How to Break a Habit in 12 Steps

Updated: Sep. 01, 2011

Losing a habit requires change. We recently took a deep exploration into the science of bad habits, reading the wisdom of countless experts, researchers, and gurus on the subject.

We all want to be healthy, strong, energized, and happy. So why do so many of us have habits that take us in an opposite direction? Simple: Losing a habit requires change. And of all the things we do in a day, changing is by far the hardest.

You know this, and so do the experts. We recently took a deep exploration into the science of bad habits, reading the wisdom of countless experts, researchers, and gurus on the subject. What they say is both obvious and eye-opening. Here, the 12 guiding principles for breaking a bad habit:

1. Acknowledge

Rationalization is the art of coming up with facts to defend something that is indefensible. The moment you can see through the smokescreen of your rationalizations and admit that something you do is compulsive and harmful is the moment you can start to take action.

2. Isolate

Part of the rationalization process is seeing your habit as the inevitable result of other things in your life. For example, “I binge on ice cream because I’m frustrated, because my job is lousy, because I have a bad boss.” This leads to the very wrong conclusion that the only way to stop binging on ice cream is to get a new boss. No one denies that your life will be better by improving your work situation. However, the problem at hand is eating too much ice cream, period. By isolating the action you want to change, you can address it directly — and succeed more easily.

3. Pair

Isolating a habit makes sense when the perceived trigger of causes is long or complicated. But research shows that sometimes, it does help to tackle a few bad habits at the same time, if they are closely linked. For example, if you watch lots of TV and snack too much while doing it, then attack both habits at the same time. You’ll have a greater chance of success this way.

4. Want

Facts are weak motivators. For example, knowing that your daily butter and bagel is increasing your heart-disease risk by 17 percent likely won’t get you to give it up. To change, you also need the support of your heart and soul. Only when your desire to end a habit is deep and strong will you have the drive and willpower to succeed. So seek deeper, more emotional reasons to make the change. Ponder the future you want, and the joys that await you. Let them motivate you to act.

5. Rebel

Research suggests that one of the main reasons we persist with bad habits is that so many other people have them too; they are cultural norms. That makes sense: It’s hard to say no to fast-food burgers, French fries, and soda when everyone around you is eating them. But they are bad for you. The message: Pay no attention to social norms. You are not defined by them. Do what’s right for you, rather than worrying about fitting in. Chances are, others will respect you for your choices not shun you. An even better strategy: Spend less time with people who have bad habits and more time with people who have the good habits you want to develop.

6. Honor yourself

The research is clear here too: People who try to make a change due to guilt or frustration often fail. People who respect and like themselves — and who are generally happy with who they are — are more likely to succeed. So challenge your bad habit from a position of personal strength and confidence, not a perspective of failure or weakness. Remember that you have countless good habits and qualities, and only a handful of ones that warrant change.

7. Plan

Once you’ve got yourself in the right state of mind to take on a bad habit, you need to do one more thing before taking action: Plan your approach. Will you stop cold turkey? What day do you start? Will you keep a journal of the process? What awards for success will you grant yourself, and when? Who else will you involve in the process? A clear, detailed plan helps provide the rigor and discipline to succeed.

8. Act

So far, we’ve talked about the mindset changes that precede taking on a bad habit. But don’t let internal factors hijack the process. It’s easy to overthink the changes you want to make. Take action! Experts say that most habits can be broken if you can go 30 days without them. Focus simply on this: no partaking in the habit for one month. Then focus on 30 more days.

9. Replace

The easiest way to break a habit is to replace it with a new one. Begin by identifying the payoff your bad habit was providing—relaxation, escape, reward, satisfying a hunger, or just filling time. Make sure your replacement fulfills that need as well, but in a healthy way. Change your evening bowl of ice cream to an evening bowl of strawberries. Change your after-dinner TV habit with an after-dinner walking habit. Change your 2 p.m. can of soda habit with a 2 p.m. cup of tea. Remember: All habits aren’t bad, just the unhealthy ones.

10. Enlist

There’s a reason so much of corporate America long ago shifted to a team orientation; groups of people sharing the same goal succeed better than individuals who go it alone. Pick your team members carefully—your spouse might or might not be one—and empower them to help you achieve your goal with reminders, praise, distractions, even backrubs. And remember: The hallmark of good teamwork is communication. For your personal team to be engaged, you need to talk openly and frequently with them, just as you would with a corporate team.

11. Reward

Successes big or small should be celebrated. Heartfelt praise is often the most powerful reward—whether from others or yourself. But there’s no reason you can’t dangle the promise of a material reward for interim successes. Just don’t reward a month of no ice cream with a bowl of ice cream. Make the reward something entirely unrelated, like a new outfit or a night out.

12. Forgive

When you slip up, forgive yourself. Start the next day fresh and fully committed to beating the habit. No one is keeping a scorecard. Yesterday’s mistake is history. Learn from it, and move on. People who are committed to breaking a habit don’t throw up their hands in defeat after a few lapses. Rather, they apply themselves even more.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest