7 ways to break literally any habit, according to psychology

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Sometimes all that is standing in the way of you and your dreams in life are a few bad habits. 

There’s no shame in it: none of us are perfect; whether we admit it or not, we all have certain things about ourselves that could use a bit of tweaking. 

The good news is that it’s never too late to correct these behaviors. As long as you approach change with an open mind and a sense of dedication, the world is still very much your oyster. 

Once you get to where you want to be, you’ll wonder why you didn’t take action sooner.

In this article, I’ll walk you through some of the key ways to break any bad habit. We may all have it in us to be better, but occasionally we need a little nudge in the right direction. 

Let’s dive in!

1) Develop your self-awareness

As humans, we tend to be quite stubborn creatures; we often become so fixed in our ways, we don’t relent, even when they’re unhealthy for us. 

A wise man once told me “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt!” 

Hence, the first concrete step to breaking a habit is recognizing the fact that the habit actually exists.

Once we start developing self-awareness, we are making a tremendous stride in the right direction. 

By becoming aware of your habits both good and bad, you’ll be able to analyze routines and evaluate the triggers that lead to the unwanted behavior.

You can stop yourself in real time. And eventually, those triggers will fade.

Carl Jung, father of analytical psychology, once said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” I couldn’t agree more. 

2) Start setting realistic goals

Maybe you have a ton of habits that you feel need to go… fair enough. 

But when you become overwhelmed, accomplishing your goals can seem like a tall order. 

So, set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) goals that communicate precisely what you’d like to accomplish. 

Gradual changes are more sustainable over the long term. Don’t try to change everything overnight. Habits take time to form, so naturally, they also take time to break. 

My attorney always advises me, “You can’t eat an elephant in one day.” 

Essentially, he is saying that anything is possible if smaller, gradual steps are consistently taken. 

In short, take it a day at a time.

But having clear goals should be top of mind. Goals are crucial for progress in life, and therefore changing your habits too. 

As Benjamin E. Mays, a late civil rights icon and educator, once said: “The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.” 

3) Use positive reinforcements 

When you notice yourself making progress, acknowledge those wins. Be proud. You owe it to yourself. 

As we have established, nobody is actually perfect. Every day brings an opportunity for improvement. 

So if you can firmly say you’re a better person than you were six months ago, minus a detrimental habit or two, you’re in good shape. 

Like an anxious child after a doctor’s appointment, you deserve that proverbial lollipop. 

Maybe you’ve gone cold turkey from gambling for a month, treat yourself and a loved one to a nice dinner at a restaurant you’ve always wanted to try. Reward yourself!

Subconsciously, positive reinforcement can be an extremely strong motivator and help you strengthen a new behavior or habit. Because at the end of the day, who doesn’t love a prize? 

4) Cultivate mindfulness

Don’t knock it till you try it. 

In a nutshell, mindfulness means consciously and actively focusing on the present moment without dwelling on the past or obsessing about the future. 

Practicing mindfulness makes you naturally more aware of your triggers, thus helping you manage your habits. 

According to Dr. Jason N Linder: “Mindfulness helps us see the labyrinth of patterns we get stuck in, and clearer ways out, with less suffering and more wisdom. It can also show that caving to a craving doesn’t actually solve anything long-term but reinforces addictive or harmful behavior.”

5) Understand the habit loop

As coined by author Charles Duhigg, the habit loop is a psychological system that breaks down the process of habit formation into three primary elements: cue, routine, and reward.

“First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental, or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future,” says Duhigg.

Think about your habits: Are you a serial procrastinator? Do you have a sex addiction? Do you bite your nails? Try to analyze them using the habit loop as the foundation. 

Perhaps you have a tendency to doom scroll through social media reels for hours at a time when you’re bored at home. 

First, identify the cue (being idle at home), then change the routine by altering the nature of the reward.

Maybe you can invest in a captivating novel–something you can pick up during off hours. 

You’ll soon realize that the book gives you a feeling of catharsis and inspires you creatively. Social media becomes an afterthought; you’ve replaced scrolling TikTok with scrolling pages.  

By manipulating your brain into rethinking unwanted habits, you will ultimately build fresh, beneficial ones. 

In time, the process will become second nature, and you’ll instinctively associate the cue and reward with each other. 

Take it from me, understanding a model like the habit loop and its effects on our behaviors certainly pays off. 

6) Embrace support networks 

Real talk: never feel like you have to go at it alone. That sense of isolation can make an achievable task seem impossible. 

Once you know you have people in your corner, you’ll emotionally be in a prime position to beat those lingering habits. You can always trust supportive people to charge your batteries. 

So reach out to friends, family, or groups in your community who can give you emotional support, and encouragement, and even hold you accountable as you work to break your habit. 

When I decided to give up smoking, it initially seemed like a herculean task. Fortunately, I had a very supportive family that had my back. 

They would regularly check up on me, eager to hear about my progress and make sure I wasn’t regressing. 

Whenever I’d get the urge to smoke, I’d think about letting them down, and that provided me with all the extra motivation I needed. 

My love for them also gave me a legit reason to be healthy. 

Today, those testy, smoke-filled days are long gone. I rarely get cravings, even when I see movie characters having an onscreen drag. 

7) Seek professional help

Look, sometimes the habit is so deeply ingrained within you, it takes a professional to help scrape it out. 

Maybe the habit is causing distress or harm to yourself or those around you. In this case, seeking professional help becomes critical.

Therapists, counselors, and other mental health professionals can support you through scientifically-backed strategies that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. 

So don’t be afraid to ask; seeking help is a strength, not a weakness. 

“Getting help from a professional should not be perceived as a weakness but rather as someone wisely using all their resources to fight a problem,” says esteemed psychiatrist, Dr. David D. Burns. I tend to agree. 

Final thoughts

To recap, I’d like to say that the fact that you’re actively taking steps to break a bad habit is a testament to your character. 

Honestly, many people let their habits consume them until it’s too late.

Right now, you’re aware there’s an issue and responding assertively. Give yourself a pat on the back! 

At this point, further progress is inevitable if you keep cultivating that mindset. 

Don’t let up. 

Make every day count but prioritize self-care. Replace past habits with new ones that benefit you! Continue to own your existence. 

If you maintain your stamina, it’ll only be a matter of time before your best self comes-a-knockin’!  

Lost Your Sense of Purpose?

In this age of information overload and pressure to meet others’ expectations, many struggle to connect with their core purpose and values. It’s easy to lose your inner compass.

Jeanette Brown created this free values discovery PDF to help clarify your deepest motivations and beliefs. As an experienced life coach and self-improvement teacher, Jeanette guides people through major transitions by realigning them with their principles.

Her uniquely insightful values exercises will illuminate what inspires you, what you stand for, and how you aim to operate. This serves as a refreshing filter to tune out societal noise so you can make choices rooted in what matters most to you.

With your values clearly anchored, you’ll gain direction, motivation and the compass to navigate decisions from your best self – rather than fleeting emotion or outside influences.

Stop drifting without purpose. Rediscover what makes you come alive with Jeanette Brown’s values clarity guide.

 

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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