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Sunday, April 14, 2024

How to (Finally) Break That Bad Habit

Do you have a habit (or two) that you really want to break, but have struggled to in the past? Maybe you spend too much time on your phone, eat unhealthy foods, or overspend on mobile games and online shopping. Whatever the habit is, there are a few steps you’re probably skipping, according to the experts, that will help you finally break it.

Mostly, it all comes down to the cues that lead you to perform the behavior. When you do the behavior over and over again in the same context without thinking, that’s when it becomes a habit. If you haven’t yet read our story about how to build new habits, a lot of the tips in there are relevant to breaking a habit—with a few minor changes and added challenges laid out here, due to your history with the behavior.

The first step to breaking a habit is the same as building one—make a list of the behaviors you’d like to stop doing and put them into priority order. If you try to do everything at once, you’ll likely just get overwhelmed and give up, says Alana Mendelsohn, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Even worse, when we’re stressed out or tired, we instinctively revert back to our established habits—making it harder to break the ones you no longer want.

“I think something that is useful to keep in mind is the longer a time period you’ve had living the way that you have, the harder it’s going to be to change that,” Mendelsohn says.

The Power of Data, Environmental Factors, and History

Once you’ve made your list, you need to think about your history with each habit: When did it start? What triggers it? If you’ve tried to break it previously, what approaches did you take that didn’t work? 

“If you want to change a behavior, then try to identify what might be a trigger that generates the behavior,” says Wendy Wood, provost professor emerita of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick. “We tend to overestimate the extent to which our behavior is driven by our goals and desires, and we underestimate the extent to which it’s driven by habit.” A big part of this can be environmental factors such as marketing and advertising: We see an ad and think it’s something that we want to do or need to have, not that we’re only thinking about it now because we saw the ad.

The main problem people run into when reviewing their history of a habit, Mendelsohn says, is that they may not know what questions to ask or be honest with themselves about the answers. If you find that’s the case for you, she says “a therapist can be incredibly helpful.” Especially if your habit was established when you were younger. “So much of our experience of developing routines and habits is shaped by our families and schools.”

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James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, adds that looking at data can be a good starting point. “For fitness habits, it could be things like your Apple Watch or Whoop band or MyFitnessPal. There are many different ways to get data,” he says. “It also can be true for habits that maybe you wouldn’t think about tracking.” For example, looking at your calendar for the past year to determine whether you spent enough time at home with your family, or whether you were traveling for work too much. “If you’re so busy that you never give yourself time to think about what you’re doing … it’s really hard to improve, because you’re just busy repeating the same thing again and again. You don’t have a chance to look at the bigger picture.”

Picking Your Habit, Digging Deeper, and Creating a Plan

Once you’ve done your review of the habits you’d like to break, you should pick one of them to start with.

“I look at a number of the challenges a patient is facing and then ask myself, ‘Which one is in the driver’s seat?’” says Mendelsohn. “Meaning if I tackle one of these problems, are the rest of them likely to get better?”

The next step is to decide how you’re going to go about breaking the habit you’ve chosen, based on your history with it and the context or cues that lead to you performing the behavior. Here are a few examples:

Spending Too Much Money

Say you spend too much money and this is the habit you would like to stop. You’ve determined that you started overspending when you added your credit cards to your Apple Wallet or PayPal. This then made it extremely easy to buy things when you saw an ad on social media or a friend sent a link to something they thought you would like. “You want spending money to be as difficult and thoughtful as possible,” Wood says. “Putting all your credit cards on your phone that you carry everywhere is counterproductive—you are further automating the process of spending money.” To fix this, you decide to remove your cards from all online payment services so each time you want to buy something, you have to physically go and pull out the card, which then gives you a bit more time to think about the purchase itself. You could also ask friends not to send you products and unsubscribe from any product marketing emails.

Checking Your Phone All The Time

If you’re trying to check your phone less often, David Kadavy, author of Mind Management, Not Time Management, suggests locking it in a lockbox for part of the day. “Make it as hard as possible to actually perform the habit,” he says. While you’re still going to get the cue to check your phone, the effort of going to the lockbox and unlocking it can help block the behavior from triggering. Or, say you’re trying to check social media less often: “Just delete the social media apps from your phone,” says Kadavy. “Block them with the parental controls or, at the very least, don’t have them on your home screen.”

Eating Unhealthily

Clear has a great example of a negative eating habit from his own life. In the house he used to live in, there was a McDonald’s right after the highway exit on his way home. He found himself stopping there multiple times a week. “I looked at myself after the last one, and I was like, ‘Am I going to do this every time I drive home? Am I just going to stop here and eat here every single time?’” he says. “Ultimately, what I decided to do was to start taking a different path home. If I went left off of the exit instead of right, it would take an extra three minutes, but I wouldn’t pass the McDonald’s. I changed the environment so that I wouldn’t be exposed to the cue. That added enough friction and enough separation that the habit would change.”


“A lot of people tend to procrastinate, then rely on anxiety and fear to motivate them to get tasks done,” says Mendelsohn. “This can be effective at getting things done, but at the cost of causing unnecessary stress. Breaking tasks down into smaller ones can be a harder strategy to implement at first, but more sustainable in the long run.” To help you get started, Mendelsohn suggests writing these tasks down using a pen and paper, as it can be “really helpful for people to keep their organizational strategies separate from the digital tools we use all day.”

Sometimes, substituting a negative behavior for a more desirable one can work at blocking it—but, Wood says you have to know what the cue is, and the alternative behavior has to be both easy and rewarding. Say you’ve decided to drink a glass of water whenever you have the urge to look at your phone, instead of locking it away somewhere or putting it facedown next to you. “For most people, drinking a glass of water isn’t going to be as interesting as looking at their phones, so I don’t know if that’s going to work particularly well,” says Wood.

If your chosen way to try and break your habit isn’t working, maybe it’s time to try something else. Another thing to keep in mind is that “for some specific behaviors, like quitting smoking, multiple attempts is actually a good thing,” Wood says. “Because most people who ultimately quit have to keep trying until they figure out the right thing that will work for them.”

So don’t get discouraged if it’s taking a while to break your habit. Sometimes you just need to approach it a different way or dig deeper into the context or cues that lead you to perform it in the first place.

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