“Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of.”– Anonymous
Bad habits. We ALL have them.
Good habits. We all WANT them.
Our lives are defined by our habits. They can help us achieve success in our lives and careers, but they can also limit what’s possible and prevent us from accomplishing our goals. Bad habits creep up on us and are only noticeable when they’ve turned our lives (relationships, careers, finances, etc.) upside down.
Screw bad habits!
Odds are, you’re reading this because you’ve got a bad habit you want to break. It’s probably a habit you’ve been dealing with for a long time. So long that you believe it’s impossible to change. Well, the great about it is that you really don’t have to live with it. Every single bad habit can be broken, so tell that habit to pack its bags.
Before you get too excited, I want you to know change is hard. A study found that fewer than 10% succeed in breaking a stubborn habit. Those aren’t great odds, but change is possible – you just need some elbow grease and the 4-step framework here to ensure success.
But before we get to that, let’s quickly look at what a habit is.
What’s A Habit?
Habits are behaviors you’ve repeated so frequently that they’ve become unconscious, automated decisions. In fact, studies show that up to 45% of your daily routine is automated by habits. (That’s 164 days out of a year!)
The repetition of completing a habit loop over and over again leads to automation and a mental association we know as a habit. This is known as “cognitive script”.
Every habit is made of the same basic 3-part structure called a habit loop – a Cue (aka a Reminder), a Routine, and a Reward.
Per James Manktelow from Mindtools.com:
“These unconscious thoughts are based on previous experiences. So, if the situation is one that we’ve encountered many times before, we engage in ingrained behaviors without thinking about what we’re doing. Our actions have become habitual.”
James Clear provides a great example of how the Habit Loop looks out in the wild:
- Your phone rings (reminder). This is the reminder that initiates the behavior. The ring acts as a trigger or cue to tell you to answer the phone. It is the prompt that starts the behavior.
- You answer your phone (routine). This is the actual behavior. When your phone rings, you answer the phone.
- You find out who is calling (reward). This is the reward (or punishment, depending on who is calling). The reward is the benefit gained from doing the behavior. You wanted to find out why the person on the other end was calling you and discovering that piece of information is the reward for completing the habit.
If you want to get rid of bad habits, you have to implement a healthier routine to yield the same reward.
If It’s Bad, Can’t I Just Stop Doing It?
Let me ask you a question – how do you typically break bad habits? Let’s pretend you’re trying to change your habit of drinking too much soda (or pop or Cola or whatever you call fizzy sugar water). Would it look something like this?
- You wake up and decide, “NO MORE SODA!” (Should be a piece of cake, right?)
- You make it through the morning without a soda.
- Then lunch comes along, and the urge grows strong.
- You resist as best as you can, but resistance is futile.
- You crack, buy a soda, and OMG, it tastes SO GOOD!!!
- As soon as the soda touches your lips…
- FRANK THE TANK! FRANK THE TANK!
- Then…guilt sets in.
- “I didn’t even make it through 1 day! Alright, tomorrow will be different!”
But tomorrow isn’t different, is it? (Be honest.) Have you had a similar experience? I know I have. I failed countless times trying to break bad habits this way.
This example may be the EXACT habit you want to change – it may not be. Either way, you can switch out soda for any other bad habit (cigarettes, alcohol, nail biting, chocolate, sleeping in, etc.), and the results would be the same.
Maybe it’s time to try a different path.
The Habit Change Framework
Imagine traveling from Point A to Point B, but not having any kind of map or directions. You’d be lost. The following framework is your Google Maps (or Apple Maps, if you prefer…) to changing bad habits.
Habit Change Framework
Step 1 – Identify the RoutineStep 2 – Experiment with RewardsStep 3 – Isolate the CueStep 4 – Have a Plan
Let’s look at each step more a little closely.
NOTE: This is an extremely detailed guide, and you’ll get the best results if you go through it step-by-step. We’ve created a checklist to keep you on track: Click here to download it
Step 1: Identify the Routine
What’s are the bad habits you want to change in your life? Stop drinking caffeine? Binge eating? Smoking? Playing video games?
Whatever they are, you’ll need to identify the routine because it’s where we begin our habit hacking. It’s your Point A.
Why are we starting with the second step of the Habit Loop? (At least one of you was thinking this). The answer is because the routine is the most obvious of the three. It’s the low hanging fruit.
We’ll use drinking soda as our example routine.
This takes us to Step 2 of the Habit Hack.
- Did you identify your routine?
Step 2: Experiment with the Reward
Now that we’ve identified the routine (in our case, soda drinking), it’s time to figure out the reward.
We do this next because we need to know what we’re craving. Every reward satisfies a specific craving. Identifying the craving lets us replace it with an alternative that meets the need of the craving. Until then, any habit change we try to make will fail because of how strong the craving is. (This is where most people fail in their habit change.)
The PROBLEM with cravings is that they’re not obvious (sorry). You’re often unaware of them. And even though the habit is bad, there’s still a reward to it. Bad habits all began as something enjoyable. And because it felt good (or relieved stress or boredom) we repeated it until it became a habit.
Now we need to figure out exactly what that pleasure is.
To figure this out, we need to experiment with different rewards to identify what we’re actually craving versus what we think we’re craving. Depending on the habit, these experiments may take a few days or longer. However, we can’t hack our habits without this step. We have to become habit scientists.
Let’s put on our lab coats!
Using our soda example, we need to figure out the craving. Is it thirst? Caffeine high? Low sugar? The next time you feel the need to drink a soda, change the routine, and give yourself a different reward.
Try drinking a cup of coffee instead of a soda one day. Then repeat the process, but drink a tea instead. Then a diet soda on day 3. What you choose as your reward isn’t important. The important thing is to test different hypotheses to determine which craving is driving your routine.
Now that we’ve substituted our rewards, we play the waiting game. Set a 15-minute alarm for yourself, and ask yourself the following question when the alarm goes off:
“Do I still feel an urge to do [bad habit]?”
If you still feel an urge, then your habit isn’t motivated by that craving – it’s motivated by a different reward. For example, if you drank a cup of coffee instead of a soda, but you still want a soda, then caffeine probably wasn’t the craving. If you don’t have an urge after drinking a coffee, then maybe the caffeine boost was what you needed.
Look for patterns by writing down the results of your experiments. Break out your Trapper Keeper, your Moleskine, or any old notebook (we recommend these bad boys) and really spend some time examining your urges. You can also create a spreadsheet like the one below.
Seriously, don’t wait for your cool new notebook to arrive from Amazon. Get started NOW! I used to hate this part, but it’s a game changer!
Write down the first THREE things that come to mind – emotions, thoughts, feelings, words…anything at all that pop into your head (even if they’re meaningless). This may seem silly and pointless. IT’S NOT. By writing down these three things, you’re doing TWO things:
- You make yourself aware of what you’re thinking and feeling.
- It’ll be much easier on you to remember what you were thinking and feeling the moment your fifteen minutes were up once your experiments are complete.
At the end of the experiment, review your notes to identify your craving. Once you’re able to isolate your craving, we’ll be able to move on to Step 3 of habit redesign. For the sake of our example, we’ll say that you had a hankering for a caffeine boost.
- Did you come up with some reward experiments?
- Did you write down your thoughts/ feelings?
- Did you identify your reward?
Step 3: Identify the Cue
Once you’ve figured out the routine and the reward, the next step involves identifying, you guessed it, the cue.
Understanding how we make decisions is the key to conquering all kinds of bad habits. Hacking the cue keeps us from having to use willpower or motivation for our new habit.
As James Clear put it:
“A good reminder does not rely on motivation and it doesn’t require you to remember to do your new habit. A good reminder makes it easy to start by encoding your new behavior in something that you already do.”
Just like cravings, the cue isn’t obvious. In fact, the cue is often the most difficult part of our habits to identify. The good news is that almost any cue can be found in one of the five following categories:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately-preceding action
Let’s look at an example of an emotional cue.
In his TED talk Judson Brewer describes the potential “emotional” trigger of eating. You see food, eat food, and then you feel good. Your brain associates eating with feeling good. So, when you’re upset or not having a great day, your brain tells you to eat food to feel good. (Nom nom nom)
That’s how cues work.
To identify our cue, we experiment again just like we did with our reward. (Hope you didn’t lose that lab coat ‘cause it’s time to go back into the lab!) If you can identify when your habit urges occur, the circumstances of the habit, and your feelings at the time, you’ll be able to figure out why your bad habit exists.
So, the next time you get an urge to do your bad habit, write down the answers to the following questions:
- Where am I?
- What time is it?
- What’s my emotional state?
- Who else is around?
- What happened immediately before I got this urge?
The easiest way to track your experiments is by creating a spreadsheet. This is what I do.
- Create 7 rows and label each a different day
- Add columns using the 5 questions above
At some point, it’ll become clear to you what your cue is based on these experiments.
Commit to running your experiment for 5 days or until you begin to see a recurring pattern. For example, you might notice you get the craving for a soda at a specific time each day – you always seem to get a yearning around 2:30pm. If you notice a pattern like this, then time is your likely cue.
(NOTE: We say 5 days in the last paragraph, but you may want to consider experimenting for 7 days because our behaviors change on the weekend or on our days off. We have different cues around us, and some of our bad habits are worse on the weekend than the weekdays. Something to consider.)
Once we identify our cue, we’ll have singled out a cue, a routine, and a reward…oh snap, we figured out our habit loop!
Now the fun begins as we take our habit loop and re-engineer the behavior. Now you go from scientist to MAD scientist! MuHaHAHA!
- Did you identify your routine?
- Did you write down your answers to the 5 Cues questions?
- Did you identify your cue?
Step 4: Create a Plan
“You don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it.”
– James Clear
The Golden Rule of Habit Change is:
Keep the Cue and the Rewards; Change the Routine.
In other words, we need to HACK the habit we want to break and replace it with something that is healthier and more positive. Sneaky Pete!
Let’s use our soda drinking example to develop a plan to kick our habit. So what did we just learn?
- Your urge to drink soda really kicks in around 2:30 pm.
- You also learned that your craving wasn’t the soda, it was the caffeine boost.
Your goal is replace soda with tea, so we need to associate your new routine with a reward that will satisfy your craving.
To do this, we use what’s known as “implementation intention” aka “if this, then that” logic.
“If I feel the urge to [bad habit], then I’ll [habit replacement]”.
It’s a simple, powerful technique because we’re planting a seed into our brain. By identifying the “if”, our brains subconsciously scan the environment for it. When our “If” happens, our brain triggers the “then” part of the plan.
The “if then” planning is so effective that one study found 91% of the people who used it actually stuck to an exercise program compared to 39% of those who didn’t use “if then” planning. That’s a huge difference!
Actually, over 100 separate studies have come to the exact same conclusion: people who use implementation intentions are much more likely to stick to their goals. This is great for our willpower, since willpower is temperamental.
Using our example, the plan is:
“When it’s 2:30pm, I’m going to drink a cup of tea instead of a soda.”
A clear, detailed plan helps lead to success. It takes out any ambiguity or grey area when you’re making decisions between your new shiny, healthy habit and your old beat-up, bad habit.
You may even want to wait and plan for 30 days before you actually change the habit.
- Did you come up with your implementation intention?
- Identify the Routine
- Identify the Reward
- Identify the Cue
- Create a Plan
The 7 Things You Need to Stick To Your Habit Change
Now, once you make this plan – you have to stick to the plan. You can’t commit halfway and be willy nilly about it. Coming up with the plan is one thing, implementing it is another.
On average, it takes 66 days to create a new habit. (This can vary from 18 to 254 days, depending on the behavior and the person.)
This is going to take time and patience, but here are the 7 things to do to help make your habit plan stick.
1. Respect Yourself
Research shows people have a tendency to “beat themselves up.”
- “I’m not strong enough.”
- “I don’t have the willpower.”
- “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
These negative, critical thoughts limits us. Being critical of ourselves leads to anxiety, depression, fear of failure, and the lack of self-confidence. This is NOT how you want to start your habit change.
Instead, kill your negative thoughts and replace them with ones of respect and confidence.
Before you start your habit change, think through your motivations; know exactly why you’re doing this. Make sure it comes from a place of positivity. This will change your frame of mind about the change, and associate good feelings to it. DON’T change out of guilt, frustration. Make the choice to do it for yourself and accept the responsibility of creating a positive change in your life.
This sounds really fluffy and frilly, but research shows that people who approach change with the right attitude, one of positivity and respect, have a better chance of succeeding.
Sam Parr, CEO of The Hustle, says it best:
“When you control your emotions you control your reality.”
Habit change is hard enough as it is. It becomes almost impossible if you have low self-confidence. On your journey to reach your potential, embrace self-compassion and let it motivate you. Imagine if your best friend asked you to support them in creating a new habit. Would you tell them that they “can’t do it” or that they “are a failure” after one bad day? Be your own best friend.Let go of the fear of failure. Believe in yourself and make your dreams come true. Click To Tweet
2. Make It Easy“Make it so easy you can’t say no” @zen_habits Click To Tweet
It’s tempting to want to make a big splash when we decide to change our lives. Most people set aside a huge chunk of time and commit to huge goals. This, however, is a rookie mistake.
As Scott H. Young puts it, we overestimate how much we can actually accomplish, especially when we’re in unfamiliar territory like habit change. Plans are simple and reality is complex. Life isn’t straightforward, and when life gets in the way people get overwhelmed and say, “Screw it. This isn’t worth it!”Start small, and be realistic about what you can achieve. Click To Tweet
You want to make the change achievable. Look at your goal and commit to only 10% of the time and effort. If your goal is to wake up an hour earlier, try waking up 6 minutes earlier. If you want to workout for 30 minutes everyday, commit to 3 minutes.
Belle Beth Cooper used this technique, and in one year, she was able to:
- Wake up at 6am instead of 9am
- Learn to read, write, and speak basic French with just 5 minutes of practice a day
- Read 33 books by starting with one page every night
All of those outcomes were accomplished just from committing to the smallest goals.
Remember, the habit you’re changing took time to create. You weren’t cursed by a gypsy, and it didn’t appear out of thin air. Be consistent, commit to the minimum, and create small wins for yourself. Of course, you can always do more than what you commit to, but that’s the cherry on top.
Small is the new BIG. Commit to small wins and say goodbye to “ah-screw-it” moments.
3. Change Your Environment
People overlook how their environment makes habits easy or hard to do. Your environment is one of the main cues that trigger a habit, and you’re not making it easy on yourself being surrounded by temptation and desire. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, it’d be hard to do if the people around you are constantly smoking.
As human beings, we overestimate the control we have over our behavior. Just because we have the intention of following through with a positive behavior doesn’t mean it actually happens. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, describes how our environment influences how we eat:
“If you use a big spoon, you’ll eat more. If you serve yourself on a big plate, you’ll eat more. If you move the small bowl of chocolates on your desk six feet away you’ll eat half as much. If you eat chicken wings and remove the bones from the table, you’ll forget how much you ate and you’ll eat more.”
So what do we do?Change your environment to change your outcome. Click To Tweet
Researchers found that students who transferred from one university to another were more likely to change their daily habits. They also found those habits easier to change than the control group because they weren’t exposed to familiar environmental cues.
To change the environment, adjust the friction. Nir Eyal defines this as one of the 6 Elements of Simplicity, which determine how hard or easy it is for people to accomplish their desired habit. For a good habit, you want to design for laziness. An example is laying your exercise clothes out the night before if you want to start exercising.
To prevent bad habits, add friction. Make it take 20 seconds longer to start a bad habit. For example, if you want to cut down on playing video games, put the controllers in a tv cabinet drawer. (Note: This is the trick I used to cut down on playing FIFA on PS4.)
“The more you manage your environment, the more likely you are to succeed. It’s not cheating.”
– Art Markman
In addition to changing your environment, you’ll want to look at the people you spend your time with because they affect how you think, how you act, how you feel about yourself, and ultimately how successful you are. Do these people inspire you with positivity or bring you down with negativity? Do they support your habit change or dissuade from it? If these individuals bring negativity to your life, spend less time with them and more time with people who have the good habits you want to develop.
The world around you plays an important role in shaping your identity and your behavior. It reinforces who you are and determines who you’re going to be. Redesign it to help create the person you want to become.
4. Get Others Involved
Self-improvement is a very personal journey. A lot of people think they need to rely on their own will and determination. Don’t do this to yourself! If you want to succeed, get yourself a buddy!
We all can find a million excuses to not do what we say we’re going to do, so getting others involved is a great motivator to keep the pressure on. You’re more incentivized to stay on track with your habit change when you’re accountable to a friend.
When I decided to do a 30-day challenge to eat nothing but Soylent, I purposely did it with Matt. This made us accountable to each other, and having two people share the same goal increased our chances of succeeding.
Think through who you want to hold you accountable to break your bad habits. Share your goals with them, be clear on your expectation, and empower them to help you achieve your goal by letting you know if you fall off the wagon.
Once you make the commitment, you need to come up with a consequence. As Maneesh Sethi put it, “negative reinforcement ‘pushes’ you to get started on your new behavior and creates urgency.” You want the consequence to be a little painful and something you can’t reasonably “live with”. Having to cough up $50 every time you smoke a cigarette to Donald Trump’s campaign is vastly different than donating $50 to a homeless shelter. It also doesn’t have to be monetary. It could be as simple as admitting to your partner that you dropped the ball.
There’ll be times when things get hard. Having no support and accountability to get you through those times is a recipe for disaster. Asking for help, and knowing others expect you to be awesome, is a wonderful motivator to break your bad habits. So, who are you drafting to join your team?
5. Reward Yourself
It’s crucial to reward yourself for engaging in your new healthy routine. Per Maneesh Sethi:
“the positive reinforcement that ‘pulls’ you through the behavior change week-to-week, and encourages you to keep going by rewarding you for consistently completing your habit.”
In other words, negative gets you started, but positive keeps you going.
The reason rewards are important to habit change is because rewards lead to the release of Dopamine, and by rewarding your new behavior, you get a Dopamine surge for it. Rewarding it consistently will replace the Dopamine rush you got from your old habit.
“Over time, your brain will start to associate this new, positive behavior with the dopamine surge coming from the reward.”
Does it matter what the reward is? Not really. That’s up to you, but there are a few things to consider:
- Keep the reward small. If you reward yourself with a cookie after every workout, you run the risk of eating a ton cookies. Instead, give yourself a cookie after a week straight of working out.
- Reward is both fulfilling and desirable.
- Don’t make your reward the bad habit you’re trying to give up. It defeats the purpose if you’re trying to give up cigarettes, but smoke one after going a month without them.
Another thing to consider with rewards is the timing of when you reward yourself. According to Mindtools.com:
“Rewards will do the most good if you give them instantly or on the same day that you demonstrate the “good” behavior. You’ll likely only need the rewards you set for yourself for a few weeks; once you’ve established the positive behavior, you won’t need to reward yourself as often.”
Stumped on how to reward yourself?
A great way is to praise yourself. Seriously. Research shows it can lead to successful habit change. When I finish my runs, I still tell myself, “That was a good run. I needed that.” It helps remind me why running is important to me, especially on days when I really don’t want to run.
Celebrate your actions – big and small. Find a reward that will make you feel awesome. As James Clear put it:
“because an action needs to be repeated for it to become a habit, it’s especially important that you reward yourself each time you practice your new habit.”
6. Plan for Setbacks
Let’s be honest. This whole habit change business isn’t going to be perfect. Hiccups are bound to happen. It’s an inevitable reality. But don’t throw up your hands out of frustration and quit the moment you run into trouble. Keep your detours from becoming U-turns.
To do this, you need to plan ahead for setbacks. Doing so will increase your chances of preventing mishaps. It’ll also better prepare you to pick yourself back up to move forward when mishaps do happen. Think of planning for disaster as a first-aid kit – you never want to have to use it, but it’s better to have one around the house than not.
Sit down and try to think of scenarios where you could see yourself running into trouble. What’s your strategy going to be minimize the risk? Maybe you’ve tried to break this habit in the past before but failed. If so, what caused you to quit? What can you learn from that experience to better prepare for the future? Do some research to make sure you cover all your bases in terms of obstacles and learn how others dealt with them. Add their tips and strategies to your utility belt.
If you do experience a hiccup or two, don’t let it undo everything you’ve worked for. Think of setback as a flat tire. You don’t throw away the car when you get a flat – you change it and keep driving.
Don’t let a setback make you feel bad and cause you to give up. So when you run into obstacles, pick yourself back up again, and get back behind the wheel!
7. Forgive yourself
Did we mention that changing bad habits is hard? (Maybe once or twice?)
Habits are a natural part of life. We need them. Our lazy brains aren’t going to give up these habits without a fight. Even if you make the change easy, engage others, and create a plan, you’ll probably still encounter a slip-up here and there. And when you do:
Cut yourself some slack! Chalk it up to experience! You live and you learn!
Allow for flubs. We’ve all tried to change habits or create habits in the past and failed. It’s natural. The important thing is not letting the mistakes become reasons to give up on your goal. They can actually help you achieve your goal – if you let them.
Learn from your mistakes. Be mindful of them. Analyze them. Why did I slip up? Did I try to do too much too soon? Your mistakes can be vital in helping you adjust your plan to make sure you stay on track and to make sure you don’t make the same mistake in the future.
Hacking your brain’s “autopilot” isn’t an easy task. Forgive yourself, and hit the reset button. Let your mistakes bring you wisdom for how you can break your habit.
If you take two steps forward and one step back, you’re still moving in the RIGHT direction.
- Respect Yourself
- Make It Easy
- Change Your Environment
- Get Others Involved
- Reward Yourself
- Plan for Setbacks
- Forgive Yourself
Is There Some Kind of Cheat Code I Can Use?
Wow, that was a lot! Isn’t there any easier way like just ignoring bad habits? That’ll work too, right?
Intuition tells us that we can change bad habits by either ignoring them or avoiding them. Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works. You actually want to do the complete opposite. Art Markman, author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others, agrees:
“People tend to set negative goals and focus on something they’re not going to do anymore. ‘I’m going to eat less … stop smoking … or check e-mail less often.’ You’re…doomed to fail when you set up your desire to change a behavior in that way, because ultimately what you’re trying to do is create new habits.”
Mindfulness improves our ability to notice what’s going on in our thoughts, our emotions, and our senses. It allows us to pause before reacting to choose the right response.
A study by Judson Brewer found that mindfulness training helped people quit smoking. Participants were asked to be mindful about how smoking made them feel. This led them to examine their thoughts, feelings, motivations, reactions, and responses. Some participants noted that smoking tasted gross and made their fingers smell. The mindful participants were twice as likely to quit smoking compared to the control group.
Judson Brewer describes this practice as being curious about our bad habits:
”Seeing really clearly what we get when we get caught up in our behaviors, becoming disenchanted on a visceral level and from this disenchanted stance, naturally letting go.”
So, don’t ignore your bad habits. Get into an “OM State of Mind” with them!
Where To Go From Here
“Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.”
– Mark Twain
Now that you have your plan and 7 amazing tips for success, the last ingredient is to TAKE ACTION.
Remember, changing bad habits doesn’t happen overnight. Like the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
Be patient, reward yourself, involve others, and you’ll eventually see your new habit take shape. Know that change is coming. It will be worth your effort.Every habit starts out as a choice. Click To Tweet
Make the choice to follow through with your new habit day in and day out. Track your progress either by paper or with an app (we recommend this one). This will help you stay conscious of your goals. After awhile, you’ll hardly be thinking about the routine. It’ll just be a habit! (gasp)Nothing will change unless you make a daily commitment to change. Click To Tweet
Your bad habits have been holding your life back for way too long.
Go on – break bad habits, Walter White!
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