How To Break Bad Habits

What is the definition of a bad habit?

According to the dictionary a habit is, “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.”

Dr. Joe Dispenza elaborates on this. He says that tendency is hard to give up because you’ve conditioned yourself to associate a certain feeling in your body to a specific thought.

So a bad habit could be defined as… when your body knows something just as well as your mind.

Or in other words, it’s the negative loop you get in when what you feel influences what you think, and what you think reinforces what you feel.

”I’m still tired, I should sleep in.”
”I’m feeling hungry, I should grab a snack.”
”I’m feeling sad, what did I do to deserve this?”

Why is breaking these bad habit patterns so hard?

Dr. Dispenza is quoted in one of his presentations saying that, ”95% of who we are by the time we’re 35 years old is a memorized set of behaviors, emotional reactions, unconscious habits, hardwired attitudes, beliefs and perceptions that function like a computer program.”

This means you only have 5% of your conscious mind trying to work against 95% of your subconscious habits or things you’ve memorized.

…and people wonder why they can’t summon enough willpower.

It’s no wonder that over 70% of the American population engages in some type of life shortening habit.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, it’s a habit.  - Will Durant  

How do we form bad habits & habit loops in the first place?

If you ask James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, he’ll tell you that habits are created by either stress or boredom.

There is a cue or a trigger that presents itself and sets off a chain reaction of desire in your head.

Because we’re human we are instinctively programmed to relieve tension with things that feel/taste good. We will always want to go in the path of least resistance.

How many times have we ate big meals of unhealthy food KNOWING that we will inevitably feel terrible after but we do it anyway. That’s how powerful our habits can be.

habit loop

The reasons people DO NOT  break bad habits.

1. They rely on willpower to avoid their cue.

You don’t rise to your potential based on willpower, you fall to the level of the systems you have in place.

2. Stay in the same environment that drives your cravings.

Part of your “system” should be removing yourself from the environment that triggers your cue.

3. Don’t replace your habit with anything else

Think back to new behaviors you’ve adopted recently. Did any of them happen independent of everything else going on in your life? I doubt it.

4. Don’t set up any rewards

We aren’t unpredictable creatures. The ONLY way you get us to do things is if there is a benefit tied to the end result that we see as worth more than the effort.

Focus on these three things to break your bad habit (Triggers, Routines & Rewards)


The thing that will increase your chances of breaking your habit more than anything else is spending  time to understand what is triggering your behavior. Then describing how you feel in that situation.

”I end up drinking when I’m out socializing”
”I will eat chips after dinner while I’m watching TV”
”I will procrastinate on my work after lunch”

The feeling is probably of diss ease. It’s easier to drink when I’m out because that’s what everyone else is doing. Or it’s easy to watch TV and eat chips in the evenings because that’s what I’ve always done… Procrastinating on my work after lunch with time wasted on social media or a nap is just what I’m used to doing.


This is your built in habit and all the actions that you commonly take around the event.

”I always take an uber when I’m headed out with my friends”
”I buy chips every Sunday so I have them for my weeknight TV shows”
”I make sure to take early lunches so I can get back to my desk and procrastinate for 30 minutes without anyone noticing.”

You need to consciously change not only the environment but your routine. Make your habit as invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying as possible.

This could mean purposely driving to your social gatherings so you have an excuse not to be drinking.
Avoiding buying chips at all!
Switching when you take lunch hour or working part of the day from a different location/stand up desk etc.

PRO TIP - If you change this routine in conjunction with something that you already have as a habit it will make things much easier.

For example:
I already have exercising as a habit so I can make sure that when I go out I have an early spin class or workout planned that I will treat as a failure or punishment if I miss.  

If you already have buyng chips as a habit when shopping for groceries start ordering them online. - assuming you also have a habit of online shopping :)

If you already have a habit of afternoon workouts or journaling daily, change your routine so that either you replace your procrastination time with the things you are already programmed to do OR substitute a new more productive task in altogether.


The most powerful rewards are built around the identity of who you want to see yourself as.

This is exactly why anchoring your new habit to something that you already have programmed into (especially that you’re proud of) is the best strategy.

Don’t hold it over your head that you can’t do x if you forget to do y. Instead, try and find something that has proximity to the other.

For example, I typically go to the gym at 4pm. If I was trying to break a habit of not watching Youtube videos or procrastinating throughout the day I would first acknowledge the trigger of down time/ boredom and make sure that I’m scheduling out all my time  the night before. I’d also change the environment (delete the apps, install time trackers/ website blockers) and shift my routine to include my substituted activity and schedule that right before my runs. Now I say to myself you’re not going to get to watch Youtube throughout the day but you get 30 minutes of time to yourself to read before going for a run. This works for me because I value continuous improvement and learning. My beliefs also support the idea that being a “reader” is a positive quality.

For the best chance of success make sure your reward includes these characteristics:
1. Supports a replacement task/ NOT going cold turkey.

2. Is something that supports a belief and identity that you see yourself as.

3. Is tied to an existing habit.

How to actually change your habits (& life!) after reading this.

The skill to master is getting started. You don’t have to stop smoking or become a fitness model tomorrow… you just need to start. Most people are not good at this, and they think it’s because they have no willpower. No. They just haven’t practiced and mastered this skill of starting  

In summary:
PIck a habit that you know is not making your life any better/easier.
Find a way to change your routine by replacing your habit with something else and tying it to an existing habit.
Give yourself the reward of an identity trait you aspire to

(This sounds ridiculous but believe it or not I wouldn’t eat spinach or brussel sprouts for the majority of my life. It was only until I started identifying with being healthy and learning those foods were something other healthy people ate did I give them a shot.)

What is the easiest habit to break?

If you’re still not sure of a habit that you need to break may I suggest the habit of contentment.

I think we all have periods of discontentment, especially in situations where someone has things that you don’t. Maybe you’re already good at being content but I think it’s something we all slip up at from time to time and is a great practice of mindfulness if nothing else.

Here is a link to the post from zen habits.

Lastly, I couldn’t write a post on habits and not include Charles Duhigg’s flow chart.

How to change a bad habit  

how to change a bad habit, bad habits, definition of a bad habit, habit loop, triggers, cues, 3 R's