How to break a bad habit

woman with arms in the air

Breaking a bad habit can be hard. Getting rid of something that is a personal vice can be one of the biggest challenges. Whether it’s smoking, drinking, eating unhealthily, biting your nails, looking at your phone or more, we pick these things up for a reason and trying to stop them is never easy.

In this article, we take a look at some of the best ways you can look at turning a bad habit into a good one. We talk to some of the industry experts for their professional opinion and look at methods recommended by people who have broken their habits.

Find a positive replacement

man jogging

Often, a good way of getting rid of a bad habit can be to replace it with a good one. In order to do this, however, you would need to find a good habit to replace it with. Many people turn to exercise, as this releases endorphins, and has a positive effect on your body. If you are unsure where to start with exercise, coming along to one of our boot camps is a great way to get your questions answered and get professional advice.

Learn to be mindful

man looking over lake

Shama Sahlindina describes himself as a scientist by day and a philosopher by night. He is the author of Mindfulness for Dummies and works to teach mindfulness to anyone who is interested. He has blogged about breaking habits and so we reached out to him for his advice.

Shama Sahlindina starts by looking into how habits form, as that allows us to understand why they are there and how to approach breaking them: “There are 3 elements to a habit: Trigger, you experience something. Behaviour, you eat or smoke or drink or check the phone. Reward, you feel good for a while.”

Shama also looks at why sometimes just pure willpower doesn’t work, and why it doesn’t matter how hard you try to break a habit because you can continue to relapse. He explains it like this: “Usually, people decide to break a habit by the power of willpower. But, willpower alone is very weak. It’s called cognitive control and happens in the front part of your brain - your prefrontal cortex. But, every time you’re stressed, tired or hungry, your prefrontal cortex stops working fully… and so you run out of willpower. The habit continues.”

He then went on to look into an experiment by Judson Brewer, who has practised trying to cure addiction with mindfulness. The experiment saw Brewer helping people to quit smoking, more specifically people who have tried and failed on average 6 times. Brewer told them not to try and quit smoking, just to be mindful and curious as to what they were doing. Shama explained how this works in more detail:

“Instead of trying to force yourself to stop a habit using willpower, try using curiosity and kindness- key elements of mindfulness. Continue smoking… no need to force yourself to stop. Smoke mindfully. Be curious. Notice the smells and taste. Notice the thoughts in your mind and feelings in your body as you crave for the next cigarette. That’s it.

“Through this approach, the mindful smokers got disgusted by their own habit. Then, in one study the mindful smokers were then twice as likely as the gold standard therapy to quit smoking.”

Using this method instead of feeling guilty about a habit, or merely forcing yourself to give it up, Shama claims you can instead turn yourself off it. And although it takes time and thought, you’ll be better off in the long term because you’ll no longer wish to participate in that bad habit.

Using this method you can also learn to create good habits, by thinking about and considering them whilst participating in them and acknowledging how they make you feel.

Tell people about your plans

people talking over coffee

Sometimes, simply telling someone about your plans can help you achieve them. It gives you more motivation to succeed, as you know people will know if you don’t. If you don’t feel comfortable sitting down with a friend or loved one to discuss your plans to break a habit you could look at either sharing your progress on social media or documenting it in a blog. With the knowledge there are eyes on your progress, you are more likely to want to succeed.

Take a 30-day challenge

Writing in bullet journal

There are many people who believe a habit takes 30-days to form, and therefore 30-days to break. This has led to a rising in 30-day challenges, where people try and stick to a new regime or practice for 30-days. The idea being, after practising something for that amount of time you are likely to have created a new habit.

Work slowly and thoughtfully

woman staring out of window

We spoke to Jennifer A. Williams, the founder of Heartmanity and the Heartmanity Center. She has helped people create thriving relationships for over 30 years and works with people to overcome all manner of situations, including breaking negative habits.

We asked Jennifer the best way to approach giving up a bad habit: “The first step in any change or practice is increasing our awareness.

“Observe yourself over a 2-week period and practice being curious without judgement. Observe yourself, but do not try to do anything different. If you find that you’re judging or criticising your habit, pause and remind yourself that you’re only observing, then release the negative thought.”

When we asked her the helpful practices someone could take when moving forward and attempting to break a habit, she said: “Once you identify a habit that you would like to change, move to a more active curiosity. Ask open-ended questions, such as, ‘What need does this habit fulfil?’ For instance, you might be feeling something uncomfortable, so you eat a comforting food like ice cream or cookies.

“Or ask ‘Are there times of the day that I gravitate to this habit?’ Maybe at night when you’re tired, this habit is a way to let down, i.e., drinking a glass of wine or surfing your Facebook page.

“Next, find three healthier ways to satisfy your need. In the first instance above, you might practice feeling your emotions and then reward your effort with the same dessert. Or instead of grabbing a comforting food, reach out and talk to a good friend about what you’re feeling.

“Gradually, you won’t even need the external reward (or habit) because internally you’ll feel so much better!”

Finally, Jennifer gave us her number one tip for breaking a bad habit: “One of the most powerful practices a person can enlist when attempting to break a bad habit is linking the new desired behaviour to a familiar routine or habit. If we piggyback onto well-established habits, the faster and easier changes happen. When we connect a brand-new behaviour with the momentum of the familiar, it’s like joining a small stream with a Class 5 river. This one minor tweak adds tremendous impetus to any change.”

Don’t go cold turkey

Stop sign

Going cold turkey is a common way to break a habit, especially smoking, but it does come with a lot of stress and a lot of risks. It takes immense willpower and can mean making a lot of changes at once in your life.

The biggest issue with going cold turkey is when you make one mistake, it’s easy to think you’ve failed. By completely swearing something off forever, you give yourself no margin for error, and once you’ve slipped up once you’ll feel it won’t matter if you slip up again. Although this method can work for some people, it doesn’t work for many others and it’s likely not the most effective, or easiest way for you to overcome your habit.

Get mathematical with it

person writing

Knowing how bad your habits are is a good way to start addressing them. If you are trying to cut out how much you drink, but have no idea how much you actually do drink, then your job is much harder. Take time to record your daily activity, so every time you have a drink note down how many units you’ve had and over time you’ll get a baseline metric of your average intake.

Once you know your baseline metric, you can try and break it down moving forward and work in increments. So, you can look at minimising only slightly as time goes on. For example, if you know you drink 7 units of alcohol a week, for the first and second week try and drink only 6, then the second and third week try 5 and so one. This gives you gradual, smaller goals to work towards.

Experiment with your rewards


When trying to change a bad habit into a good habit, working with a rewards system makes a lot of sense. Instead of doing one thing, focus yourself on doing another. However, your reward system will need some experimenting with before you get it right. You don’t want to find yourself compromising and rewarding good behaviour with things that will undo your hard work. For example if you don’t bite your nails all day, instead of reaching for a sugary treat, reward yourself with a new nail vanish or find other healthy ways to release the same endorphins.