How to Break a Bad Habit: A Proven Strategy for Lasting Change

How to Break a Bad Habit: A Proven Strategy for Lasting Change

May 21, 2024


Bad habits are like unwanted guests who overstay their welcome. They sneak into our lives, often unnoticed at first, and then stubbornly refuse to leave, often impacting all 5 pillars of our wellbeing. Whether it’s biting your nails, procrastinating, or smoking, breaking a bad habit can be challenging.

However, with determination and the right strategies, it is entirely possible to make lasting changes. This comprehensive guide will explore various methods to help you break free from those pesky habits that hold you back allowing you to live a happier, healthier life.

Understanding Bad Habits

What is a Bad Habit?

A bad habit is a repeated behaviour that is detrimental to your wellbeing. These actions are often performed subconsciously, making them hard to break without conscious effort.

The Psychology Behind Habits

Habits are formed through a loop of cue, routine, and reward. Understanding this cycle is crucial in identifying the triggers that lead to the habitual behaviour and devising strategies to interrupt this loop.

Identifying Your Bad Habit


Take time to reflect on your daily routines and behaviours. Identifying your bad habits is the first step towards change. The first step to overcoming any problem is acknowledging that there is a problem. Write it down, identify exactly what it is that you're doing that you no longer want to do, try to quantify it so you can measure your progress over time.

Keeping a Habit Journal

Document your habits, including the times and situations they occur. This will help you identify patterns and triggers. What gets measured gets improved. Say you're trying to stop smoking, if your starting point is 20-a-day, then in the first instance anything less than 20-a-day is progress towards overcoming your bad habit.

Setting Clear Goals

Defining Your Objectives

Set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals to break your bad habit. Often it can help to set a deadline or some kind of target to aim for, however when doing this you should be realistic. In many cases bad habits have been a part of our lives for many years, expecting to go cold turkey and break that in a week is probably not going to work long term.

Visualising Success

Imagine yourself free from the bad habit. Visualisation can be a powerful motivator to keep you on track. On the same sheet of paper you wrote your bad habit on, write down the top ways in which your life will be better once you've broken this bad habit. Will you be healthier? Have more disposable income? More free time? Have healthier relationships? Reconnect with friends and family? Whatever your key motivators are, write them down.

Creating a Plan of Action

Developing a Strategy

Formulate a detailed plan to address your habit. Include steps to avoid triggers and actions to replace the habit. Bad habits are like objects in motion, they don't want to be stopped. Going cold-turkey is one option but for many it is too much of a shock and any relapse is seen as a failure. Instead, create a plan to ween away from your starting position, each week making more and more progress towards your goal.

Seeking Professional Help

In some cases, professional guidance from a therapist or counsellor may be beneficial, especially for deeply ingrained habits. If you wanted to improve at a sport you'd get a coach that has the experience to guide you through improving in your chosen sport, getting help breaking bad habits is no different, search for support groups or professionals that have been there and done it before.

Replacing Bad Habits with Good Ones

Finding Healthy Alternatives

Identify positive behaviours to replace your bad habit. For instance, if you want to stop snacking on junk food, replace it with healthier snacks. This makes breaking your bad habit into a more sustainable transition rather than a total shock to the system. If you have bad eating habits, e.g: you constantly snack on junk food, what you're actually trying to break is two bad habits, one is the routine and the other is the choice of food you eat. If you can change the choice of food, breaking the routine will become easier over time too.

Gradual Replacement

Gradually phase out the bad habit while introducing a new good habit. This can make the transition smoother. As soon as you know you can't do something, it's often easy to dwell on that and want to do it even more. By replacing a bad habit with a good habit, not only do we provide ourselves with a distraction, we're also building a positive routine in our lives. What if every time you went to start scrolling social media you chose to walk around the block?

Leveraging Support Systems

Accountability Partners

Share your goals with friends or family who can provide support and hold you accountable. Sharing our journey with the people around us can really help us on our journey to overcoming bad habits. Give your friends and family permission to ask how you're doing and hold you accountable for your actions. Understand that when they do this it is coming from a place of love and care.

Support Groups

Joining a group of individuals with similar goals can provide mutual encouragement and motivation. This is a great alternative way to be held accountable. Meeting regularly, sharing experiences, challenges and coping techniques can be hugely beneficial to you in days when you're struggling or feel you've had a set back.

Implementing Mindfulness Techniques

Mindful Awareness

Practising mindfulness can help you become more aware of your habits and the triggers that lead to them. Some times it's tempting to reward yourself for abstaining from your bad habit with your bad habit. You might think "I've not done XYZ all day, I'll treat myself to it now". In these moments, remind yourself of the key motivators that you wrote down, visualise your life free from your bad habit. Being mindfully aware can get you through the most difficult and challenging times.

Meditation and Relaxation

Incorporating meditation and relaxation techniques into your daily routine can reduce stress, which is often a trigger for bad habits. Take time to be grateful that you are in a position to recognise your bad habit, that you have the desire to do something about it, know that you are on a journey, internally celebrate any progress you have made and forgive yourself any set backs you have encountered. You are a person trying to improve themselves, that is a great thing to be.

Tracking Progress

Monitoring Your Journey

Keep track of your progress and celebrate small victories along the way. This can help maintain motivation. If you normally eat 10 Mars bars a day but today you only ate 9, that's progress. If you normally don't do any exercise but today you did 5 minutes, that's progress. If you've let mess pile up everywhere but today you cleaned an area, that's progress. Just keep progressing. Every day do a little bit more than yesterday.

Adjusting Your Plan

Be flexible and adjust your strategies if something isn’t working. Persistence is key. What gets you from A to B won't necessarily get you from B to C. If you reach a point where you feel you've stopped making progress or you're lacking motivation, change your approach. This is something that happens a lot when people try to loose weight, the initial reduction in calories sees a reduction in weight but then you need to adjust your food intake further to allow for you needing less calories due to the weight you've lost. Again, understand that breaking a bad habit is a journey, you know where you want to be; you need to find the right way to get there that works for you.

Dealing with Setbacks

Understanding Relapses

Recognise that setbacks are a natural part of the process. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you slip up. It happens. If it was easy to break bad habits no one would have bad habits. If you had twenty four roses in a bouquet and one was bad, would you throw out the entire bouquet or just get rid of the bad one? Say you have a small relapse at midday, should you just totally give up for the rest of the day? No. Acknowledge the mistake, put it behind you and get back in to a positive mindset.

Learning from Mistakes

Analyse what led to the relapse and adjust your plan to avoid similar situations in the future. Are certain places, times or even people triggers for you? Recognising your triggers is the first step to dealing with them. Find ways to mitigate exposure to your triggers, try to turn your triggers in to triggers for something more positive.

Rewarding Yourself

Positive Reinforcement

Reward yourself for milestones achieved. Positive reinforcement can make the process more enjoyable and sustainable. Don't just focus in the final goal, set mini goals along the way, when you achieve them share them and celebrate them. Any progress towards improving your life is good progress and don't let anyone else tell you different.

Maintaining a Positive Attitude

Stay positive and focus on the benefits of breaking your bad habit. A positive outlook can greatly enhance your chances of success. Maybe you had a set back but you recognised it and put a plan in place to mitigate it in the future, that's progress! Maybe you fell a bit short of a goal but still moved towards it, that's progress!


How long does it take to break a bad habit?

The time it takes to break a habit varies, but research suggests it can take anywhere from 21 days to several months, depending on the individual and the habit. Understand that breaking a bad habit is a journey not a destination.

Can bad habits be completely eliminated?

While it may be challenging to completely eliminate a habit, it can be significantly reduced and replaced with more positive behaviours. Breaking a bad habit can create a void in your life, what you fill it with is your choice, it makes sense to make a good choice.

What are some common triggers for bad habits?

Common triggers include stress, boredom, social settings, and specific times of the day. Negative routines can set us up for failure in breaking bad habits, trying to adjust your routine to mitigate your triggers,

Is it possible to break multiple bad habits at once?

It is possible but can be overwhelming. Focusing on one habit at a time may yield better results. Even better break each bad habit in to parts and tackle them that way. Bite sizes pieces are easier to swallow.

How can mindfulness help in breaking bad habits?

Mindfulness increases awareness of your actions and triggers, helping you to interrupt the habit loop and make more conscious choices. Every day we have thousands of choices, you're choosing to make a positive change to your life, take time to reflect on that.

What role does environment play in breaking bad habits?

Your environment can significantly influence your habits. Altering your surroundings to minimise triggers can be beneficial. Remember that feeling of rearranging your room as a kid, it felt like a totally different space even for just a few small changes. The same applies in adult life, a few small changes can yield big results.


Breaking a bad habit is a journey that requires patience, persistence, and a plan. By understanding the psychology behind habits, setting clear goals, leveraging support systems, and replacing bad habits with healthier ones, you can achieve lasting positive change.

Remember, setbacks are part of the process, and maintaining a positive attitude is crucial.

Stay committed to your goals, and you'll find yourself on the path to a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.

Happy days = Happy months = Happy life.