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7 science-backed tips to break a bad habit for good

Madeline Kennedy   

7 science-backed tips to break a bad habit for good
Insider Picks5 min read
  • The first step to breaking bad habits is to track your behavior and identify triggers.
  • Once you know your triggers, you can try to avoid them by swapping out the behavior.

Breaking bad habits can be a long and difficult process — it takes smokers an average of 30 attempts before they quit cigarettes for good.

But there are several proven methods you can use to quit habits more easily, like tracking your behavior and distracting yourself during cravings.

Here are seven science-backed strategies you can use to help break your bad habits.

1. Track your behavior patterns

"If we want to figure out how to prevent ourselves from engaging in unwanted habits, we first have to figure out what triggers the habit and what contexts it occurs in," says Russell Poldrack, a psychology professor at Stanford University.

For example, if you're trying to quit smoking, it helps to identify triggers such as:

"Check in with yourself regularly to assess your mood and know when you are feeling vulnerable," says Robert Taibbi, an author and licensed clinical social worker in private practice and author of "Process-Focused Therapy: Guide to Effective Clinical Outcomes."

It can be hard to notice what triggers your bad habits without actually tracking it — you can use a planner or a tracking app to write down any helpful information.

If you have a slip up or a particularly intense craving, record what you did right before it happened and how you felt that day. As you do this more often, you may start to see patterns.

The tracking process may help you become more mindful of your internal state and less likely to revert to an automatic bad habit.

2. Avoid your triggers

"Once a person has figured out the triggers or situations that cause them to engage in the habit, they should do their best to avoid those situations if possible," Poldrack says.

For example, if you know that you're always tempted to drink when you meet friends at a restauraunt, ask if you could meet at a cafe instead.

Tabi gives some other examples of swapping out triggers for something new:

  • If you associate drinking coffee with smoking a cigarette, try switching to tea.
  • If you tend to overeat while watching TV, set up an eating space in a different room or area away from the TV.

If you can't avoid a triggering situation, it may help to plan how you're going to prevent the behavior in advance, Poldrack says.

For example, if you need to go to a work lunch where alcohol will be served, plan ahead exactly what you'll say if someone offers you a drink.

3. Replace the behavior

Breaking bad habits isn't only about avoiding triggers — you can also try substituting a different behavior that provides the same satisfaction, Taibbi says.

Here are a few examples you can try as substitutes:

  • Smoking cigarettes might be appealing because you get a short break from work or a social situation. To get the same relief, you can just step outside without smoking or pretend to take a call if needed.
  • Drinking alcohol might give you a chance to mix different cocktails in the evenings — replacing this ritual with new mocktail recipes might offer the same creative outlet.
  • If you bite your nails because you feel restless, "then a competing response could be to put one's hands in one's pockets and fiddle with some kind of small object," Poldrack says.

So to start, you can determine what type of positive feelings you're getting from your bad habits, then think of a new habit to try that isn't as harmful.

4. Distract yourself during urges or cravings

If you feel a strong craving coming on, it can help to distract yourself with an engaging activity like calling a friend or watching your favorite TV show.

"It's good to have a list of alternative things to do at the ready," Taibbi says. Write down a list and put it somewhere visible like your refrigerator, so you don't have to come up with an idea in the moment.

"Most cravings only usually last from a few minutes to about 20 to 30. If you can get through that time, you'll usually be able to not give into the craving," Taibbi says.

Exercising is always a good option, Taibbi says, because it forces you to focus on how your body is feeling instead of on your craving — try going for a 20 to 30-minute walk or jog to get through the worst of your craving.

In a very small 2017 study, exercising reduced people's tendency to crave immediate rewards.

You can also try to develop a mantra that you repeat whenever you're trying to distract yourself, Poldrack says. "If one is religious, then a verse of scripture can be a good mantra; for others, a quote from someone who inspires them can help," Poldrack says.

5. Reward yourself for progress

"You usually start out with a lot of enthusiasm and resolve but it can begin to wane on bad days or when you're not really seeing the benefits yet," Taibbi says.

Rewards may help you keep motivated and less likely to give up on quitting — some options you can try are:

  • Add up the money you would have spent on alcohol or cigarettes and use it to buy something you always wanted.
  • Create benchmarks for progress — after one month of avoiding the habit, you can take yourself out for a nice dinner or a day trip.
  • Acknowledge and pat yourself on the back each time you resist temptation. This can help "offset that critical voice that tells you're not trying hard enough or will fail," Taibbi says. You can

6. Forgive yourself for slip-ups

Relapsing on your bad habits is a normal part of the process of quitting.

"People shouldn't beat themselves up when they fail, because it's hard work and there will likely be failures along the way," Poldrack says.

Getting angry or telling yourself that you're a failure may make you feel discouraged and less likely to try quitting again.

A 2012 study found that people who criticized themselves more achieved less progress toward their goals, compared with people who weren't as critical.

To get out of the critical mindset, you can try imagining what you'd say to a loved one who experienced a setback in the quitting process — you'll likely be kinder and more encouraging.

7. Get support

If you're struggling to make any progress on breaking your bad habits, reaching out to a professional like a therapist may help.

A therapist can offer insight about why you might rely on the bad behavior and how to meet that need in a different way.

There are also online forums for many different habit-breaking efforts. People on forums can offer tips and firsthand experience, validate how hard the process is, and keep you accountable to continue the process.

For example, you can find forums for people quitting smoking on sites like Facebook and Reddit.

In a 2017 study, people who actively used an online forum for quitting smoking had a 21% success rate, compared with 11% for people who were less active on the forum and 8% for people who didn't use the forum at all.

Insider's takeaway

Breaking a bad habit isn't always easy, but methods like replacing the habit or joining an online forum can make the process easier.

"Be proud of yourself for taking on the challenge and proving to yourself that you are indeed capable of changing and reaching your goals," Taibbi says.

And remember to be patient with yourself during the process. "If you slip up just get back on the horse," Taibbi says.