8 Ways to Break Your Bad Habits for Good

Have you experienced mornings where you know you brushed your teeth but don't remember doing it, or drove to work without thinking about each turn you took? Habits can be helpful, putting you on autopilot to get through the routine of daily life and allowing you to get through the day more efficiently. When a task becomes a habit, it leaves room in your mind for other things like your grocery list or that looming deadline at the office.

Unfortunately, though, not all habits are good. Some habits—such as smoking, emotional eating, biting your fingernails or yelling at your kids—were never intentional and can be difficult behaviors to break. At some point in your life, these habits helped you deal with situations or feelings more easily. Whether that's still the case or not, knowing that the habit is not good for your physical or emotional health means it's time for a change. Even the most ingrained habits can be broken successfully through patience and perseverance.

1. Consider your motivation for change.

The first step is to identify why you want to change the behavior. Whether the habit is a health risk or just keeping you from becoming the best version of yourself, consider the following questions:

How is this habit impacting my quality of life?

How will my life improve if I remove it?

Are others pressuring me to break the habit, or is this something I want to do?

The desire for change should come from you, not pressure from a well-intentioned friend or family member. When you're the one who wants to change, you're much more likely to be successful. The drive must come from within.

2. Identify your triggers.

Think of a habit like a continuous loop of "trigger-response-reinforcement." Something (trigger) prompts the habit (response) to happen, which results in feelings that reinforce the behavior. For example, when you get angry with your spouse, you're more likely to binge on sweets, which makes you feel better in the moment (even if later you end up feeling worse). If you can eliminate the trigger (in this case, anger), you can break the loop which breaks the habit. Can you talk to your spouse about the things that make you upset to help avoid those feelings completely? If you can't avoid them, make a list of ways you can deal with the anger in a positive way—journaling, calling a friend or going for a run, for example.

Perhaps you've committed to evening workouts but struggle with consistency. You've realized that when you walk into the house after a long day of work, the couch always seems to be calling your name. Once you sit down, there's little hope of getting back up. If that's the case, eliminate the trigger completely by stopping at the gym on your way home from work, instead.

3. Look for the "good" intention behind the "bad" behavior.

Motivation expert Dean Anderson encourages you to determine what functional purpose the habit is serving. "We don't develop habits because they are bad and we like to be bad, or because we were standing in the wrong line when they were handing out willpower," he explains. "If a habit starts causing problems, the best way to change it is to figure out what useful purpose it serves. Then you can focus on finding some other ways to get that positive benefit without the negative consequences attached to the habit. Once you do that, the habit will be much easier to change, simply because you won’t need it as much."

"It’s hard to find the positive purpose behind the bad habit if you start off by defining the habit as bad.—doing that will just make you think that there's something wrong with you that's causing the bad behavior, [and] that's a road that will take you straight to where you don’t want to end up.

4. Focus on what you are going to do rather than what you're not going to do.

Kendra Davies, owner of Stellar Life Coaching recommends taking a look at how your goals are worded. "Instead of saying 'I am not going to eat sugar,' change it to 'I am going to incorporate more vegetables into my diet.' Instead of 'I am not going to use social media' focus on 'I am going to be present with family and friends in real life'," she says. "The more specific and detailed you can be with what you will do, the better. It not only takes the focus off the shame, but in reality, if you are eating a lot of sugar with no veggies and you start eating more veggies, it's actually a win!"

Davies advises her clients to aim for progress not perfection, and let the little wins be your building blocks for bigger changes. "Celebrate your desire to be better, then celebrate when you make choices that support you being better," she explains.

5. Start small.  

Clinical psychologist Aviva Gaskill, Ph.D., recommends starting with simple changes. "I encourage people to try not to make too many changes at once or you're going to have a much harder time being successful in sticking with a behavior change," she advises. "For example, eating healthier is a complex behavior and we need to eat to survive. If you try to make too many changes at once, most people will not succeed."

Gaskill suggests that it's best to focus on one bad eating habit at a time. "You might start cutting back on late-night eating, reducing alcohol consumption, bringing lunch to work or introducing more vegetables into your meals and snacks."

The beginning of a healthy lifestyle journey is typically when motivation is highest. You're eager to make big changes and see big results, but use caution. Changing too many things too soon can easily become overwhelming, which makes setbacks more likely. Gradual changes give you time to adapt, ensuring they are long-lasting and not just a temporary fix.

6. Create a support system.

Davies believes that establishing a positive and strong support system is key. "If you don't have anyone in your life, or if the people in your life have watched you try and fail and they are running low on compassion for your habit, seek professional help from a coach, therapist, nutritionist [or] personal trainer."

Davies believes that everyone needs someone to remind them that they are capable of change. "The 'you' that needed this thing all that time ago, is gone, and today, you are capable, deserving and powerful enough to make different choices, however uncomfortable and painful they may be. Have someone in your corner to walk with you."

Anderson agrees with the importance of support, and encourages people to seek out like-minded and goal-oriented buddies. "Don't rely on just your own willpower. Let other people around you know what you're trying to do, preferably people who are working on similar goals themselves. Often just knowing that you'll be updating your goal partners on your progress will give you that extra push you need to stick to it," he says.

7. Plan for setbacks.

"It's normal to have a lapse (a small slide backward) or even a full relapse (a full slide backward into the old habit) a few times," explains Gaskill.  "If you begin to feel guilty or angry with yourself, you're more likely to beat yourself up and keep sliding backwards. But if you accept that you're human and bound to make a mistake here or there, you can get back to working toward your goal behavior."

Planning ahead can also help prevent setbacks. For example, if you know you'll be working late nights around the end of the quarter, plan on ways to squeeze in a lunchtime or early morning workout, instead. If the monthly potluck with friends is always full of temptation, eat a snack before you go and bring a healthy dish. Setbacks aren't inevitable, but if they do happen, learn from them and keep moving forward.

8. Be patient and kind to yourself.

Gaskill reminds her clients that they are human and being perfect is not the goal. "Work to reduce guilt, shame and anger toward yourself for having lapses. Try to gain an understanding about what this behavior does for you and all the complex feelings related to it," she says. "For example, smoking might make you feel guilty, but it might also help you feel relaxed when you're nervous. [Now, consider a] healthier behavior you could use instead of this negative behavior."

Anderson also believes in the idea of progress, not perfection. "Breaking a bad habit doesn't mean that you'll never do it again or never want to do it again. [Rather,] it means that you'll be the one to decide what you're going to do—not your triggers, the situation you're in or some transient feeling that pops up. Use the times when you don't [behave] perfectly to learn something you can use to do a little better the next time you're in a similar situation."

Davies reminds her clients that feeling bad about yourself doesn't help you move forward. "You are not what you do; you are made up of much more. Bryan Stevenson has a beautiful quote: 'Each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done,'" she shares. "Shame makes it seem like the things you are doing are inherit faults in your character that you cannot change, that you are somehow fundamentally flawed because you struggle with food or shopping or smoking. This is simply false and not helpful. Shame keeps us sick and stuck."

By identifying your source of motivation, developing a plan and setting the proper expectations, you can break bad habits you've spent a lifetime developing. Eliminating the negative will allow you to live your best life and reach your full potential.