4 Good Ways to Break Bad Habits

Habits run our lives. For better or worse, researchers say 40% of what we do is a habit.

From: The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

One paper published by a Duke University researcher found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

We know good habits tend to support a healthy lifestyle and bad habits can harm us. We also know some bad habits need to stop. But, we can’t help ourselves.

[Note to the reader: I have focused this article’s example on smoking cessation – knowing how difficult it is to do although the techniques also work for over-eating, snacking, unhealthy eating, lack of exercising, etc.]

Let’s be honest, changing a habit isn’t a walk in the park.  But for those who are willing to change for the better, here are some easy steps to get started.

First, pick a bad habit you want to break.

1. Focus on One

When people decide to change one habit at a time, they often succeed. Yet when people try to change too much at once, habit expert Charles Duhigg says success is highly unlikely. My experience as a health coach agrees.

For over 15 years, I’ve seen many clients try to change for the better. Those who try to change too much all at once tend to fail. They try to lose weight by cutting back on snacking, exercising more, quitting smoking, and tracking their steps with a fitbit, etc. – all good habits. However, when a client struggles to keep one healthy habit, the others fall like dominoes. Disappointment kicks in and bad habits win.

What’s the fix?

Pick one habit you want to change and commit to it.

How long?

Two months.


Research from Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives found that 67 days is a magic number for a habit to stick.

Next, start simply.

2. Start Counting

If there’s a bad habit you want to stop, don’t stop yet. Instead, try counting.

Counting? Yes. For the bad you want out. Get a constant number and aim for it – be it a number of chips, cookies or cigarettes.

For example, instead of trying to quit smoking, smoke the exact number of cigarettes each day.

Why does this work?

Because research shows that decreasing the variability with a constant is a key to success.

From: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It

Behavioral economist Howard Rachlin proposes an interesting trick for overcoming the problem of always starting a change tomorrow. When you want to change a behavior, aim to reduce the variability in your behavior, not the behavior itself. He has shown that smokers asked to try to smoke the same number of cigarettes every day gradually decrease their overall smoking— even when they are explicitly told not to try to smoke less.

Counting isn’t too hard. This method worked for one of my clients who went from three packs a day to quitting smoking over a couple of months.

He started counting at three packs a day. Then he went to two packs a day and kept counting until he hit zero. Finally, he counted the number of days without a cigarette – to magic # 67.

Counting works through time by reducing an unhealthy one habit. It works for limiting the number of cigarettes smoked, or minutes spent on social media.

Want to boost counting success to break the bad?

Counting gets support with writing. For example, to cut back on smoking or excess snacking, write down when you smoke or snack, and where you were. Then, write down if each snack or cigarette was a habit or a craving. The goal is to keep count of all of them. You become more aware of habits versus cravings. Successful habit breakers eventually smoke ONLY on a craving and snack ONLY on a craving.  In both cases, the bad habit loses its grip.

Moving on….let’s get rid of the cravings.

3. Bust Cravings

Too much snacking an issue? Bust the cravings by distracting yourself for three to five minutes.

Habit research found in the best selling The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom shows that the average craving lasts only 3-5 minutes.  Get beyond three to five minutes and you’re golden.

Based on studies of people resisting temptation, the average craving lasts around three minutes, and the most effective way to get through it is to distract yourself. Go for a short walk (even if it’s just around the office), pay a bill or two, drink a glass of water, take a sniff of some peppermint essential oils, text a friend, or read a few pages of a good book.

Distraction is the key. Try it for three to five minutes to bust a craving. If the craving persists, give in, but in a good way.

Try a Sub

Substitute a bad with a good. Habit researcher, Charles Duhigg says we can replace the bad with something better.

The key is to pay attention to when your urge or craving comes. Then, if you can’t distract yourself for three to five minutes, replace the bad habit with a better one. Smoking – try vapor, snacking – replace salty chips with nuts, calories – google a lower calorie exchange.

For excessive snacking on junk or too many cigarettes, try chewing sugar free spearmint gum.

Last, if you struggle over and over, like we all do, soften your heart.

4. Soften Your Heart

Breaking habits takes time and patience. People I’ve worked with who struggle “getting it right the first time or seeing a miss as a personal flaw of will” often beat themselves up when it doesn’t go right. Self-criticism has a place, but too much is the easiest way for bad habits to take over.

Researchers have found that it’s best to see each set-back as temporary.

Bad habit breakers have learned to soften their hearts towards themselves. They are willing to accept habit breaking as an opportunity to change for the better over time and it’s a process with many ups and downs. There are times when things spiral out of control.

Losing control is normal.

And when we lose it, research says the best way to move forward is with a soft heart.

From: The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both “I will” power and “I want” power. In contrast, self-compassion— being supportive and kind to yourself, especially in the face of stress and failure— is associated with more motivation and better self-control.

When seeking to improve, it’s normal to struggle. We all do. And when we do, we’re best off being kind and compassionate to ourselves.  For a boost with being good to yourself, check out this handbook.

Let’s wrap-it up with 4 Good Ways to Break Bad Habits.

Wrap Up

  1. Focus on One – Commit to breaking one bad habit for two months.
  2. Start Counting – Forget about breaking the bad right away. Instead, find a constant number of the bad you want to break.
  3. Bust Cravings – When the urge and crave monsters come out, distract yourself for three to five minutes. If the craving persists, substitute a good for the bad.
  4. Soften Your Heart – Self-criticism makes things worse. Kindness during setbacks propels you ahead.

Related Articles:

How to Master Healthy Habits – New Insights from Research

5 Steps of Successful People – Backed By Decades of Research

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About Dave Barnas, M.S., CES, NASM-CPT

Dave is the true health guy. He is the founder and owner of True Health Unlimited, LLC, a personal health and fitness company in Tolland, CT & Wellness Writers, a subscription wellness newsletter service that incorporates live & virtual wellness workshops for companies across New England. Dave earned both a Bachelor's (1998) and Master's Degree (2000) in Nutritional Science from the University of Connecticut, and also holds certifications as a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer, National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Corrective Exercise Specialist, Aerobics and Fitness Association of America Group Instructor, and Nutrition Specialist. He's also the lead author for four published works. Dave has over 20 years of combined experience in nutrition counseling, dietary supplement advising, personal training, corrective exercise training, health coaching and public speaking. In addition, he's spent over 25 years studying spirituality, meditation, and personal growth strategies. Dave's clients are all ages: youth, college championship level athletes, folks in their retired years, and everywhere in between. He's worked with three of the nation's leading physicians as a dietary supplement advisor and been a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Yale University, UConn, St. Joseph College and various church groups, health clubs, and high schools. In 2013, he was invited to Whole Foods Market to share his Real Food Therapy Guide. And in 2015, Dave's funny "Snowga" (yoga in the snow) video caught the attention of The National Weather Channel, who aired it to shake off cabin fever and bring laughter. In 2016, Dave & Hollie (his wife) founded Wellness Writers and deliver evidence-based Wellness E-newsletters to spread a message of health and happiness to various businesses throughout the US. Dave currently serves as a personal trainer in Tolland as well as a wellness coach and writer for several businesses, gyms and wellness facilities throughout the US.

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