Some people say that you can’t break bad habits without changing your environment.
Others say that the key is motivation and willpower.
Others swear that “replacing the bad habit with a good one” is the magic spell that will end all evil.
You’ve probably tried it all. And it worked… to a certain extent. But no matter what tips and tricks you try, your bad habit always seems to come back, sometimes even stronger than before.
The reason why this happens is that behind every bad habit there is a need we’re trying to meet (like biting your nails to get relief from stress), and the reason why that need was unmet in the first place is because something in our life is out of alignment.
In order to eliminate the bad habit, we first have to address the need behind it.
The other reason why those pieces of advice fail is because there is not one tactic that will solve your problem alone.
No matter how much motivation you have, if you constantly hang out with people who smoke, you’re not going to quit the habit. If you just replace cigarettes with gum, your brain might recognize the difference and reject the replacement.
Habits are intricately ingrained in our lives, and therefore, in order to eliminate them, we have to dismantle the whole system that sustains them.
I don’t claim to have all the answers. However, there are a lot of great answers out there. So I put together what I consider to be the best of them and I created a very comprehensive guide that addresses all the angles of quitting a habit.
1. The Investigation
“If it can me measured, it can be improved”
After a long time of unsuccessfully trying to quit a bad habit, it’s easy to get caught up in guilt and defeat. These emotions can alter your judgement and taint your perception of the habit itself.
You want to step out of those feelings and bring awareness to the habit, by asking the following questions:
- How often do you do it?
- How long have you been doing it for?
- Is it addictive? Is it mild or strong? Is it conscious or non-conscious?
- Who are you with when it happens?
- What kind of triggers initiate the behaviour?
A great way to gather information about your habits is habit tracking.
You can track your habits in your journal, as well as take notes of relevant conclusions from your investigation.
The best way to do this is to use your journal, and at the end of each day write down if you did your bad habit or not.
(If this sounds like too much work, check out the Minimalist Journaling System—a fully customizable habit tracker that takes less than 30 seconds to fill in and which will give you all the data you need).
→ Ask yourself relevant questions regarding the frequency, nature and triggers of your bad habit, and write down the answers for greater clarity.
→ Draw a simple habit tracker in your journal (a calendar will also do), and for a few weeks take note of how often you do your habit.
2. Two Questions To Uncover The Truth
Smokers smoke because they need peace of mind and relief from the stress they are feeling.
People who brag a lot might feel insecure and try to meet their need for validation.
Procrastination might be a sign that there is doubt, fear, or aversion regarding the task at hand, and we just need more clarity and time.
Whatever your bad habit is, there is a need it’s trying to meet, and the only way to effectively eliminate it is by first identifying that need.
Here is an effective exercise to do that, which consists of asking yourself 2 questions:
1st question: “What do I feel that makes me do this?”
Behind every habit there is a need, and the clue to every need is a feeling.
When you do your habit, ask yourself “What do I feel that makes me do this?”
The feelings should be able to be named with one word each. For example: I binge eat because I feel anxious, or frustrated.
Some examples of feelings that can trigger bad habits are: afraid, angry, annoyed, disconnected, tired, sad, vulnerable, bored, ashamed, tense, or jealous.
2nd question: “What need does my bad habit meet that alleviates this feeling?”
After you have identified the feeling behind your habit, you are ready to move deeper and discover the unmet need.
Needs have an emotional nature rather than an intellectual one.
For example, the need for money or the need to be prettier are not needs, but mental constructs. You think you need money because you think it will make you happy; you think you need to be prettier, richer, or smarter, but what you might actually need is appreciation or love.
Here are some of the most common needs that, when unmet, originate bad habits: connection, acceptance, appreciation, clarity, celebration, contribution, stimulation, relief, love, comfort, efficacy, excitement, joy, satisfaction, safety, rest, nurturing, communication, among others.
After you have answered the 2 questions, you should have come up with a conclusion that sounds something like this:
- I binge eat because it brings me comfort when I am anxious;
- I bite my nails because it brings me clarity and focus when I am confused;
- I scream at her because it brings me control and relief when I am angry.
If you feel that you didn’t get your need right at first attempt, don’t worry. Keep it in your mind, and repeat step 1 and step 2 until you get there. Take your time.
→ Ask yourself the question “What do I feel that makes me do this habit?”, and answer with a feeling.
→ Ask yourself the question “What need does my bad habit meet that alleviates this feeling?”, and answer with a need.
→ After you have both answers, write down your conclusion: “I [do bad habit] because it brings me [need met] when I am [feeling]”. Keep it in your journal or somewhere you can see it every day.
3. Do Something Nice For Yourself
If you just try to stop doing your habit, you will likely fail, because your need will still be unmet.
This is why replacing a bad habit with a good one works: because you’re covering the empty space left by the old habit.
But you shouldn’t just choose any habit. Here’s some guidelines your new good replacement should follow in order to be effective:
- 1. It meets the same need as the old habit (example: if you are addicted to social media to meet your need for satisfaction, you might want to replace it with something else that satisfies you, such as writing down 3 good things about yourself, coloring a book, or even popping wrapping paper bubbles);
- 2. It’s something you enjoy doing (otherwise you won’t do it);
- 3. It’s something easy (it should be as easy to do as the old habit; the less resistance, the better);
- 4. It’s beneficial for you (this varies from person to person, but you will know it intuitively—habits like walking, drinking water, or breathing deeply, even if not suitably for everyone, will most likely always be healthier than partying everyday, smoking weed or watching porn compulsively);
- 5. It’s something measurable (don’t choose “exercise”, or “show love to your partner”; choose “do 30 push-ups” or “send my partner a loving text”).
When you replace your habit, you should take into account that this is merely a temporarily solution that will make it easier to stay away from the habit in the moment when you get triggered.
However, if you want to completely remove it from your life, you need to proceed to deeper changes.
→ Replace your bad habit with a good habit that meets the same need, that you enjoy doing, that is easy, beneficial and measurable. Whenever you feel the urge to do the old habit, do the new one instead.
4. Remove the Cues
In his book ‘The Power of Habit’, Charles Duhigg explains the concept of habit loop and the main 3 components of a habit:
1. Cue: the signal that triggers your habit, like seeing a chocolate bar in your kitchen;
2. Routine: the behaviour that follows, like grabing the chocolate and eating it;
3. Reward: the feeling of satisfaction that makes the habit too easy to repeat, such as the rich taste of the chocolate or the sugar rush that follows eating it.
Whenever possible, remove the cue for your habit—stop buying chocolate to keep in the house, stop hanging out with friends who drink, or stop working in the same place where you watch television.
→ Remove the cues in your environment that trigger your urge to do your bad habit—this will reduce the need for constant effort to resist temptation.
5. Keep the Need Met
If you have unmet needs that cause bad habits, it’s because something in your lifestyle needs to be addressed.
Take a look at the need you identified behind your bad habit and ask yourself:
“Which new habits can I implement in my life in order to keep this need met?”
For example, if you constantly fail to wake up to your alarm, it’s probably because you are not getting enough rest. A way to counteract that might be implementing habits such as going to bed earlier, eating healthier, or implementing longer off-screen time before bed.
A great way to add new habits to your routine and continuously meet your needs is by using habit stacking.
You choose a ‘tiny habit’ (for example flossing only one tooth instead of all your teeth), and then you stack it on top of other habits that are already a part of your routine.
“After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth”.
“After I [current habit], I will [new habit]”.
So let’s say you want to meet your need for rest in order to stop waking up late. You can use the following:
“After I switch off my laptop after work, I will take a 20 minute nap”.
“After I brush my teeth in the evening, I will put my phone in airplane mode.”
“After I lay down in bed, I will read 3 pages from my fiction book.”
→ Remove the craving for your bad habit by implementing regular tiny habits that help keep the need behind it met.
Use the habit stacking method to make your tiny habits easier to implement.
6. Don’t Go It Alone
“Surround yourself with people who remind you more of your future than your past.”
— Dan Sullivan
According to research, we are 65% more likely to stick with our goals if we share them publically, and chances increase to 95% if we choose a specific accountability partner.
For example, if you struggle with drinking too much when you go out, you can find a “party buddy” who will stay sober with you. Another way is simply to tell a friend that you will be commiting to a new habit and ask them to check in with you about it once in a while.
Hiring a coach can also be a great choice if you are interested in applying big changes at a much faster speed.
In some cases—especially if your habit is mental health related, highly addictive, or if you require medication—you might also want to seek professional help, such as a doctor or a therapist.
→ Get some support by finding an accountability partner, a “habit buddy”, or by getting professional help such as a coach or therapist.
7. Know What You’re Aiming For
Changing your environment, building new habits and hanging out with the right people is crucial, but building inner strength is also important.
When I first removed meat from my diet, I had to reduce the number of meals I had with my meat-eating family to make it easier for myself. However, I didn’t want to stop having meals with them altogether, so I had to develop my own inner mechanisms to stick with my decision.
This is where motivation comes into play.
Ask yourself the following question: “How will my life change when I quit this habit?”
Whether the answer is “I will be healthier and feel proud of my body”, “my relationships will improve”, or “I will be financially free, relieved, and able to take that trip to Thailand I have always wanted”, just make sure it’s something positive that you really want to achieve.
Write it down somewhere where you can see it everyday (like your journal, or a poster you hang in your office), and look at it when you feel discouraged from doing your habit.
→ Answer the question “How will my life change when I quit this habit?”
→ Keep the answers in your journal or on a poster on the wall and use them as your daily source of motivation when you feel discouraged.
8. Track Your Progress
“When nothing seems to help, I go and look at a stone-cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will all split in two, and I know it was not that last blow that did it—but all that had gone before.”
In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear explains the compound effect in habit change: very often it takes a long time to see the first results from our efforts, but once we break through a certain threshold, the changes are powerful and obvious.
For some people, this waiting time can become discouraging, and they give up before there was enough time to reap the rewards from all their hard work.
That’s why habit tracking can be your most powerful ally. Tracking habits helps, because you:
- prove to yourself how much you progressed,
- use a trial-and-error approach to find the best habits for you,
- have clarity on the changes that are happening and the consequences of your habits,
- stay motivated to continue.
Here are some ideas of how to track your progress:
- Track the times when you felt the urge to do your old bad habit, but resisted it;
- Track the times when you did your replacement habit instead of your old, bad habit;
- Track the new, tiny habits you implemented to help address your needs and create new, healthy routines.
Apart from tracking your habits, you can also track metrics such as your mood, your level of energy, your feeling of accomplishment, or your productivity. This way, you might find patterns between the two (example: after a week of not smoking, your energy levels started going up), and this will increase your motivation and allow you to adapt your strategy based on concrete results.
You can also use your journal for tracking your progress (check out the Minimalist Journaling System to keep it simple and clear).
→ Use a habit tracker to measure your progress (track times you resisted an urge, replaced the old habit, or did healthy tiny habits)
→ If you want, track other metrics such as your mood and energy levels to gather more data and make you more effective.
9. Make Yourself Hate It
Going back to Duhigg’s model of habit loop (cue-routine-reward), a great way to accelerate the process of quitting is to make your old bad habit feel less rewarding.
One way you can do this is by bringing your awareness to the bad consequences of the habit each time it happens.
For example, when you are about to play another video game, tell yourself out loud:
“I am about to play another videogame, and I know it will make me feel numb and disappointed, and I will hate myself because I could be using this time to do something productive instead”.
If you say this to yourself out loud every time before you do your bad habit, you will bring your awareness to the negative consequences of it, dimming the power of the reward, and you will feel less and less like repeating it in the future.
→ Decrease the intensity of the rewarding feeling you get from your bad habit by repeating the negative consequences out loud before you do it—this will make you less likely to repeat it in the future.
10. Strengthen Your Mind
“The strength of your mind determines the quality of your life.”
― Edmond Mbiaka
One of the biggest obstacles to habit change is that when strong emotions and cravings surface, we tend to react to them impulsively.
Equanimity means to remain calm, balanced and non-reactive in the face of challenges and discomfort.
In order to achieve equanimity, you need to train your mind. The best way to train your mind for equanimity is with mindfulness meditation.
According to John Yates PhD, neurologist and author of The Mind Illuminated (affiliate link), mindfulness is the perfect balance between stable attention and awareness.
Attention is when you focus your mind in one specific object (for example, the text you are reading). Awareness is your perception of things in the background (the sound of the cars outside, how your back feels on your chair, your other thoughts and worries).
Here is an exercise you can do to practice mindfulness meditation:
- Close your eyes and sit in a comfortable position (preferably with your back straight);
- Focus your attention on the sensation of your breath in your nostrils;
- Keep your attention on your breath, but remain aware of everything else in the background without letting it compete for your focused attention;
- Whenever you get distracted, keep coming back to the breath;
- You will find yourself getting angry or upset when you see how often your mind wanders, but that’s the point—let go of those emotions, and keep bringing your attention back to the breath, gently and patiently;
- Start with 5 minutes, and increase the time whenever you have made it into a habit.
→ Practice meditation (start with 5 minutes a day) to increase emotional resilience, which will help you better resist cravings and stick with healthy habits.
11. Trust Yourself
According to a study, once we believe something about ourselves, we are much more likely to act in alignment with that belief.
If you do all the previous steps but secretly think you can’t do it, then you will fail.
Here is a great tip from James Clear on breaking bad habits:
“You don’t need to be someone else, you just need to return to the old you.”
Trust that you can do this, because one day—even if it was years ago—you already successfully lived without this habit. You only need to be the person you were when you didn’t have it.
Remember that. Trust in your ability to succeed, and you will.
→ Remind yourself that, one day, you already lived without the bad habit. Therefore, you can do it again.
This Is Just The Beginning
If this whole process feels overwhelming, don’t worry. For now, just pick one bad habit, and start there.
Start with the first step in the process, and move from there. Repeat as necessary.
Take your time. A 2010 study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found it took an average of 66 days for a behavior to change (though time varied from 18 to 254 days).
Don’t focus on the time it takes—focus on the fact that the results will show whenever you are prepared to receive them.
By taking the steps in this process, I have successfully eliminated habits such as binge eating, smoking, drinking three coffees a day, procrastinating on social media, and reacting to my emotions.
I have also implemented and kept new habits such as 45-minute daily meditation practice, writing at least 1000 words per day, doing yoga 4 times per week, following a plant-based diet, sleeping from 10 pm to 6 am, and much more.
So whatever you do, be patient. Remember the compound effect—very often, the results are not linear, and then one day, BOOM, everything changes.
Give yourself the chance to see that day. Don’t give up, and the results will show.
Complete checklist of all the steps:
- Ask yourself relevant questions regarding the frequency, nature and triggers of your bad habit, and write down the answers for greater clarity.
- Draw a simple habit tracker in your journal (a calendar will also do), and for a few weeks take note of how often you do your habit.
- Ask yourself the question “What do I feel that makes me do this habit?”, and answer with a feeling.
- Ask yourself the question “What need does my bad habit meet that alleviates this feeling?”, and answer with a need.
- After you have both answers, write down your conclusion: “I [do bad habit] because it brings me [need met] when I am [feeling]”. Keep it in your journal or somewhere you can see it every day.
- Replace your bad habit with a good habit that meets the same need, that you enjoy doing, that is easy, beneficial and measurable. Whenever you feel the urge to do the old habit, do the new one instead.
- Remove the cues in your environment that trigger your urge to do your bad habit—this will reduce the need for constant effort to resist temptation.
- Remove the craving for your bad habit by implementing regular tiny habits that help keep the need behind it met.
- Use the habit stacking method to make your tiny habits easier to implement.
- Get some support by finding an accountability partner, a “habit buddy”, or by getting professional help such as a coach or therapist.
- Answer the question “How will my life change when I quit this habit?”
- Keep the answers in your journal or on a poster on the wall and use them as your daily source of motivation when you feel discouraged.
- Use a habit tracker to measure your progress (track times you resisted an urge, replaced the old habit, or did healthy tiny habits)
- If you want, track other metrics such as your mood and energy levels to gather more data and make you more effective.
- Decrease the intensity of the rewarding feeling you get from your bad habit by repeating the negative consequences out loud before you do it—this will make you less likely to repeat it in the future.
- Practice meditation (start with 5 minutes a day) to increase emotional resilience, which will help you better resist cravings and stick with healthy habits.
- Remind yourself that, one day, you already lived without the bad habit. Therefore, you can do it again.