The 7 Keys to Breaking Bad Habits

Most of us struggle with bad habits. In this article, I’m going to discuss 7 strategic areas of consideration that’ll lead to a successful and pain-free habit change.

Have you made a mistake of trying to break a bad habit alone, relying solely on your will power and motivation?

I have.

And more often than not, I did fail, and it really damaged my self-esteem.

Recently, I was reading my kids The Berenstain Bears and the Bad Habit. In it, Mama Bear explains that a habit is like a groove she made on her path to garden with her wheelbarrow. She has taken the same path over and over again, that the groove has gotten deep. Since it’s exactly in a place where the single wheel of the wheelbarrow travels, it’s hard not to go into the groove, making it even deeper each time. It’s gotten deep enough that once in, she can’t get the wheel out in the middle of the path by herself.

Breaking a deeply ingrained bad habit is like trying to climb a solid wall that’s higher than you. Can you lift yourself up with just your will power?

The 7 Keys to Breaking Bad Habits

In an article titled “Habit Change Is Like Chess” and also in his book Personal Development for Smart People, Steve Pavlina discusses that the key to successfully breaking bad habits lies in strategy, not determination. When you thoroughly map out your strategy for change, determination becomes just one of the ingredients, not the sole driver.

So what goes into a successful strategy for breaking bad habits? Let’s take a common example — changing a bad eating habit. You want to stop eating junk food.

Here are 7 critical areas to consider:

  1. Reduce Stress. Bad habits often form as a compensator/coping mechanism for stresses in your life. Reduce/remove external sources of stress, so you don’t have to compensate for it. Eat healthy meals, get enough sleep, exercise. Don’t underestimate the stress of boredom — not being properly stimulated regularly is a stressful state to your body. This will help boost your internal resource in holding up a higher standard for yourself.
  2. Optimize Your Environment. First of all, you need to set up an environment optimized for your habit change. Toss out all junk food, tell your family/roommates not to bring in any. Change your paths so you’re not driving/walking by places that sell junk food, and stop carrying loose cash so you’re not tempted to spend it on vending machines.
  3. Prepare a Replacement. Don’t just drop a habit and leave an empty space where that’s used to being filled. Prepare an alternative, a better replacement. In case of food, treat yourself to healthier and more delicious snacks. Eat more of your big meals so you’re not hungry. Make it so that you have no reason to revert to your bad habit — you have something that makes you feel better and still fill the same void! Make this replacement easily available, so whenever you’re tempted, you can easily grab it.
  4. Define a Time Frame. Of course, your overall goal is to change habits forever, but to aim for forever from the beginning is too overwhelming. There is a good reason why 30-day trial (another Pavlina-ism) has become a standard among PD/SI community. Pick a manageable time frame where that’s long enough to create a new groove on your path.
  5. Remove Ambiguity and Make It Measurable. Along with a time frame, be sure to define your habit change clearly and set up metrics to make sure you can measure it. If you’re fighting junk food, write down the list of food that is getting banned from your life, or define what is “junk food” for you.
  6. Make Yourself Accountable. Tell other people of your 30-day challenge and ask them to hold you accountable. The more people know about your habit change, the better.
  7. Give Yourself a Reward. In addition to a replacement, prepare a nice reward at the completion. Make it something really good, something you don’t usually allow yourself to have. Make it available right on the day after you complete your time frame, and think about it everyday.

Conclusion: Move in for the Kill

After you thoroughly set up your tactics in all 7 areas, then commence your habit change. When you build this much scaffolding around your success, it’s going to be impossible to fail.

I’m sure there are other great tips for successful habit change. What bad habits have you successfully broken in your life? And what was the key ingredient in that success?


  1. Good points, Ari! For me number 2 is the most important. If I want to change something, a simple thing like eat healthier, the only thing I have to do is make sure I don’t have any coockies and chips in my house. If I do I know I can’t keep myself from taking them.

    And for point 3: I used to be a coffee freak. Did a lot of research and knew the perfect way of making a great cup of espresso. Now I’m off coffee for half a year or so (feels great) and getting into tea a lot lately. Brewing methods, varieties, regions, very interesting stuff, so I found myself a good replacement.

    Hugo´s last blog post..Use the Unschedule to Overcome Procrastination

    1. Hugo!

      Welcome to OBV! It’s so good to have you here. Sounds like you’ve had some successful habit changes.

      I recommend that you don’t overlook #1 — habit change is a change, and it can be stressful to your system. Even if you get rid of all the junk food in your house, if you’re in bad enough mood, you may run out to a grocery store and buy yourself some. At least that’s happened to me. 😉

      Don’t be a stranger! I look forward to getting to know you better.


  2. Ari, this is really good stuff. I especially am drawn to the idea of defining a time frame, such as 30 days. I’ve tried this in the past – but it’s been a while. Time to resurrect it, I think! I have a couple of small changes I’d like to make, and this (along with some of your other suggestions) should help. Specifically, I am wanting to eat more nutritiously (I do most of the time, but have had moments recently…), espcially with the holiday season coming up. So, that’s my goal – to use some of these methods to successfully eat healthy (mostly-I’ll allow some snacks!). Thanks Ari!

    Lance´s last blog post..Believe In Yourself

    1. Lance,

      I’m so glad to hear the post spoke to you. Setting a time frame is a powerful idea — it really keeps overwhelmment at bay. And I’d like to have a very special reward waiting at the end, so I can look forward to it. 😉

      The list above should be a check list for all habit changes — when you hit all 7, it’s going to be hard for you to fail. On the other hand, if you’re not hitting most of them, that also says something about your commitment to change — maybe you’re not all that interested in changing. There are some habits that I intend on breaking, but I’m letting them be for now, as I have bigger fish to fry.


  3. I have a kind of theory that has worked well in the past. It is replacing each bad habit with a good one. Habits, both bad and good are formed the same way, one day at a time. By taking the steps to replace your habit, you give your mind something to concentrate on instead of thinking about what’s missing. I have found it quite effective.

    Just thought I would share 🙂

    PJ_Normz´s last blog post..Make A Change…Yes We Can!!!

    1. Hey PJ,

      Welcome to OBV! You’re right about bad and good habits being formed essentially the same way. Instead of just trying to quit, replacing the bad habits with good ones seems to make a lot of sense.

      Thanks for stopping by to comment! Now don’t be a stranger. 🙂


  4. Ari,

    People say to me all the time, ‘I KNOW what I need to do. Why can’t I just DO it?’

    This great post gives us a place to start.

    The key for me is awareness. ALL of habit is that pre-conscious shortcut method that we all are hardwired to practice. If we can bring the behavior up to the level of awareness, we then can CHOOSE whether to continue or not.

    We claim back our own power to act intentionally!


    Grace´s last blog post..Best quotation sources on the Internet

  5. A long time ago, I broke my smoking habit. The motivation was easy – I went hiking, and couldn’t make it very far without having to stop and catch my breath.

    And a year ago, I went vegetarian/vegan, cold “turkey.” It was an adjustment to getting out of my bad eating habits, but once I had been at it for awhile, it became more natural, and hence, easier.

    ~ Kristi

    Kikolani | Poetry, Photography, Blogging Tips´s last blog post..Using Demotivators Posters to Find Motivation

    1. Hey Kristi,

      You sound like one of those people who can just turn on and off your behaviors. My brother was like that — I remember one occasion where we were watching a movie or something on TV, but right in the middle, he went “it’s time to study,” got up and, walked out, and went to study. I have never, ever been able to do that — if I was in his shoes, it’ll take me good 20 minutes between the decision to stop watching and actually getting up and walking out, and that’s when it’s a movie I didn’t plan on watching and didn’t enjoying watching it. I could have never left if I liked the movie.

      Some personalities do better at controlling ourselves than others, it seems. 😉


  6. “2: Optimize Your Environment.”

    Excellent list, Ari! I like number two for the simple fact that it’s one of those no brainiers that is often completely missed. I think we tend to feel that will power is part of the habit breaking process and that somehow by keeping temptation in the situation we will grow stronger. Unfortunately this usually just turns into a waiting game to see how long we can hold out. Eventually we give in and nothing has been accomplished.

    Your insight is simple and clear. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Eric.

    Eric Hamm´s last blog post..Motivation Maintenance: Keeping The Drive Alive

    1. Hi Eric,

      I think optimizing environment is one of those things that’s an indication of how serious you are about your goals. It’s a step you naturally take if you’re seriously committed. If you don’t do it, that means you’re really not all that committed — maybe inside you’re still secretly wishing if you could justify keeping the bad but pleasurable habit….

      I’ve tried many times to change my bad habits relying solely on will power. It’s a recipe for failure, and of damaged self-esteem.


  7. Ari, you hit on some very good points here. Many bad habits are formed as the result of emotional pain – you mentioned stressors. In SFT, once we first teach a student how to process and remove emotional pain, we then teach them how to break their habits. You’ve covered it pretty well here.

    Once you remove the need for a certain habit (by processing the pain), you’ve laid the foundation. The need is no longer there for compensation, however, habits like drugs, smoking, overeating, plus many many more have been such a part of a person’s life that the habit itself has to then be addressed. We teach students to delete all contacts from their phones that provide access to drugs. We tell students that they can smoke, but to get a lock box, put their cigarettes in it and put it in the trunk of their car. Sure they can smoke when the urge hits, but is it worth it to stop the car, unlock the trunk, unlock the lock box and get out a cigarette?? It’s bringing the habit to consciousness and making access difficult. An alcoholic can drink, but instead they have to drive two counties over to get their alcohol instead of the convenient store on the way home. Making it more trouble than it’s worth is the purpose.

    The replacement thing is key. It is crucial. You have to replace bad with good always or you will revert. Find new good friends to hang out with, new healthy drinks, new snacks, gum, whatever the case or need is.

    A person’s urge for an addiction is only 30 seconds if it is not fed. Finding a hobby to distract the mind can go a long way. Again, it’s replacing the habit with something better.

    Great tips here Ari. Good post.

    Jennifer´s last blog post..A Source of Huge Frustration

    1. Jennifer,

      Yes, that’s what I was trying to get at with #1 — removing the reason, the motivator for bad habits.

      It’s funny because some days, I would wish for bad things to happen to me because then I had an excuse to lower my standards and indulge in the habits I knew were not good for me.

      When I changed my life to a place where I was less stressed over all, I didn’t have those sickly hurt-me tendencies.

      Thanks for adding your insights, as always.


  8. For me, accountability is key. At the beginning of this year, when I decided I wanted to lose weight, I used a website and tracked everything I ate. Even though, at the time, no one I knew was using it, my profile was public. If I had the urge to eat something unhealthy or overeat for the day, I knew I would have to log it and that someone might see it. This made it a lot easier in the beginning until eating right became the new habit.

    Kim Woodbridge | (Anti) Social Development´s last blog post..Stuff This In Your RSS – 11/11/08 – The Simple Dollar

    1. Kim,

      And I take it the attempt turned out to be a great success? Indeed, accountability is HUGE. It’s funny because it’s much easier to keep promises to others than to ourselves — so we have to put ourselves into positions where we have every reason to keep our promises. It’s hard if that’s the only thing we do, though, as changing is stressful and accountability can add to that stress. I’d combine that with the rest of the pointers, so you feel supported and satiated as you try to change your habits as well.


  9. Hi Ari – The part that really resonated with me was “Don’t underestimate the stress of boredom”. I find myself snacking when I’m not even hungry. When I stop and think about it, it’s because I’m bored. When dieting it’s important to ask yourself “why” you’re eating. Often it’s not because we’re hungry.

    Barbara Swafford – Blogging Without A Blog´s last blog post..NBOTW – For The Love Of Words

    1. Hi Barbara,

      Glad you picked out that point. Boredom is surprisingly powerful, in a negative way. It can stress us and drive us to do all kinds of things that don’t feel good about doing.

      Properly being stimulated is very important.


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  11. i think that habits r not bad our thinking given to them determines us that it is good for us or not , if we make limts for our bad habit we can control our life

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