How to break a bad habit for good

by Jake Smolarek
An apple and cookie held in two hands

Andres Ayrton / Pixabay

Habits. Good and bad. We all have them.

The problem is, we don't tend to notice our good habits. A good habit isn't something that you make a conscious effort to do regularly. By nature, it's almost unconscious, which means that unless it makes us feel guilt or shame, we tend not to notice it.

In contrast, we often dwell on our bad habits. They stick in our minds, and we obsess over them. How bad are they really? Do other people do the same? I should stop.

But why are we like this? Well, it turns out our brains are designed this way, and it's very natural. But that doesn't mean you can't take charge and start breaking those nasty habits.

From smoking and nail-biting to an addiction to your mobile phone, healthy eating, working out, and earning more money, your habits make you who you are. As Aristotle once said,

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit."

Here's how to break a bad habit, how to make good habits, and why you can change your habits.

Why don't we recognise good habits?

This is the ultimate question. Why do we fail to recognise and reward our good habits, but we can't seem to forget our bad habits? Bad habits hang around in the back of our minds like a bad cold. Habits are closely linked to individuals, so the reason for a bad habit can change from person to person. Trauma and stress are two primary reasons why someone might have a bad habit.

But experts have pinpointed two significant reasons to suggest why we focus on the bad, not the good. And why we can't break bad habits easily.

Shameful habits

The truth is, it's all linked to feelings of shame. Studies show that some of the strongest emotional drivers for humans are fear of embarrassment or shame. This means that rather than being driven towards happiness, we are actually just driven away from being embarrassed. Of course, this means that what other people consider embarrassing has a significant hold over us.

We dwell on our bad habits because they feel shameful. We are constantly aware of them because we know that others would frown upon them. So, we think about it constantly. The possibility of being judged means we can't leave those thoughts alone. So, every time we do a bad thing, we notice it.

Shame also comes into play when we have good habits. For many people, there is a fear of being too cocky, too selfish, and too egotistical. So, when we do something good, we don't want to be judged in this way, and we try to let it slide. Don't think about it. It's not a big deal. And our brain happily obliges and lets us forget that we actually did a good thing.

Signals in our brain

The second primary reason we focus on bad habits and ignore good ones is that we are simply hardwired that way. Seriously. The human brain has evolved to have a reward system. It's literally called the "habit-loop."

The idea is, your brain feels good and rewards itself with good feelings when it does something unusually good. If something is neutral, neither good nor bad, or just a little boring, your brain ignores it. No reward there. It needs something extra.

That's where bad habits come in. As we've discussed, habits are almost unconscious. So good habits go unnoticed. It's repetitive, which means it isn't exceptional, so no happy chemicals in your brain. In contrast, bad habits are there to be fixed. Your brain looks at a bad habit like an itch it wants to scratch. It knows that by fixing the bad habit, it'll get a hit of happy chemicals.

The problem is, once the bad habit is fixed, your brain can't fix it again. So, part of your brain doesn't want it to be fixed. The excitement of fixing it in the future is just too appealing to fix it now.

Complicated right!

Why are bad habits so easy to make?

Forming habits, good or bad, is the same. It's all about triggers, rewards, and patterns. You feel bad habits are easy, and good habits are hard because you don't recognise your good habits. To break a bad habit is as easy as it is to break a good one. And no one wants to break good habits.

Imagine trying to force yourself to start a bad habit. For someone who genuinely enjoys eating healthily, trying to get into the habit of eating MacDonald's for breakfast isn't easy. For a dedicated non-smoker, trying to make sure you have three a day is hard.

So, you see, bad habits and good habits are actually the same. They're just habits.

The only exceptions to the rule are bad habits that have short-term rewards. Your brain will usually choose an immediate reward over a future reward. It's all to do with the caveman part of brains saying, "eat the fruit now. You don't know when you'll find more." So, if we get an immediate reward, we prefer that.

This means something that's bad for us in the long run, such as eating too many sweets; we still do it because we like the immediate yummy taste and the sugar rush. The same is true in reverse. Working out feels terrible straight away, so we don't want to do it. It's good in the long run, but our brains don't focus on the future. They focus on the now.

How to break bad habits

A road with STOP sign painted

Obi Onyeador / Pexels

The good news is, you can learn new habits. Because our brains love learning and love patterns, you can teach yourself a new habit fairly easily. Here are our top tips for breaking a bad habit and learning a new habit.

Don't just break a habit; learn a new one

Our brains love patterns and repetition. So, if you're trying to break a habit by doing everything and anything, chances are it won't work. Your brain will always go back to the learned habit because it's familiar.

To successfully break bad habits, you should replace them with a new one. It doesn't matter what it is, but it should take about the same amount of time and effort. Use the new habit to teach your brain a new pattern. Soon, your brain will be content to do something new rather than the old habit. Think of it of how to change bad habits into good ones.

Repeat it

Habits are all about patterns. So breaking habits is all about patterns. You can't do something for a week and think you've made a new habit. Research has shown that it's a minimum of 21 consecutive days for most people to form a habit. If you only want to create a habit weekly, it'll take much longer.

Try using a calendar or sticky notes on your wall or coloured markers to make the timeframe visible. This will help you to keep track of where you are and how long you have left. Just be aware that when your time is up, and you stop with the visual clues, you'll have to make sure you have really formed a habit. Some people successfully make it to the end and then give up. Remember the goal; this is about developing a new habit, not reaching a deadline!

Find the why

Because habits are based on repetitive loops, you'll probably find that something in your life is a trigger. Many people smoke after a stressful family visit. Others bite their nails before a big work meeting. Whatever it is, try to identify situations that make you react instinctively. Once you know when and where you are triggered, you can take steps to actively avoid these situations or prepare to have a different action or reward on hand. Breaking bad habits is easier if you can avoid them altogether.

Reward yourself

Your brain automatically rewards itself with hormones and chemicals that make you feel good. You can trick your brain into doing this when you are trying to develop a habit. Choose a kind of reward for yourself that makes your brain happy. Every time you do your new habit successfully, you get a reward. Your brain will begin to associate doing the thing with the satisfying feeling afterwards, and it will start to look forward to your new habit. You're effectively tricking yourself. You can also reward yourself when you don't do a bad habit.

Start small

Don't try to change everything at once. One of the reasons many of us fail to change our habits is because we get a wave of motivation, and we try to change everything at once. Start small and just make one change. Focus on one small habit you want to break or make, and don't try anything else. You can even break a goal down. If you're going to make it a habit to drink eight glasses of water a day, start with four. You can always move up to eight later, and four is better than none. If you want to quit smoking, try only smoking two a day instead of going cold turkey.


We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and while this can motivate you, it can also intimidate you. Try to refocus your goals in relation to daily habits. If you want to earn more money and be financially stable, work an extra half hour each day. If you're going to run a marathon, focus on running three times a week. Refocus your attention on your actions and tasks rather than giving all your attention to the final goal. You'll find it easier to repeat actions and make habits.

Get help

Habits are hardwired into our brains, so there is no shame in admitting you want help. If you just need a gentle nudge, ask a friend or family member. They can support you, remind you and help with the reward. Remember the feelings of guilt and shame that come with bad habits; you can manipulate those into feeling even greater shame if you have to tell them why you failed. If you need more help, speak to a life coach or therapist who can provide professional support.

Be gentle with yourself

You will slip up; you will make mistakes and fall off the bandwagon, and that's okay. Habits aren't easy to break, but it's even more complicated if you tell yourself that one mistake means total failure. No, it doesn't. Start again. This time you're starting from a better position than last time. Give yourself a break. You're trying, and that means you're improving and doing better than anyone who isn't trying!

Good habits vs Bad habits

Really, it all comes down to your mindset. Good habits and bad habits are just as easy to make and break as each other. It's just your brain tricking you. But you can override your brain and trick it in return! All you need to know is how to break habits and remake them.

When it comes to making habits, practice makes perfect. You won't change your habits overnight, but you can change them over time.

About the Author

Jake Smolarek

Life and Business Coach & Entrepreneur

For over 16 years I have been helping people achieve their personal, professional, and financial goals faster and easier than they've ever imagined.

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