How do you break bad habits for good?
You’ve pulled your junk food from the pantry and thrown it in the trash, vowing to never eat that crap again.
You’ve flushed your cigarettes down the toilet. You’ve promised your spouse that you’ll stop being so grumpy. You’ve sworn off of social media, video games, pornography, or television.
And — gosh darn it! — in the moment, you were serious.
Only… a week later, or maybe a month later, you went back on your promise. You indulged.
I need a break!
You ate a whole pizza, snuck out for a ciggie, yelled at your spouse over something stupid, scrolled mindlessly through social media, played video games, binged a TV show, or stayed up late watching porn.
And while it started as a single indulgence, it led to… well, right back where you started.
I know. Frustrating.
But don’t worry. We’ve created a plan that will help you break that bad habit once and for all.
But before we talk about how to beat your bad habits, you need to understand why it’s so damn difficult in the first place.
Why Quitting Bad Habits is Difficult (According To Science)
Let’s take a little journey into your neural pathways, your brain noodles, your smarty bits…
Whatever you like to call em’, these are the highways in your brain that allow messages to travel from one nerve receptor to another.
Here’s an oversimplified (and super-sciency-looking) image of this…
All those little lines you see connecting the bumps in the picture above, those are neural pathways, and your brain uses them to create pain and/or pleasure associations.
When you do something — bite your fingernails, stress-eat, walk, talk, or act a certain way — you form a neural pathway that associates pain or pleasure with the action.
(Touching the hot stove = pain. Eating Doritos and watching movies = pleasure).
When something is painful, you do it less. When something is pleasure-able, you do it more.
(No shit, Sherlock)
But stick with me.
The more that you take that action and associate pain or pleasure with it, the stronger those neural pathways become and the more automatic your behavior.
In other words, if you turn to food over and over again when you’re stressed, stress-eating eventually becomes automatic.
If you find an escape from a long day’s work at the bottom of a bottle every night, then you’re going to keep on drinking without much thought.
And thus a habit is formed.
Your existing habits originally formed because you found pleasure or release by doing them. And those habits stick around because you’ve created pretty strong neural pathways, making you want to automatically take those actions when you get “triggered.”
Research shows that our brains regularly “prune” these neural pathways — clearing ones that aren’t being used. This is called neuroplasticity, and here’s an official explanation from Dr. Campbell:
“From the time the brain begins to develop in utero until the day we die, the connections among the cells in our brains reorganize in response to our changing needs. This dynamic process allows us to learn from and adapt to different experiences.”
The problem is, once a habit is formed, not using those neural pathways for a significant amount of time is a real bitch (as you well know), which means changing your habits is also a real bitch. Maybe, for example, you’ve reinforced a neural pathway that makes you want to sleep in until 2 pm on the weekends. Meanwhile, the neural pathway that would reward you with happy feelings for getting up early lies dormant because you haven’t used it in so long.
When in default mode, you’re going to take the path most traveled.
And there are really only two reasons that you haven’t rewired your brain (yet).
1. You don’t associate enough pain with leaving things as they are.
2. You don’t associate enough pleasure with changing.
Remember, neural pathways — your habits — are just pain and pleasure associations. You do things that bring you pleasure and you avoid things that cause you pain. The only way, then, to quit a bad habit or to create a new habit (at least in the beginning) is to rewire those neural pathways so that you associate pleasure with good habits and pain with bad habits.
But I’m not talking about shaming yourself. I’m talking about intentionally using pain and pleasure to hack your brain, break your bad habits, and create new healthy habits.
Here’s how you’re going to do that.
3 Parts To Breaking a Bad Habit (And a Story To Inspire You)
This time, I’m really going to stick with it, Maggie thought, reading through her new diet and exercise program.
She’d tried what felt like a million different diets and a million different exercise routines. Nothing stuck. She might lose a few pounds. But in the end, she’d cheat, she’d get discouraged, and she’d end up right where she started.
In her own words, “I had no idea what I was doing. I mean… I knew I needed to exercise and eat healthier food. But I didn’t know what either of those things really meant. I didn’t have a plan.”
She continued, “I used to eat a salad and go to the gym for 30 minutes and be surprised I wasn’t losing weight.
“It wasn’t until I became intensely frustrated with being overweight and had a crystal-clear plan for how to change that I finally succeeded.”
Diagnosed with hypothyroidism 4 years ago – an autoimmune disease that causes fatigue, weight gain, and depression — Maggie is someone who probably shouldn’t have succeeded. The cards were stacked against her. The dice were loaded. And yet, today, she’s one of the healthiest, most level-headed people I know.
I bring her story up because her transformation is long-standing. For 4 years — and despite medical conditions that actively fight against her — she has maintained a healthy lifestyle, exercising consistently, eating nutritious meals, and passing that discipline on to the people around her.
(Also… she’s my sis :-D)
You can do the same thing.
You can change.
And your ticket to life-long transformation is two-fold. To start quitting, you must associate pain with the way things are. To maintain your new lifestyle, you must associate pleasure with the new habits you’re forming.
Let’s get started.
Part 1: Create Pain Associations With Your Bad Habits
Ever wonder why some people quit their bad habits “cold turkey” and stay sober for decades? Meanwhile, you can’t seem to break even the tiniest bad habit…
Again, it’s all about how much pain the person associates with their bad habit at the time of quitting. Talk with anyone who’s been sober for years and they’ll almost always mention a moment of conviction — something that finally made them determined to change.
I asked someone who’s been sober for a decade now (and who I’m keeping anonymous) what made her capable of finally quitting. Here’s what she said: “It wasn’t until I went to prison for my actions that there was no more denying what I’d become. I either had to embrace the reality of my terrible situation or change. That was it.”
During a moment of immense tribulation, she finally associated enough pain with her current addictions to make a life-long decision to change.
Similarly, I once read about someone who quit cigarettes cold turkey because his daughter walked in while he was smoking and said, “Daddy, why do you want to kill yourself?”
Since you’re here, you probably already associate some sort of pain with your bad habits. You know that what you’re doing isn’t healthy and you want to change.
But rather than pushing that pain to the side, we need to examine it, document it, and let it really sink in — only then will you be able to make a life-changing decision…
So here’s how you can create pain associations — and thus determination to quit — without suffering real, tangible consequences.
Step #1: Write Down The Habit You Want To Quit
Pull out your journal, find a clean page, and at the top, write down the number one habit you want to quit. You can do this with more habits once I’ve walked you through the exercise, but let’s just start with your biggest, baddest habit.
Step #2: Write Down Why You Want To Quit
Under the habit you’re quitting, write down a few sentences about why you want to quit. Will you feel better? Will you be more successful? Will you have better relationships? What is your motivation for wanting to change?
Step #3: Write Down What Will Happen If You Don’t Quit
This is where the magic happens. On the remainder of the page, make a list of negative things that will likely happen if you don’t quit this habit right now. What will your life be like in 10 years? How will you feel? How long will you live? What will your relationships be like? Will you have regret?
The more detailed this list, the better.
Step #4: Review Your List Every Morning For 2 Weeks
Feel into your list right now. Look at what you wrote down and imagine those bad things as if they’re your reality. Allow your emotions to connect with that list and fully understand these are the logical results of your current actions.
It’s okay to cry here. The goal isn’t to shame yourself or to make yourself feel shitty, but to help you understand the likely result of your current actions. And then to use that understanding to create determination toward real change.
So spend 5-10 minutes every morning for at least the next two weeks reviewing this list (and refreshing it if you like) and emotionally connecting with its truths. Soon, even thinking about continuing your bad habits will feel repulsive (which is good).
Part 2: Create Pleasure Associations With Your New Habits
Part 1 of this guide is going to give you the motivation to finally quit. It’s the quick-start fuel you need to get going — like putting the key in the ignition and starting the engine.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough.
You can’t just quit your bad habit and leave an empty void where those routines used to exist.
In fact, Charles Duhigg (and many other psychologists) firmly believes that “You can’t extinguish a bad habit, you can only change it.”
That’s why, when you’ve tried to quit your bad habits in the past, everything is going wonderful for a week or two, but eventually, it crumbles — typically, that’s because you didn’t replace that bad habit with something new and equally pleasurable.
To put this in more visual terms, take a look at Charles Duhigg’s famous habit loop.
First, something triggers you (anxiety, stress, or even a certain time of day), then you do the bad habit, and finally, you get a reward (usually in the form of happy brain chemicals).
But when you’re creating new habits to replace your bad habits, you don’t change the trigger and you don’t change the reward, you just change the behavior. In other words, you choose a healthy replacement habit that can provide you with the same reward you got from the bad habit.
Of course, getting that reward and experiencing pleasure with a new habit can take a few weeks, which is why you need to go through Part 1.
Here are the steps to associating massive pleasure with your new routine and making it last for the long-term.
Step #1: Choose Your Replacement Habit
On a blank page, write down what new habit is going to replace your bad habit. Ideally, there should be a lot of direct similarity between the trigger-reward system of your old habit and your new habit.
For example, you shouldn’t replace unhealthy eating with exercise — those have totally different triggers and rewards. Instead, replace unhealthy eating with a strict and clear dieting plan. You can add exercise into that plan as well, but understand that the exercise doesn’t replace the old habit, that’s the job of your new diet.
A few more good replacement examples…
- Pornography → Exercise
- Social Media → Time With Friends
- Television → Reading
- Cigarettes → Gum
You can replace any bad habit with any new habit that has a similar trigger-reward system. The two criteria to keep in mind are…
- The new habit must happen at the same time of day as the bad habit.
- The new habit must have a similar trigger and reward as the bad habit.
Remember, though, that doesn’t mean the new habit is going to be immediately as pleasurable as your old habit — in fact, it probably won’t be.
For the first week or so, the habit will feel like a burden. So do whatever you can to make the new habit pleasurable — read a really exciting book, learn an instrument you’ve always wanted to learn, listen to music or an audiobook while you exercise, write a short story that excites you. In time, your mind will associate pleasure with the new habit.
Also, be specific with your new habit. What are you doing, when are you going to do it, and how long are you committing to the change?
Step #2: Write Down Why You Want To Start This Habit
Under the habit you’re starting, write down a few sentences about why you want to start. Will you feel better? Will you be more successful? Will you have better relationships? What is your motivation for wanting to change?
Step #3: Write Down How This Habit Will Benefit You
On the remainder of the page, make a list of ways this habit will benefit you for months and years to come. How will you feel? What will you have likely accomplished? What are the long-term benefits?
The longer and more detailed this list, the better.
Step #4: Review Your List Every Morning For At Least 2 Weeks
Review your list every morning for at least 2 weeks. Make sure that you when you read through your list, you feel into each point, allowing your emotions to connect with the truth behind those words. The more you do this, the faster you’ll associate pleasure with the new lifestyle you’re creating.
Once you’ve finished all the steps in Part 1 and Part 2, you should have a journal that looks something like this…
Step #4 on each Part was to review the list you created for at least 2 weeks. I recommend doing this at the same time of day — I recommend first thing in the morning, as it gets you in the right frame of mind for the rest of the day. Give yourself 10-15 minutes in the morning to review both of these lists and emotionally connect with what you wrote down.
That will have a massive impact on your determination to keep going.
Now, onto Part 3.
Part 3: Use The 30-Consecutive-Day Plan
When it comes to making real life-long changes, there are two more common issues that crop up…
- Do I ever get to cheat?
- What happens if I screw up?
Those concerns come from the part of your brain that is used to the way things are, that is comfortable with your existing habits and doesn’t really want to change.
It’s wondering when you get to cheat and it’s even making you nervous (hoping — *fingers crossed*) that you’re going to screw up… and then give up.
For some of you (not all of you), the attitude Maggie had when she started on her weight-loss journey would be beneficial…
“For the first 8 months of my new exercise and diet routine, I did not cheat once. I was absolutely determined to make it work. I even exercised when I had the flu and I would refuse going out to eat with family so that I wouldn’t be tempted. I’m not sure I would recommend that attitude to other people because it was pretty intense… but it’s definitely the attitude I needed to succeed.”
She even said that she wouldn’t have succeeded without that attitude — she would have cheated, counted that lapse as a complete failure, and given up altogether (like had happened so many times before).
Instead, she was determined to make it work… no matter what.
In the words of what’s printed on the bracelets of millions of recovering alcoholics around the world, she was willing to do “whatever it takes.”
And our 30-consecutive-day plan is built to help you with making a real, life-changing commitment.
Here are the rules.
- For 30 days, you commit to ditch the bad habit and create a new habit.
- These days are consecutive, which means that if you screw up (indulge the bad habit or don’t do the new habit when you said you would), the 30 days starts over.
BUT (and this is a very important ‘BUT’), you have to do what’s best for your situation and the bad habit you’re trying to break. If you’re addicted to drugs or alcohol, then quitting cold-turkey could be a real problem for your health (please — go see a qualified doctor or physician).
In extreme cases (or if you just think quitting cold turkey ain’t gonna cut it), weaning off your bad habit is a far healthier option.
Here’s what that might look like in terms of the 30-consecutive-day commitment…
- Week One: You only cheat on the weekends.
- Week Two: You only cheat one day per week (choose the day).
- Week Three: You only cheat one time per week (one bad meal, one drink, one cigarette, one television binge, etc).
- Week Four: You don’t cheat at all.
Then you could do another 30-days where you’re completely clean of the bad habit.
And again, if you fail in that plan, you just start the 30-day commitment over.
(But pleeeasse, if you’re struggling with a serious addiction, for the love of all that is holy and good, go see a doctor.)
The beautiful thing about the 30-consecutive-day commitment is that A) you know exactly what to do if you screw up (just start over) and B) you’re not going to want to screw up (because then you have to start over).
This rule adds a healthy dose of determination and a Plan B in case the first go-around doesn’t go as planned.
Plus, 30 days should be enough to weaken those pesky neural pathways and make your new habit relatively automatic. But don’t be afraid to do a second set of 30 days if you feel like you need to (some research shows that it takes about 66 days to make a new habit truly automatic).
If just 30 (or even 60) days could change the rest of your life, wouldn’t that seem like a fair trade-off?
“If you can say ‘yes’ to a good habit, and ‘no’ to a bad habit for several weeks or months, it will be much easier after that. And every time you say ‘no’ to the bad habit, it’s easier to say ‘no’ the next time.” — Maggie Towne
Whatever you’ve decided to do — quit cold turkey or wean yourself off — write down your commitment, tell your friends and family, comment at the bottom of this article or message me directly, follow the 30-consecutive-day plan, and design the life you want to live. I’m right here rooting you on. 🙂
Ready To Break Your Bad Habits?
Creating new habits, doing things you’ve never done, becoming the best you can be — there’s pain involved in that process.
But remember, it’s far less painful to change now than it is to have massive regrets down the road because you never changed.
Imagine lying on your deathbed, thinking of how you never lived up to your own expectations, how you never built that business or wrote that book or learned that skill or traveled to that dream location.
Regret is far worse than the pain of making life-long changes congruent with the person you desperately want to become.
So who do you want to become?
The choice is yours, and so too is the power to change. Just follow the above steps, make a 30-consecutive-day commitment, and create the life you want to live one habit at a time.
Let me know how it goes!
Mike is a writer for SUCCESS, AdWeek, and Addicted2Success. He’s been quoted on Forbes and Entrepreneur for his expertise in marketing and personal development. He’s also the owner of Get Your Gusto Back where he helps people reignite their inner fire.
2 thoughts on “How To Break Bad Habits: A Science-Backed Guide”
Nice post, Mike! Very inspiring. I remember hearing that it takes so many weeks to form a new habit, like diet or exercise. Creating or breaking habits is easier for some people than others who lack much will power to say “no” or motivate themselves.
These are some good tips for people who are struggling.
Thanks Amelia! I’m glad you liked it. 🙂
The amount of time it takes to break a bad habit is definitely interesting. One common belief is that it takes 21 days, but further research seems to indicate that it takes closer to 60 days — still, the more you do something, the easier it gets!