How to Break Bad Habits

A show of hands here. Chronic cardio buffs? Halloween candy freaks? Caffeine fiends? Stress addicts? French bread fanatics? Bad health habits come in all forms, we know. But the question of the day is this: how do we finally rid ourselves of those compulsive longings, those simultaneously desired and resented routines? Is it simply a matter of will power? Is it clever strategy? Permanent exile from the world where these pet practices and items can’t taunt us with their presence? We’re interested in what your tips (and those past/present vices) are, but here are some ideas to get the proverbial ball rolling – and that monkey off your back.

1. Dig up the who, what, when, where, why and how.


More than just a journalist’s framework, you can take advantage of some digging yourself. Sure, the “what” (the habit itself) probably seems pretty clear, but as you look to revise your routine, consider the context of your target habit. Does a certain friend always try to cut into/distract your gym time? When do you feel most vulnerable in the face of sweet snacks? Where is it hardest to turn down that cup of coffee? How does your family’s routine seem to sabotage your own best efforts and goals? Why do you think you keep coming back to the habit, be it anything from breakfast cereal to workout-less weekends to an occasional (gasp!) cigarette? What’s behind that habit anyway? What are you holding onto? Why does it have the sway over you that it does? Is it a stand-in or excuse for something else going on in your life/psyche?

2. Plan.


As you pinpoint the backdrop that keeps you hooked to those bad habits, take the opportunity to plan some strategies that you’ll rely on when faced with temptation. Maybe it’s an alternate entrée for the Wednesday lunch you have with friends. Perhaps it’s a thoughtful but casual way to decline after-work drinks or a good excuse to change your workout time to a more productive, less distracting time. Write (or record) a pep talk for yourself to dig out when you need it. Or, if it’s more your style, a kick-your-own-butt, what-are-you-thinking speech. What will you do or turn to when you find yourself turning toward instead of steering clear of the habitual path?

3. But don’t plan too much.

Live in the Moment

Sometimes it’s easy to put so much energy into planning to give up a habit that your efforts simply allow you to put off the actual leap itself. How many of us have been stuck circling in this pattern for more weeks/months/years than we’d care to admit? At some point, you have to bite the bullet and say that you’ll deal with the difficulties as they come. Decide today to not give into the habit, and then be willing to say the same tomorrow. That’s how it starts.

4. Toss the triggers.


The obvious point here is to get rid of any items whose sole purpose will be to tempt you away from your best intentions. (As in, bring any remaining Halloween treats to work the morning after, or just be really generous in the last part of the evening. Better yet, give out something that doesn’t lead anyone else down that Pied Piper path to begin with – more help on that this week.) If your triggers are less object-oriented and more contextual, toss the typical routines that encourage bad habits. Meet friends for a walk in the park instead of for dinner. Take up a fitness or dance class with your partner instead of spending Friday nights parked on the couch. Put the kids in charge of their own morning routine and get in a workout or meditation session instead. Taking on a long-held habit usually means taking charge of your life in a new way.

5. Spread the word.

Talk to Someone

For those people who are more socially motivated, letting the word out can give you added incentive to stay on track. No, it doesn’t mean you have to shout your intention from the rooftops. It’s more about the people you’re closer to. Letting a few close friends or family members know your intention can make the goal seem more real. Look at it as a supportive group helping you “stay true” in your pursuit. Your success is ultimately your effort and commitment, but it always helps knowing you have a crowd (or even close pal) cheering for you.

6. Pair up.

Couple Running in Snow

Do you have a friend or family member who’s also looking to give up a bad habit? Join forces. You’ll not only have some added support, you’ll also have the motivation of living up to your end of the bargain. When the going gets tough you can share strategies and humor to keep you both on course. One caution: be sure to not become dependent on that person’s participation. It’s ultimately your pursuit, whether the other person sticks with his/her choice or not.

7. A page a day.


Ever notice the exhaustive chronicles of weight loss, smoking cessation and the like on everything from MySpace to Flickr Commons? Sure, there’s the social element of announcing your intention and success, but we think there’s more to the project than that. Whether public or private, recording your pursuit (in all its flesh and blood humanity) can be therapeutic. Particularly if you’re a more introverted person, bringing your thoughts to the page in whatever form (journaling, doodling, extemporaneous collage…) can offer a sense of personal release and allow a space for you to be 100% candid, no holds barred. Chances are you’ll be able to look back on the collection with gratitude and likely a few good laughs.

8. Periodic incentive plan.


We approach the idea of “reward” cautiously because, like planning endeavors, rewards can sometimes act as divergent and ultimately derailing factors. What’s at the real root of breaking a bad habit, after all, but undertaking contemplation, cultivating discipline, framing a new routine or even outlook surrounding one’s health and daily practice? Rewards, while they can be a nice pick-me-up when you need them, don’t do much to bolster the real process. Our advice for incentives? Make them health-oriented. Design a “health indulgence” day, whatever that may look like for you.

9. If you falter, explore what went awry.

What Went Wrong?

Remember that “flesh and blood humanity” bit? We’ve all been there. There’s the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” (Then there’s the alternate ending – “you’re running about average”.) Instead of beating yourself up about it, take a day and then do the necessary post-mortem. What do you think inspired the lapse, whether it be a weak moment, an ill-considered decision, or a self-sabotaging act? What about your routine do you think you need to change this time around? Do you need some new strategies, a realignment of life priorities, or some deeper deliberation about what’s fueling the habit?

10. If you succeed, study what worked.

High Five with Dog

When it comes to health (or life), we don’t believe in resting on your laurels. Good health choices are ultimately about getting up every morning and choosing to do the “right” thing for your body. Every day requires a renewed commitment and a willingness to be present and accountable in the moment. But you have a lot to learn from your own past success. What did you tell yourself that made you get to the gym this weekend? How did you let go of the stress during the really bad day last week? What did you choose to do this morning when you wanted to go for your morning coffee and donut but didn’t? Knowing what you’ve done to resist temptation in the past can build up your “toolbox” of strategies and also reassure you in less confident moments that you have what it takes to kick the habit.

Now we want to invite your comments and additions. What have been your most difficult health habits to ditch? What approaches, tips, and mantras have worked for you? (And which ones haven’t?) Share your ideas, successes and questions with other readers. And thanks for your input.

pupski, -bast-, numstead, zen, lightsoutfilms, Ces’t June, M.V. Jantzen, paperbackwriter, mike_1630, dullhunk, paulieparker Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

10 Simple Steps to Help Motivate a Friend

Diet Change and Partner Dynamics

Making the Switch to Primal Living in 6 Easy Steps

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25 thoughts on “How to Break Bad Habits”

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  1. My best friend and I had both tried quitting smoking many times and failed. When we finally succeeded, we quit together. We had an obligation to each other not to fail. If either of us had failed, both of us would have failed. This is kind of a scary prospect because it sounds like a high risk of failure. Fortunately, we both stuck to it and are still both smoke free to this day!

  2. Mark i love your blog!
    This was a very timely post as i had issues with halloween candy last night! I ended up throwing some away and i will buy something for halloween the day of, that way it’s out of sight out of mind!
    I like the plan but don’t plan too much 😉

  3. Spreading the word definitely works. I’d always tried to diet in secret (I’m not the only one out there, right? You know, surprise everybody one day by suddenly being thin). But it was much easier when I finally made health just as much a part of my daily chit chat as movies, politics, and L.A. traffic. Talking about losing weight/going Primal made health a reality rather than a fantasy.

  4. I find that pairing up is a great way to do something, especially if its something I need motivation or support for. It seems easier and less “weird” or more “normal” if someone else is doing something with me. Its also a built in person to talk to, someone I know is going to care about whatever issues/difficulties I’m having, and someone who knows what I’m going through.
    Great post Mark! Especially with the holidays coming up!

    What ever it is you’re dealing with, write it down on paper side by side a list of bad habits you want to brake and a list of good habits to want to develop. This helps organize a new way of thinking.

    Also, say to yourself what you “will” do, don’t say what you “won’t” do.

  6. I know without a doubt that SUGAR is my biggest weakness. Combine it with white flour (cakes and cookies) and I think the ultimate comfort food has been created!! I am seriously addicted. I must stay away at all costs. I can not have just one, I can not maintain control. My mood is instantly affected. I get very self centered and short tempered. I will eat the whole thing and leave everybody wondering where it went….actually, they usually know! 🙁

    I don’t always stay in control, but I have improved tremendously and I have made mental notes about how I hurt others and myself when I go on a greedy sugar binge. I keep a ‘before’ picture of myself in a prominent place to remind me that I never want those 50 pounds back. I don’t keep loose baggy clothes around, because I don’t want to be able to hide behind them. I DO NOT allow myself to eat past 6:00pm (or whenever supper happens). This is the toughest part of the day for me as I get home from work at 8:30pm. I write down my goals for exercise and menu guidelines for the week. It doesn’t matter if I don’t lose any weight that week, as long as I’ve stayed in my parameters, then I know that I’ve behaved in a healthy manner and that is the ultimate goal anyways.

    In times of stress, I like to go run. I can think more clearly and establish some strategies for dealing with the issue. If there isn’t time to go for a run, I put up my ‘sugar radar’ and all my defenses on ‘high alert’. I keep busy as best as I can and remind myself that this issue will pass, in time.

    Sometimes my best coping strategy is to sit and look into the beautiful faces of my wonderful, healthy children and just be thankful. Then, I get down on the floor and tickle and giggle until we all cry. That can be a HUGE workout when you have teens that think they are too cool to be tickled!

    Hey, Mark, maybe you could set up a spot here where we could come when we are having a “Help Me, I’m Falling!” moment. We could all submit encouragements and support for those that are having struggles. Then, we just have to be humble enough to admit that we need help 🙂

  7. Hey Mark,

    By show of hand, I’ve been guilty of all of the bad health habits listed above at one point or another in my life.

    As it pertains to #8 – Periodic Incentive Plan, what is your take on a cheat day? I’ve found that it’s been pretty helpful in the long term for staying on track with my health and fitness.

    I’m curious to see what you think as it’s definitely a part of my weekly routine.

    Thanks for the post!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

  8. new-me,
    I enjoyed reading your success story, thanks for sharing that. I admire you for reaching your goals, and i like your determination. You’re a great example to all of us that we can overcome what we want changed!

    I believe a key to break a bad habit is to “acknowledge” it and “deal” with it.

  9. Im as curious as andrew.. i know its not primal, but what if you just love your cakes and pies and chocolate and sushi… is it ok to have a cheat day? bah..

  10. I pat myself on the back for eliminating many bad foods and now eat mostly Paleo foods. The longer I went without having artifical sweeteners or pasta, the easier it got.

    But my most difficult times are in social situations and on vacation. I just want to have cut loose and have fun.

    Any suggestions for that?

    1. nastyvirussource June 19, 2010 Cassie- that was fantastic you have a rare gift . I mean bisedes your ability to piss off perfect strangers in to a livid rages and then make them think it was their fault.

  11. thanks aaron.. i read all the links.. some were helpful, but it really doesnt give me the answers i was hoping to find. ive been doing primal for a few months now and ive induldge in cake maybe 3 times? i never felt guilty or anything as i knew that i ate well and exercised daily, im just wondering if its best to cut the sugar out completely or if it is ok to have those days..

    lol.. im kinda wondering too if mark has indulged in a non primal dessert and or pasta or chips ever since he’s gone primal…

    i love the food i eat on the primal “diet” esp the salad lunches ;), just wondering if eating a cake once in a while is a serious setback or is it ok to treat myself sometimes

  12. anna,

    I hear ya. I think you are wondering how “bad” it is to veer of course every once in awhile.

    First of all I’ll say that I know Mark and I make calculated Primal compromises from time to time without worrying about it. Own your decisions. Don’t choose to eat cake and then beat yourself up about it afterward.

    Here is another post we did that may answer some of your questions:

    Ultimately it is a difficult to answer this sort of question. What exactly is meant by “is it ok to have those days…” I mean, it isn’t up to someone else to decide whether it is ok for you to indulge every once in awhile. What I imagine you want is to be making an informed decision. This even gets a little tricky because everyone’s experiences are different. Someone that’s been Primal for years, works out 6 days a week, is 8% body fat and is a fat burning machine that has a small slice of cake is a different scenario than someone that is overweight, is still eating 300 grams of carbs a day and then eats a slice of cake. And there is everything in between. What you want is measured risk. The fact remains that when you carb binge it will take some time for your body to return to homeostasis and get back into a full on fat burning cycle again. Read the post above and let me know what you think.

  13. i loved that! that was a great piece of info aaron! thanks. that one helped a lot! now im gonna go have a piece of cake

    haha just kidding!

  14. Mark – Your ten-point list provides tons of support for people who are choosing to effect healthy changes in their lives. I believe that “choice” is key here. No one wants to do what they “should”. If you think you “should” stop smoking or “should” begin an exercise program, there’s no freedom in that. If I choose to do it, that’s where I’ll have the freedom. It’s also important for a person to acknowledge her personal bravery in being willing to take on such a transformation. Celebrating success helps reinforce the positive change.

  15. Dear Sir i really like your blog and i am sure it gives to me the beast advice about how to quit my by bad habits even it is better than those i visit on the web thank you !

  16. Sometimes the restricted list of items only creates resistance making us want them more…have a piece of cake and let it go is the best advice. Same with other issues and ‘mistakes’ – you can hold onto it or let it go: ask yourself which feels better? The answer is easy.

  17. Probably the best breakdown on how to rid yourself of bad habits. Mark goes beyond the simple band-aid approach and puts some real context into the issue.

    Another point to consider are the people (GASP!!) that may be holding you back or keeping you in a bad habit death spiral. Often times, we lose motivation because our friends and family don’t support us, or even conspire to help us fail. I know it sounds devious but it’s more about their own insecurities than specifically taking action against you. Be conscious of that.

    Triggers are really just circumstances that develop or are created by our own actions.

  18. My mom has a bad habit, specialist, said nervous habit of itching head till raw. We live together and she has alzheimers. Diffrent shampoo benadryl med for head, nothing help. Scared and worried Marcia

  19. My worst vice is beating myself up over choices vs owning the choices.