16 Steps to Break a Bad Habit

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links, meaning I receive a commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links, at no additional cost to you. Please read my disclosure for more info.

Steps to Break a Bad Habit

Oops, you did it again!

You know they’re not good and at times they’re harmful.

But why do you keep doing them?

You probably have some bad habits you’re aware of. Problem is, you can’t seem to stop.

But guess what, if you know the proper steps to take, you’ll significantly increase your chances of breaking these bad habits.

So if you’re game, follow the steps below and you’ll be on your way.

What Causes Bad Habits?

Bad habits are negative behaviors that you keep repeating over and over again.

Like your good habits, they develop over time. Often, a few ways:

  • Someone you grew up admiring did them, so you followed
  • People you hung out did them
  • You followed a trend or fad that was popular
  • They were routines taught to you
  • They were things you did that you didn’t know were bad
  • You felt good doing them or after doing them. The gratification, pleasure or satisfaction you felt made you want to keep doing it over and over again

Then, there are your vices. These are bad habits that you may have formed because of things that happened in your life. In many cases, you started doing them:

  • During stressful times
  • When you were bored or had nothing better to do
  • You were trying to avoid something uncomfortable or challenging, so you did the behavior instead, which later stuck
  • When you were unhappy or depressed

Bad habits like smoking, binge eating, biting your nails and emotional spending are often formed during these situations.

Why Do Bad Habits Stick?

The thing with bad habits is that they start slowly.

You do them once…

Then repeat them…

And over time, end up doing them more often.

That’s because whenever you repeat behavior, it gradually gets ingrained into your brain.

This is much like how athletes get better with repetition and practice. They movements become part of their muscle memory to the point they don’t have to think in order perform it.

But, there’s another aspect of bad habits that make them stick.


Often you keep repeating it because it satisfies, pleasures or comforts you. In short, you experience some form of gratification from doing it.

Elements that Make Your Habits Stick

In fact, in his book “How Habits Work”, Charles Duhigg calls this the habit loop. Basically, any habit needs 3 elements to form or stick. These are:

  1. Cue – This is what triggers the habit
  2. Routine – Is the actual doing of the behavior
  3. Reward – what you get, or the benefit you receive from the behavior

Altogether, they cause you to start, do and repeat the habit. The latter because you’re rewarded in a way that makes you feel good.

For example, here’s how you may develop procrastinating or setting something aside.

  1. Cue – You have something challenging you’ve never done before (and don’t know how to do) that you need to get done. This puts you out of your comfort zone and stresses you out.
  2. Routine – You find ways to avoid doing it or do other menial things to trick yourself into “feeling busy”.
  3. Reward – You’re comforted because you stayed in your comfort zone and didn’t have to face the challenging task.

While temporary, this reinforces the bad behavior. And, because you got away with it this time, you’ll do it again the next time something stressful, scary or challenging comes up.

Over time, as you keep doing it, it forms into a habit.

By then, it becomes difficult to break that habit because your brain will crave the comforting behavior or avoiding difficult or uncomfortable situations.

How to Break a Bad Habit

So how do you break a bad habit?

Here are some effective ways to do so. Because everyone is different, you’ll need to see which ones work best for you.

Often, using a combination improves yours odds of breaking a bad habit because they serve as checkpoints to prevent you from repeating the bad habit

Focus On One Habit At A Time

Habits are tough to break because you’ve been doing them for a long time. As such, you’ll need all your energy to:

  • Make yourself aware when you’re about to or are doing the habit
  • Avoid the triggers that make you more likely to repeat the behavior
  • Keep your mind off the reward you get from performing the habit

Because your habits have become somewhat “automatic”, you need to constantly be vigilant.

That requires focus.

If you split your attention between 2 or more habits, trying to break them all at once, you’re more likely to end up not breaking any of them.

This works much like how multitasking seems more productive in theory. But, it only slows you down in reality.

Set A Start And End Date With A Specific Goal In Mind

start and end date calendar

In order to know whether you’re making any progress, succeeding or failing in your attempt to break your habit, you want to set some goals.

This is why it helps to have a:

  • Goal. A specific, well-defined goal that you want to achieve.
  • Start date. When you’ll start consciously working on trying to break the habit
  • End date. When you want to achieve the goal.
  • Reminders. Things that will keep you on track. This could be messages on your smartphone, sticky notes on your fridge or bathroom mirror. Basically, anything that will remind you that you’re working on breaking your bad habit.

Also, you want to make sure that your goals are achievable. To do so, you can use the S.M.A.R.T. method.

  • S – Specific (definitive, know exactly what the goal is)
  • M – Measurable (can be measured so you know you’ve achieved the goal or hit milestones)
  • A – Achievable (realistic and not impossible to attain)
  • R – Relevant (something related to you, of value or importance)
  • T – Time Bound (has a start and end date/time or with time limit)

These simple guidelines will help achieve your goal of breaking a habit.

Have a Baseline as a Starting Point

In order to measure your progress and eventually tell if you’ve succeeded in breaking your habit is to where you’re at now.

By knowing your baseline you’ll be able to see if you’re getting better, worse or going nowhere.

This could be:

  • Weighing yourself before you start on your diet
  • Record how much time you spend on social media daily
  • Count how many cigarettes you smoke in a day (on average)
  • How often you curse (if you want to stop)

Make Mini-Milestones / Small Wins

Because bad habits are hard to break, it can get overwhelming if you only consider the end goal. That’s because in many cases, achieving that goal is at least months or even years away.

One way to keep yourself motivated is to make mini milestones. These small wins help because you’re able to celebrate achievements along the way to your main goal.

And, with each milestone, you receive a reward as well.

By taking small steps, you progress towards your goal while keeping your motivation up.

For example, if your goal is to reduce the hours you spend on Facebook in order to be more productive.

Instead of suddenly going cold turkey, you can cut down your Facebook time by 15-minute intervals a week.

So, if your baseline is 3 hours of Facebook a day, you can do reduce it slowly like this:

  • 2 hours and 45 minutes a day on week 1
  • 2 hours and 30 minutes a day on week 2
  • 2 hours and 15 minutes per day on week 3
  • 2 hours a day on week 4

At this rate, you’ll be able to dwindle down the time you spend on Facebook to 1 hour by the end of month 2. That’s a 67% drop from the original 3 hours a day!

And don’t forget the reward.

It’s just as effective here (in breaking a habit) as it was in forming your habit.

So at the end of the week, if you’re able to achieve the target Facebook hours, you can treat yourself to your favorite dessert or take yourself to the spa.

Analyze Your Habit

This step is a little more analytical. But, it’s very helpful.

That’s because it allows you to understand each of the elements that make you keep repeating the habit.

To do so, break down the 3 elements of the habit.

  • Cue – What triggers make you more likely to perform the behavior? How do you avoid it or alter the trigger, so you do something else?
  • Reward – What benefits do you get from the habit? Is there another way to satisfy that craving?
  • Routine – What do you do when performing that habit? By knowing the steps, you may be able to stop yourself once you realize you’re starting to do it. And, what new routine can you do to change the habit?

By breaking down each of the elements into why you do them, you’re able to better understand how to change the habit by replacing it with something better.

Keep Track of All Your Habit Triggers

Keep Track of All Your Habit Triggers

This is one of the end results of the previous steps.

From your analysis, you should be able to make a like of all the triggers that lead you to your habit.

Figure out the:

  • What – What are the triggers?

And for each of the triggers, try to list down:

  • When – When are you more likely to do it? Are there specific places, events, situations that trigger it?
  • Why – What’s causing it? Is it stress, boredom, fear, anxiety or something else.
  • Who – is there anyone who triggers those habits?
  • How – How is it triggered? Is it when you’re doing something, are depressed or sad?

This makes you more aware of the causes of your behavior.

Focus on Eliminating the Triggers

With the list above, your next step is to cut out the triggers.

Knowing the what, why, when, who and how of each trigger lets you devise a way to prevent it from happening.

It will be hard in the beginning. And, you’ll likely fail a few times.

But, by sticking to it, the triggers and your solution to each one will slowly be ingrained into memory. This will make you more aware of them, which helps you stop them when they’re happening.

Test Out Different Rewards

In addition to the triggers, you can also adjust your rewards.

Often, it’s the end reward that entices you to perform the habit. This makes it a very powerful tool in the creation and breaking of bad habits.

So, by knowing the reward you get from a specific habit, your task now is to find something (a routine or new habit) that can take the place of your current bad habit.

If the new habit or routine is able to deliver the same rewards, you’ll be better able to break the old habit.

Try Different Things

Here’s the hard part.

There’s going to be a lot of trial and error in each of the steps above.

You won’t get things right the first, second or maybe even the third time.

But, the rewarding thing is…

Once you find the right ways to eliminate the triggers and routines that let you achieve similar benefits, you’ll be on your way to breaking your bad habit.

Keep Yourself Accountable

Remember the mini milestones above?

Well, you need to find a way to measure them. And keep yourself accountable.

That means keeping track of things.

One of the best ways to do this is with a journal. You can use your phone or a small notebook. They work better because you can take them anywhere with you.

So what do you put in your journal?

  • How many times did you do the habit today?
  • When did it happen
  • Why did you think of doing it? Why did it happen?
  • What triggered it?
  • Were you able to stop yourself?

And other things that can help you monitor your behavior. Or help you understand the habit better.

By writing down the details, you’ll also be able to see if you’re progressing. Plus, if there are any improvements you can make to improve further.

Find People Who’ll Help You Stay On Course

Take a cue from AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).

Having a supportive group of people who will help motivate you and keep you in line goes a long way in breaking a habit.

In the same way, staying around people who trigger your habits or perform the habit themselves makes you more likely to keep doing it.

That’s because they’ll help remind you of what you’re trying to achieve. And, as human beings we tend to behave in the same way that people around us do.

It’s why “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”.

Think about it. You probably see a lot of yourself in people you hang out with the most.

It’s also why “we become our parents” to a certain degree, even without knowing it.

Make Cues and Reminders To Help You

Cues and Reminders

I’ve mentioned this above.

Cues and reminders and your friends. They keep you on track. And, ensure that you’re always aware.

This makes them very effective because sometimes life just gets in the way.

When you’re busy, stressed or thinking of a million things you need to get done, your brain won’t be able to keep your habit-breaking tips in mind.

So, having cues and reminders on places you’ll often look at helps. It helps free your mind from having to try and remember one more thing.

You can put these cues:

  • On your phone’s reminders or calendars
  • As sticky notes on your fridge, bathroom mirror or work desk
  • Anywhere else that you regularly look at

Understand That It’s Easier to Replace a Habit Than Get Rid of It

Habits are hard to break for a few reasons. Among them are:

  • You’ve been doing them for a very long time
  • They serve a purpose. That is, they provide a benefit you like. Or something that satisfies you.

This is why it’s easier to replace the habit as opposed to breaking it altogether.

Substituting your habit simply means that you still get the reward you previously received by performing the old habit.

But, this time, you replace the bad routine with a good/better one.

This way you don’t feel like you’ve lost something.

Instead, you have a better behavior that took its place.

Don’t Be in a Hurry

Take a minute to go back and try to remember when was the first time you did the bad habit.

In all likelihood, it’s been many, many years ago. Maybe you don’t even remember.

As a result, it’s become part of your lifestyle.

So, it’s important to understand that it will take some time for you to break the habit.

Trying to force things will only increase your odds of messing things up.

This is why many people who lose a ton of weight quickly often end up back to where they started. That’s because they put too much effort in it that they deprive themselves.

In the end, the cravings all come back.

Instead, try to incorporate the habit into your lifestyle. This allows you to gradually make it a part of what you do day-in and day-out.

This way, over time it becomes “automatic” to the point you don’t even have to think about it.

Be Ready to Fail; Just Make Sure to Get Up Again

Don’t beat yourself up when you repeat the habit.

Like everyone else, you’ll have bad days.

That doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure. It just means you’re human.

Whether you puffed a cigarette, ate a decadent dessert or didn’t work out today, don’t sweat it. Just make sure to get back on track tomorrow.

The problem starts if you start missing consecutive days or miss days frequently.

But until then missing a day is just a glitch in your path to breaking the habit.

Your only goal when this happens is to get back up again.

Take Things One Day at a Time

Staying focused means being in the present. This allows you to notice if and when any of the triggers start creeping up.

If you try worrying about tomorrow or how you’ll be doing by next week or month, you may miss the signs and allow the triggers to slip by you.

Taking one day at a time also reduces the risk of overwhelm, especially when you know how difficult it is to overcome your bad habit.


So there you have it.

By following the steps above, you’ll be able to get on your way to breaking your bad habit.

More importantly, you’ll be able to do so without the cravings. That’s the best part.

What bad habits do you want to get rid of? Let me know in the comments below.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons