How to Break a Habit 

Everyone has habits, and not all of them are bad. Some habits can be quite helpful, such as laying out clothes for work the night before or turning off lights when leaving a room. However, some habits like biting nails, drinking caffeine late in the day, or hitting snooze on the alarm clock too many times, may not be so beneficial.  

It can be challenging to break unwanted habits, especially if they have been part of your routine for a long time. Nevertheless, understanding how these habits form in the first place can make the process easier. 

How habits are formed 

There are a few theories about how habits develop. The idea of the 3 Rs is one of the main ones: 

Reminder. This is a trigger or cue, that could be a conscious behaviour, such as brushing your teeth, or a feeling, such as anxiety. 

Routine. This is the behaviour associated with the trigger. For instance, making a cup of tea may cue you to take out the biscuits.  Or feeling emotional may cause you to crave and eat sweet or fatty foods.  Doing something over and over can make the behaviour routine. 

Reward. The reward associated with a behaviour also helps make a habit stick. If you do something that causes enjoyment or relieves distress, the pleasurable release of dopamine, a “feel good” hormone in your brain can make you want to do it again. 

With the idea of the 3 Rs in mind follow the 15 tips to help you break that old, stubborn habit. 

  1. Identify your triggers 

Remember, triggers are the first step in developing a habit. Identifying the triggers behind your habitual behaviours is the first step in moving past them. 

By tracking these habits you can find out information to help you swap an unhelpful habit for a helpful one.    Spend a few days tracking your habit to see whether it follows any patterns. 

Ask yourself? 

  • Where does the habitual behaviour happen? 
  • What time of day? 
  • How do you feel when it happens? 
  • Are other people involved? 
  • Does it happen right after something else? 

Suppose you want to improve your sleeping habits and stop staying up past midnight. After monitoring your behaviour for a few days, you realize that you tend to stay up later if you start watching TV or chatting with friends after dinner. However, you manage to go to bed earlier if you read or take a walk before bedtime.  

To achieve your goal, you decide to eliminate the triggers that cause you to stay up late. Therefore, you choose to stop watching TV and turn off your phone by 9 p.m. on weekdays. By removing the trigger, you make it harder to carry out the routine of staying up too late. This change can help you to achieve your goal of sleeping better. 

  1. Focus on why you want to change 

It’s helpful to understand why you want to break or change a certain habit. Research suggests that it may be easier to change your behaviour when the change you want to make is valuable or beneficial to you.  

Take a few minutes to consider why you want to break the habit and any benefits you see resulting from the change. Listing these reasons may help you think of a few that hadn’t occurred to you yet.  

For added motivation, write your reasons down on a piece of paper and keep it in a place where you’ll see it regularly, such as your fridge or bathroom mirror. Seeing the list regularly can keep the change you’re trying to make fresh in your mind. If you do happen to fall back into the habit, your list will remind you why you want to keep trying. 

  1. Enlist a friend’s support 

If you and a friend or partner are both struggling with an unwanted habit, try breaking it together. For instance, if you both want to improve your physical activity, it might be easier if you agree on a specific date, time, and place to meet up for a walk. This way, you can help each other stay on track and form a new habit. Support and accountability from someone else can go a long way in achieving your goals. Make sure to acknowledge each other’s successes and offer encouragement during setbacks. 

Even if your friend doesn’t have any habits they want to change, they can still provide support. Consider confiding in a trusted friend about the habit you’re trying to break. They can offer encouragement during moments of doubt and gently remind you of your goal if they notice you slipping back into old habits. 

  1. Practice mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a technique that can assist you in cultivating awareness of your thoughts, emotions, and actions. The practice involves observing the impulses that are linked to your habits without judging them or reacting to them. By doing so, you can become more conscious of your routine behaviours and the triggers that lead to them, which can help you explore other options, such as avoiding reminder cues or not acting on the urges. Practicing mindfulness can also help you recognize how your habits impact your daily life, and this awareness can motivate you to work on changing them. 

  1. Replace the habit with a different one 

Breaking a habit can be difficult, but replacing it with a new behaviour can make it easier. Instead of just trying to stop the unwanted behaviour, consider replacing it with a healthier option. For instance, if you want to stop eating sweets when you’re hungry at work, avoiding the sweet cupboard might not be enough. To develop a new habit, bring in a container of healthier snacks like dried fruit and nuts to keep at your desk. As you repeat this new behaviour, you’ll start to develop a preference for it. Eventually, the benefits of the new habit, such as more energy and fewer sugar crashes, might outweigh the desire for the old habit. 

Replacing harmful habits, like substance misuse, with more positive ones can be very beneficial. However, it’s important to remember that even “good” habits, such as exercise, can become excessive. Similarly, “healthy” eating can also have negative effects when taken to an extreme. 

  1. Leave yourself reminders 

Visual reminders like stickers and sticky notes can be effective in helping you break a habit. Placing them in the areas where the habit behavior occurs can help you rethink your actions when triggered. Here are a few ideas: 

– To stop drinking fizzy pop with every meal, leave small stickers on your refrigerator as a reminder before reaching for a can. 

– If you’re trying to remember to turn off lights when leaving a room, leave a note on the light switch or door. 

– To prevent frequently losing your keys, keep a designated dish for your keys in the first place you see when you return home. 

You can also use your smartphone to set reminders. Add a motivating note to your alarm, such as “Time to turn off the TV! :)” or “Remember how good it feels to take an after-dinner walk!” 

  1. Prepare for slip-ups 

Breaking a habit can be a challenging task, and some habits may be easier to break than others. It’s normal to experience slip-ups during this process of change and there’s nothing to feel ashamed of. In fact, slip-ups can be useful as they can help you learn and grow from your mistakes. 

It’s important to remember this quote from a well-known counsellor, Erica Myers: “It’s very easy to slip back into old patterns, particularly when the new ones aren’t solidified yet. Change is hard. Remember, it took a while to build up those habits, so you won’t lose them in a day.” 

To prepare yourself mentally for any slip-ups, you can commit to jotting down three bullet points about how you felt while doing the habit or do a quick breathing exercise. By doing this, you can learn from your slip-ups and be honest with yourself about what led to the setback. You can also consider changing your approach to help you stay more on track. 

  1. Let go of the all-or-nothing mindset 

Breaking a habit can be a challenging process and it’s normal to slip up a few times. However, it’s important to have a plan in place to deal with these setbacks. It’s also crucial to avoid feeling frustrated or like a failure when you do slip up.  

If you do fall back into an old habit, you might start to doubt yourself and feel like giving up. Instead of focusing on the negative, it’s important to look at your successes. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking and you manage to go without a cigarette for three days, that’s a great achievement. If you then have a cigarette on the fourth day, don’t beat yourself up.  

It’s important to remember that the progress you made in the past few days hasn’t been erased. You can always make a different choice tomorrow and keep moving in the right direction. Instead of striving for perfection, focus on making progress towards your goal. Every small step counts. 

  1. Start small 

It’s possible to try to stop several habits simultaneously, but it’s recommended to start small and focus on one habit at a time. Changing one habit at a time can help you stay motivated, even if the steps seem too easy in the beginning.  

If you attempt to stop multiple habits at once, it might work if the habits are related, such as smoking and drinking coffee.  If you want to stop smoking first thing in the morning, aim to have a glass of water first thing rather that a cuppa which would have gone hand-in-hand with a cigarette.  

Start with small changes can help you build momentum. For example, if you want to stop drinking fizzy pop, you could begin by not drinking it with dinner for a week, then gradually extend it to other meals. 

  1. Change your environment 

Your environment can often influence your behaviour and routines. For instance, if you’re attempting to stop the habit of frequently ordering takeout because it’s becoming too expensive, your kitchen might be hindering your progress. Seeing the takeout menus hanging on your fridge every time you walk in might tempt you to continue with your old habits. A possible solution is to remove the menus and substitute them with printouts of simple recipes that you are confident you’ll enjoy. This way, you can make healthy homemade meals without the temptation of takeout. 

Other examples include: 

Leaving a journal, book, or hobby items such as sketchbooks, crafts, or games on your coffee table can help you resist the temptation of scrolling through social media.  

Spending 10 to 15 minutes tidying up your house every evening can encourage you to keep things clutter-free.  

You can also change your morning walk route to avoid passing by a cafe with a tempting, overpriced latte.  

Remember that the people you surround yourself with are also part of your environment, so consider taking a break from spending time with those who contribute to your habit or don’t support your process of breaking it.Top of Form 

  1. Visualize yourself breaking the habit 

Breaking a habit can be a mental process as well as a physical one. You can practice new habits in your mind by imagining yourself in a triggering environment or situation.  

For example, before your performance review, you might typically react by biting your nails or drumming your pen anxiously. However, you can visualize yourself practising deep breathing, walking to get a drink of water, sorting through old notes or files, or tidying desk drawers – anything that keeps your hands busy and helps calm you.  

Practising a different response in your mind can help it become more familiar when you face the situation in real life. 

  1. Practice self-care 

Many people find it easier to create positive changes in life when they begin from a place of wellness. 

If you’re already dealing with other challenges, such as work stress, relationship troubles, or health problems, trying to break a habit can lead to more distress than the actual habit. 

When breaking a habit, it’s especially important to prioritize your wellness. This not only boosts your chances of success, but also helps you keep functioning in the face of challenges. 

Try these tips: 

  • Ensure you get enough sleep – at least 7 hours a night   
  • Eat regular and well-balanced, nutritious meals. 
  • See your GP if you have any long-term concerns. 
  • Aim to be active and move your body in ways that feel good to you daily. 
  • Take at least a little time each day for hobbies, to relax or do things that improve your mood. 
  1. Motivate yourself with rewards for success 

Remember, breaking a habit can be incredibly difficult. Make sure to acknowledge how far you’ve come, and try to give yourself rewards along the way. Even small motivators, like telling yourself what a great job you’re doing, can boost your confidence and increase your drive to keep trying. 

When you focus on the progress you’ve made, you’re less likely to become discouraged or engage in negative self-talk, both of which can do a number on your motivation. 

“Celebrate your wins,” Erika recommended. “Maybe you aren’t ready to run a marathon, but if running a mile this week is easier than it was last week, that’s a success.” 

  1. Give it time 

There’s a common myth that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit.  

Realistically, experts believe it takes about 10 weeks or more to break an unhelpful or unwanted habit.  Of course, some habits may take more or less time to break. 

The amount of time it takes to break a habit depends on several things, according to Myers. 

These include: 

  • how long you’ve had the habit 
  • the emotional, physical, or social needs the habit fulfils 
  • whether you have support or help to break the habit 
  • the physical or emotional reward the habit provides 

If a few weeks have passed, and you feel you haven’t made much progress, it can help to revisit your approach. But you might also consider seeking help from a mental health professional, especially for habits that are more deeply ingrained in your behaviour or cause you a lot of distress. 

  1. Know that you don’t have to do it alone 

You might have success breaking some habits, such as buying lunch every day or skipping the gym, on your own, with a bit of effort and dedication. 

But suppose you want to address deeper habits, like emotional eating, addiction, drinking too much alcohol or binge eating tendencies, the support of a trained mental health professional can make a world of difference.  Discuss this with your GP. 

Developed by Twané Walker – Registered Dietitian 

January 2024 

Resources used to develop: 

EM Counselling 

Phycology Today