How to Break a Bad Habit

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“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken” – this quote is floating around the internet attributed to a number of people, with Warren Buffet and a mysterious anonymous among them.  Regardless of who the author is, it intrigues me with its simple yet precise way of stating the truth. 

All of us have habits. Many of them are productive habits that help us get through the day without having to use our brain power for planning out every single step of the way. It’s the bad habits that “chain” us up and preclude from enjoying a higher quality of life, healthier bodies, and mind. Usually, these habits form without our awareness of how our behaviors become automatic. Bad habits are hard to break because our most frequently repeated behaviors become the routine embedded into our neural pathways. 

The good news is that we can break any bad habit and it’s never too late to do so. Just telling yourself you will muster the willpower and break a habit at once may work for some people but the rest of us need dedication and effort. The very first step is to understand what our habits are made of. Charles Duhigg in his book The Power of Habit breaks down the framework for forming habits. It’s a loop made of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward.

  • First, comes the cue – it triggers our brain to start the cycle, without us being consciously aware of it.
  • Then the automatic behavior itself.
  • And lastly, the reward – the “favorite” part of the process for our brain, which makes it remember the experience and repeat it over and over again.

Take a bad habit you would like to get rid of and analyze its structure. What is the routine behavior that has been formed? In my case let’s say it’s picking or biting your cuticles (not nails, for the record!). What triggers it? Is it when I am engrossed in an intense thought process? Is it when I am stressed or worried? I have to analyze the process thoroughly to isolate the cue. If you are finding it hard to pin point the cues, Duhigg suggests looking into the following five categories:  a certain location, time or emotional state you may find yourself in, as well as other people or any immediately preceding actions that may inadvertently serve as triggers of certain behaviors.

What are the rewards? Rewards are usually there to satisfy cravings, but I may not even be aware of what cravings this silly little habit satisfies. Dry cuticles stop bothering me? Not sure. I need to focus on how I can change the reward process. For the sake of this example: what other methods I can use for dealing with cuticles. Maybe some of the possible solutions could be constantly moisturizing cuticles to keep them moist at all times, using shellac nails, applying bitter substances on fingertips, chewing gum or keeping fingers busy with other tasks. You can keep brainstorming for whatever rewards apply for your unique situation.

Once you have figured out your loop, the author suggests we form a plan and keep implementing it despite any occasional throwbacks (that will be there).  Since there is no single prescription that will work in all cases, we have to experiment with different rewards, as well as break the pattern itself by changing our habitual setting. Any time we are spending outside of our normal environment, even temporarily, is a good time to break a bad habit. That’s why vacations are a great opportunity to change your bad habits. When you are on vacation – it’s easier to break the loop because the usual cues the expected rewards may not be available. So, if I seriously want to quit picking my cuticles, I need to take advantage of my vacation time to work on breaking this pesky habit.

Are you tied down by any bad habit? It could be smoking, procrastinating, eating unhealthy or any other habit that does not help you in any way. Are you willing to accept the challenge to break its chains?


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  1. I already know what my routine is. Now need to watch closely for the cues and for the rewards that come afterward.

    1. That’s true Vanessa. The routine is always the most apparent component of our habit cycle. It takes more work to recognize the triggers and watch for the rewards.

  2. It is so easy to get bad habits, but so difficult to get rid of them. Liked the tips you are shared with us. Thank you, Natella

  3. Great advice in this post for us to follow Natella. I’ve been working on fine tuning my diet and fitness for the past several years making small improvements along the way. In the past I would diet for a month or so with the goal of losing weight and getting in better shape but denying myself completely always led to me falling off the bandwagon and overindulging…..eventually ending up right back where I started. That’s when I changed my mindset from diet to lifestyle change. Making changes to my lifestyle meant that there was no end like with a diet. This new plan was less strict and being long term (For the rest of my life) I wasn’t concerned about sharing a rich meal with friends or family here and there and that allowed me to really enjoy those specific moments in my life. Rather than be concerned about blowing my diet progress the next day I was back on track with my lifestyle. If I tried to follow my current diet when I first started this process over two years ago I surely would have failed. The gradual approach and commitment to making changes and improvements to my lifestyle over the long term helped me to reach and exceed the health and fitness goals that I had originally set for myself.

  4. Thank you Jason so much for sharing with us. So the key to habit changing is the gradual approach with incremental improvements. When it comes to diets it’s always better to stay away from drastic changes and rather make sustainable life style changes. So glad it worked out for you so well.

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