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We all have bad habits that we’d like to shift once and for all. Whether it’s over-indulging in our favourite ‘unhealthy’ food, skipping workouts, overspending when we know we shouldn’t, or mindlessly scrolling on social media for longer than we’d like to admit – whatever it may be, we know our lives would be much better without these habits.

So, why is it that ‘bad’ habits can be picked up so easily and become incredibly difficult to shake off once they are part of our life?  Whereas ‘good’ habits, such as taking up a new training regime or sticking to a healthy diet, are generally difficult to stick to and become a consistent behaviour.  Bad habits not only compromise both your mental and physical health; but also stand in the way of you achieving your goals by wasting your energy and time. So, why do we continue to repeat behaviour that we know isn’t good for us? Put simply, this is because bad habits are generally caused by two things – stress and boredom.

Any bad habit that you currently have is in your life for a reason. In fact, these habits will provide some form of temporary benefit to you, even if they negatively impact you in other ways. The bad habits we pick up are a response to feelings of stress or boredom. When we experience stress, this triggers us to seek out something to take our minds away from this and make us feel better. Similarly, when we feel bored, we look to occupy ourselves with something to distract us. When we break down the psychology of our habits, they are driven by a 3-stage loop in sequence.

Let’s take a look at this habit loop to see this in action:

The 3-step habit loop: 

  • Trigger (the stress/boredom stimulus that starts the habit)
  • Routine (the doing of the habit and behaviour itself)
  • Reward (the benefit associated with the behaviour)

So, let’s say your bad habit is eating a chocolate bar when you’re stressed at work. Your habit loop would look like this:

  • Trigger (stress from work)
  • Routine (reaches for a chocolate bar)
  • Reward (temporary stress relief when eating chocolate to feel better)

Every time we repeat these same behavioural patterns, they become deeper ingrained into our brain until they become an automatic response… a habit. Feeling powerless to your bad habits not only affects your motivation and positivity, but can also take a toll on your self-esteem and self-belief.

However, the good news is that there are many ways to break free from your bad habits and better still – replace them with new positive ones! You don’t have to live with your bad habits, you can create and control your own behavioural patterns. Think about it, if you were able to create your original bad habit in the first place, then you can just as easily create a positive habit to replace it.

This is the key; don’t try to just stop a bad habit, instead you make your life easier by replacing it with a better habit. As a result, you not only remove a negative behavioural pattern from your life, but you build a new, positive habit that will help you to become healthier, more productive, and lead you closer to achieving your goals. This being said, we know breaking a bad habit is easier said than done. However, if you address your habit systematically, you can undoubtedly achieve it.

Here are our top 6 ways to break a bad habit by creating a new one:

  1. Establish What Triggers Your Bad Habits
  2. Decide What You Want to Replace the Bad Habit With
  3. Be Realistic
  4. Enlist a Friend to Help You Stay on Track
  5. Shut Down Any Negative Thoughts
  6. Treat Yourself
  • Establish What Triggers Your Bad Habits

Bad habits don’t just appear out of the blue, they are all triggered by something. Once you can pinpoint what those triggers are, then you can begin to stop the bad habits. As previously mentioned, bad habits are a response to feelings of stress and boredom – but why is this important?

Let’s take the same scenario from the 3-step loop discussed earlier: When you next find yourself reaching for a chocolate bar at work, take a step back and establish whether you’re feeling stressed or bored at that moment in time. If you can acknowledge that you are bored or stressed and not let that feeling take over, then you have achieved the first step towards successfully stopping a bad habit.

Having an awareness of what triggers the bad habit will show you how to make significant changes. The next time you experience the urge to give into your bad habit, jot down the following information:

  • Where are you?
  • What time of day/night does your bad habit actually happen?
  • Who are you with?
  • How many times a day does it happen?
  • What triggered the behaviour and caused it to begin?

By tracking this information you will become more aware of your behaviour and the answers from this list should give you lots of ideas for how to avoid it happening in future.

  • Decide What You Want to Replace the Bad Habit With 

Once you’ve established that your habits are triggered by stress or boredom, next you need to think about how you can address those triggers with a positive habit instead. To say you will just stop a bad habit cold turkey simply isn’t realistic and makes the habit-breaking all the more difficult for yourself in the long run. Instead, what you need to do is replace it with a better one. In order to do this successfully, this requires a little planning ahead for how you will next respond when faced with the stress or boredom that triggers your bad habit.

For example, using our earlier 3-step habit loop: When you next find yourself stressed at work, rather than reaching for a chocolate bar, instead go for a brisk walk or put your headphones in and listen to feel-good/relaxing music or a positive/motivational podcast. You could also bring healthy snacks into work as an alternative so when you find yourself craving your usual chocolate bar, you will be able to establish whether y. ou are in fact hungry, or just stressed. If you are hungry, you then have a healthy snack, and if you’re stressed then you can acknowledge that your craving is just a response to that feeling and choose a healthier response instead.

  • Be Realistic 

Whether your bad habit is spending too much, eating too much, drinking/smoking too much, spending too long on social media etc. – it’s simply not realistic to say you will never, ever do this behaviour again in your life. We’re only human and it’s possible that there will be times where you momentarily slip back into old habits, and this isn’t a problem – so long as you don’t allow yourself to revert back to these bad habits regularly.

Taking an all-or-nothing approach to stopping a bad habit is a recipe for disaster, as the first time you fall back into a bad habit, you may beat yourself up about it, feel guilty/stressed, or throw in the towel and the next thing you know you’re sucked back into that bad habit and feeling like you have no control. Instilling further negative feelings is the last thing we want, so by acknowledging that there will be times on where you’ll fall back to old habits, you remain in control and can put steps in place to help replace any broken willpower and stay on track.

  • Enlist a Friend/Family Member/Partner to Help You Stay on Track 

If you’re really struggling with willpower and having a difficult time breaking away from your bad habit, try recruiting a friend/family member or partner to help you stay on track. If they aren’t already aware, let them know the reasons why you want to stop your bad habit and inform them of your chosen alternative positive habits that you want to do instead.

For example, when you feel that stress/boredom trigger that makes you want to reach out for an unhealthy snack at work, message or call your friend/family member/partner, let them know how you’re feeling and they’ll remind you of the reasons why you want to stop your bad habit and of the alternative positive habit you’re supposed to be doing instead e.g. going for a walk or eating a healthy snack.

Being accountable to others is an incredibly powerful incentive to stay on track and by receiving regular support and encouragement, your goal will remain in focus.

  • Shut Down Any Negative Thoughts

We’ve all been there when a powerful urge to indulge in a bad habit kicks in and we start to create a “just one last time” or “It’ll be better starting tomorrow/next week” dialogue in our minds. Now, in order to successfully stop a bad habit – you need to stop yourself from doing that and learn how to shut those thoughts down as you’re essentially giving yourself permission to do something that deep down you know you shouldn’t, which will only make you feel worse in the long run. So, how do we do this?

One way of addressing these permission-giving thoughts is to imagine saying them out loud to an honest friend/family member/partner, somebody that you know will be frank and won’t just agree with you. By doing this and picturing their response, you will see these thoughts more critically and clearly just as your friend/family member/partner would. It will therefore become much easier to call yourself out and hold yourself accountable when those permission-giving thoughts crop up again.

Or imagine it’s your friend with the same bad habit, what would you say to them if the shoe were on the other foot? I imagine you would discourage them from caving in and getting off track and instead motivate them – so instil these positive motivational thoughts to yourself in your own internal dialogue.

  • Treat Yourself 

Completely denying yourself of things you enjoy can seem like a bleak or daunting prospect, this is why so many people put off stopping a bad habit or are unable to stay on track. However, breaking a bad habit doesn’t need to be a negative or miserable experience and there are many ways to stay positive during the process.

To counteract any feelings of deprivation or missing out, it’s important to reward yourself every time you reach a mini milestone with breaking your habit. Why? Because when you stop the old behaviour, e.g. eating a chocolate bar, you won’t get that all-important hit of dopamine (an important ‘feel-good’ chemical messenger involved in motivation, reward and memory); however, if you reward yourself in another way – you will still get this ‘feel-good’ boost.

With time, your brain will begin to associate your new, positive behaviour with the dopamine hit coming from your reward. So, this is why it’s important to treat yourself with a little reward every week you continue to stick to your new positive habit – it’ll keep you on track and feeling motivated to continue.

The Take Home:

No matter what your bad habit may be, making a permanent change takes time, effort, awareness and most importantly, perseverance. Many people who successfully break a bad habit try and fail several times before they can make it stick for good. Remember, just because you may not succeed immediately, this doesn’t mean you won’t succeed the next time. In fact, you will be all the better equipped for success and able to learn from any past mistakes.

Try these tips out for yourself and you’ll find the whole process much easier and more enjoyable!


Stephanie Yates

Stephanie Yates

Stephanie has a BSc in Food and Nutrition, paired with an extensive culinary background gained working as a chef and recipe developer for healthy eateries. With a passion for fitness and sports nutrition, Stephanie utilises her knowledge to deliver science-backed nutritional guidance and up-to-date, well-researched articles in this field. As a former chef, Stephanie has a wealth of experience in developing creative, healthy and delicious recipes to help people meet their nutritional needs and fitness/body goals.

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