October 27, 2023 | Sammy Tran

How to Break Bad Habits


How to Break Bad Habits

Two skeptical women split image

Every one of us, at some point, has grappled with a bad habit, be it nail-biting, procrastinating, or something more detrimental like smoking. Understanding the psychology behind these behaviors can provide crucial insights into breaking them. 

So, let's dive deep into the mechanisms of habits and the steps to bid them goodbye. Find out just how long it takes to break a bad habit, and how you can better prepare yourself for a quicker recovery. 

The Science of Habit Formation

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Habits form in the brain's basal ganglia, a region involved in developing emotions, memories, and pattern recognition. A loop gets initiated, consisting of a cue, routine, and reward. Over time, as this loop reinforces, the behavior becomes automatic. 

According to a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, on average, it takes 66 days to form a new habit, though this can vary.

Identifying the Trigger

Stressed annoyed office employee manager having headache migraine at business meetingZamrznuti tonovi, Shutterstock

Every habit has a cue or trigger. This might be an emotional state, a time of day, or a specific environment. Recognizing these triggers is the first step in breaking the cycle. 

Journaling or mindful introspection can be effective tools in this phase.

Replace, Don't Erase

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Simply trying to stop a behavior often isn't effective. Instead, replacing the negative behavior with a positive one utilizes the existing habit loop but changes the routine. 

For instance, if stress triggers smoking, one might try deep-breathing exercises or a quick walk when the urge hits.

Accountability and Social Support

Friends supporting each other doing yogaAndrea-Piacquadio, Adobe Stock

Sharing your goal to break a bad habit can make a difference. According to the American Society of Training and Development, committing to someone increases your chance of success by 65%. If you have a specific accountability appointment with that person, the chance of success increases to 95%.

Visual and Tangible Reminders

Girl writing notestookapic, Pixabay

Visual cues can act as reminders of your commitment. Whether it's a motivational quote, a progress tracker, or even a rubber band on your wrist, these can help reinforce your new behavior choice.

The Power of Incremental Goals

Group of young multi-ethnic friends with pizza and bottles of drinkNejron Photo, Shutterstock

Rome wasn't built in a day, and habits aren't changed overnight. Setting small, achievable goals can build momentum. 

Celebrating these milestones can release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, reward, and motivation.

Avoiding Temptations

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Environmental restructuring can play a massive role in habit-breaking. If you're trying to eat healthier, remove junk food from your pantry. Or if screen time is your nemesis, keep electronic devices out of the bedroom.

Self-compassion and Patience

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Change is hard, and setbacks can occur. Instead of indulging in self-criticism, which can demotivate, practicing self-compassion can be a game-changer. 

A study in the Journal of Research in Personality found that individuals who treated themselves with kindness and understanding were more likely to resume their habit-breaking journey after a lapse.

The 21/90 Rule

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Many believe it takes 21 days to break a habit and 90 days to create a new lifestyle. While the exact timeframe can vary, this rule underscores the importance of consistent effort and the fact that breaking habits is a marathon, not a sprint.

Professional Help

A woman and a therapistIlona, Adobe Stock

Sometimes, a habit might be deeply ingrained or associated with psychological distress. In such cases, seeking professional counseling or therapy can provide tailored strategies and coping mechanisms.

Final Thoughts

Funny woman smiles, winks and picks her teeth with a toothpick on a first datefrantic00, Shutterstock

Breaking bad habits is no easy feat, but with understanding, strategy, and persistence, it's entirely achievable. By tapping into the psychology of habits and leveraging proven techniques, we can pave the way to healthier and more fulfilling lifestyles.


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