When you ask most people how to end bad habits, “willpower” is a common refrain. However, as anyone who’s tried to break a habit knows, “willpower” is almost impossible to practice. That’s because habitual behaviors are a form of compulsion, and they make up a big part of our daily activities, which means that you don’t actively think about doing them.
To break a habit, you need more than willpower: you need a strategy to avoid the compulsion.
In this post, I’ll discuss how to end bad habits by changing the conditions around you.
Note that this advice mostly applies to run-of-the-mill bad habits, rather than addictions. Treating addiction is a much longer, far more difficult process that should be overcome with professional help.
To learn how to end bad habits, you first have to understand when those habits occur. This is called a “trigger”—a situation that compels you towards your habit. All compulsive behaviors have triggers, from nail biting to compulsive eating. The trick is understanding what those triggers are, and whether or not you can avoid them.
Next time you find yourself thinking about the behavior you’re trying to quit, make a note of what set you off. Ask yourself if the trigger is something you can realistically avoid—if so, breaking the habit is going to be a lot easier. However, chances are that you’ll want a better solution than just avoiding your trigger for the rest of your life.
These are a few of the most common triggers:
Once you have a list of your triggers, you’re ready to start making plans. The most important aspect of learning how to end bad habits is to figure out how common your triggers actually are.
Put more generally—how much effort are you willing to put into breaking your bad habit? Depending on your answer, you might just want to avoid your triggers.
Starting to end bad habits isn’t easy. However, if your trigger is something very common (such as stress), you won’t have much of a choice. In that case, it’s time to start setting small goals that you can work towards. By making progress on those goals slowly, you’ll be able to manage and eventually break your habit.
Again, don’t try to end your habit right off the bat. Instead, start by trying to limit your habit to a certain time of day, or a certain number of days every week. Saying “I’m only going to have one soda today” is a lot easier than saying “I’m never going to drink soda again,” after all. Once you can achieve a small goal like that consistently, you can move on to trying to break the habit entirely.
After you’ve made your first set of goals, it’s time to tell someone about it. By sharing your experience with a friend or loved one, you’ll create a “support network.” That sounds intense, but all that it really means is that you have someone other than yourself to think about when it comes to your habit.
The most important thing when you’re building your support network is to choose someone you trust. It’s easy to tell an acquaintance that you’re trying to break a habit. It’s much harder to tell that acquaintance that you’ve made a mistake and need emotional support.
Thus, it’s important that you share your experiences with someone who’ll react understandingly, even if they don’t think your habit is a big deal.
Needless to say, other people struggling with the same habit are great for this. Chances are, they have been wondering how to end bad habits just like you.
Just make sure that you don’t fall back into your habit if they give up on breaking theirs. To that end, both you and your habit-breaking buddy should make an agreement to avoid one another’s triggers as much as possible.
The next part is arguably the most important step. You need to develop an “escape plan” (also called an “if-then plan”). This is a mental commitment (ideally written down) to do a specific action in response to your trigger. By doing this action, you’ll avoid the habit you’re trying to break.
Let’s go back to our soda example. Here, the replacement is pretty obvious—whenever you’d reach for a soda, grab a different drink instead.
What’s important is that you’re making the behavior and its replacement obvious. That way, you can’t indulge in your habit without thinking about it.
The best thing about this approach is that it makes it easy to learn how to end bad habits and replace them with good ones. Consider someone who goes shopping online whenever they get bored—what if his or her escape plan was to go for a walk instead? It’s easier said than done, but the benefits if you can manage to replace a bad habit with a good one speak for themselves.
When it comes to sticking to your escape plan, your support network will prove invaluable. Tell the people you are in contact with on a daily basis what your escape plan is. That way, they can remind you of your plan when you start to indulge your habit, exerting a kind of positive peer pressure.
If they seem reluctant, encourage them not to spare your feelings—the point is to break your habit, after all, not to ignore it.
Having an escape plan is important, but it’s not enough by itself. In order to supplement your escape plan, you’ll need to make it as difficult as possible to engage in your habit.
This will vary by individual, but in general the idea is to take yourself out of situations where you can perform compulsive behaviors without realizing it.
The same basic approach applies to almost all habits. If you tend to eat too much junk food, you can solve the problem by replacing it with healthier snacks. If you find yourself binging Netflix or Hulu instead of taking care of your household responsibilities, you might want to put your account on hold (or get your understanding partner or housemate to control the password).
The important thing is to make the behavior so inconvenient that you can no longer do it without conscious effort.
Learning how to end bad habits involves encouraging good ones. The best way to do this is by rewarding yourself at certain intervals. These intervals should be relatively short, so that you have a constant positive feedback loop.
Let’s go back to our soda example again. In that case, you might reward yourself for every day you go without a soda. However, you obviously don’t want your reward to be something habit forming on its own—its pretty pointless to change out one bad habit for another.
Instead, consider putting two or three dollars aside for every day that you go without your habit. Then, at the end of the month, you can go out for a fancy dinner to reward yourself for breaking your habit.
Again, learning how to end bad habits is a process. It’s natural that you’ll mess up occasionally, especially when it comes to compulsive behaviors. Consistency is key, so what’s important is that you use those moments as learning opportunities, not reasons to give up on ever breaking your habit.
Don’t punish yourself when you fail—instead, make a note of it to review at the end of the month or week. You’ll find that, although you made mistakes, your overall rate of habit behavior is down. In this way, you can remain positive by looking at the big picture instead of individual mistakes.
This is also where your support network comes in. If you notice yourself slipping, try to spend more time with your support network. The positive social pressure will help you get back on track without beating yourself up.
The biggest mistake you can make it when it comes to habit formation is to keep trying approaches that don’t work. Because we equate “willpower” and “stubbornness,” we have a tendency to assume that any change in your plans is admitting defeat.
Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, a good plan is one that can change in response to the circumstances.
For that reason, you should review your approach at the end of every month. In addition to looking at your record of habit behavior, ask yourself what’s not working.
Are you not motivated by the rewards you’ve set? Find something that will. Is your support network not acting very supportive? Talk to them about it. When approached with honesty and gratitude, most people are happy to help you break your habits.
Once you’ve done all of these steps, you’re well on your way to breaking your habit. However, that doesn’t mean much if you fall right into another bad habit. For that reason, it’s important to take measures to avoid falling into new bad habits in the future.
The best way to do this is to preemptively form good habits instead. As you read before, most habits have a pretty short list of triggers, with stress and boredom being the main ones. By associating those triggers with healthy activities, you’ll prevent the trigger-reward system that causes habits to form from ever taking hold.
As with getting rid of bad habits, support networks are great for forming new good habits. For example, people prone to boredom might consider joining a book club.
Not only will reading the books give you something to do when you’re bored, but the social aspect will create a sense of obligation to do so. As an added bonus, you’re likely to make new friends along the way.
Learning how to end bad habits is, admittedly, an exercise in frustration. That doesn’t mean you have to be miserable, however. By focusing on your progress and on forming good habits, you can create a sense of accomplishment that will help motivate you through the most difficult parts of unlearning compulsive behaviors. Best of all, you’ll come away with new friendships and a well-earned confidence in your self.
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LAWYER & ONLINE ENTREPRENEUR
After graduating from law school and passing the bar, I struggled to find work, pay my bills, and make ends meet. That's when I decided to take control of my future and start working for myself. Now, several years and a handful of companies later, I'm sharing how I launched a successful business, and how you can do it too.