, and hold your hand as necessary. Plus, sometimes just the thought of letting your friend down or keeping them waiting when you want to bail on the gym can be just the push you need.
Step 6. Practice Self Love
In reality, almost no positive health change happens without a whole lot of self love. Pay close attention to the thoughts you have about yourself and how you talk about yourself. These words are powerful and can hold you back or catapult you forward.
This includes not beating yourself up when you fail, believing in your ability to make changes, and loving your body from the inside out at any stage in your journey.
When you look in the mirror each morning, say at least three things you love about yourself. Then prioritize your needs throughout the day. Say kind things about yourself. And give yourself a huge pat on the back each night for trying.
How Long Does it Take to Form a Habit?
Building a habit takes time, but exactly how long is up for debate and likely depends on the person and habit itself more than anything.
Some research suggests it takes two weeks to form a habit, while other studies imply 66 days, and others have suggested it's anywhere from 18 to 254 days (7,8,9). But the truth is, it is not how long you repeat a behavior, but how many times and how often. The more consistent you can become with your habit building and the more frequently you repeat the behaviors you want to build, the more likely they are to become a habit.
So instead of worrying about how long it's going to take to reach your goals, break a bad behavior pattern, or for your healthy routine to become second nature, be patient and enjoy the process. Because the more you enjoy it, the more you’ll keep it up, and the more you keep it up, the more healthy habits you will build. And the more healthy habits you build, the more you’ll change your life for the better. Tune into your intrinsic motivations, practice self love, and systematize your goals, and you’ll be healthier and happier in no time.
Build a new healthy habit today and get support in the palm of your hand with the free Trifecta app. You'll get personalized nutrition goals and daily tracking to help keep you honest and consistent.