Your bad habits are what separate who you are from who you wish to be. They stand in your way, keeping you from living a more healthy, more fulfilling, and purposeful life.

Bad habits often foil good intentions of eating healthier, exercising more, and being more productive. They zap you of your time and energy so you can’t spend it on improving yourself. So why is it such a struggle to eliminate them for good?

It’s simple – we do not know how to cope with stress and boredom productively.

The tendency to eat junk food, go on an online shopping spree or wasting hours in front of the TV is an automatic response to combating the stress and boredom in life. These coping mechanisms stick because we don’t know how to properly manage our negative emotions.

But reverting to bad habits doesn’t have to be your initial response. Just like you were able to form a bad habit in the first place, you can train yourself to develop a good habit to become its replacement.

Being Aware of Your Bad Habits

The first step to solving a problem is to identify having a problem. Some bad habits become so ingrained in our daily lives that we may not even recognize them anymore. Or worse, have accepted them as being a part of who we are – unable to be changed.

But you don’t have to accept your bad habits as being a permanent fixture in your life. If you can recognize what is provoking your bad habits, then you can overcome them. Having awareness is a matter of being honest with yourself about what is at the root of your bad habits. Perhaps a particular fear or self-limiting belief is causing you to hold on to them.

You can help uncover some of the truth by asking yourself these questions:

  • When do I find myself acting out a bad habit?
  • Where do my bad habits typically occur? At home, the office, or out in public?
  • Did something, in particular, trigger my behavior?
  • Do I continue doing this out of fear or uncertainty?

Understanding Your Bad Habits

Before you try removing bad habits from your life, you must understand their purpose. All habits in life – both good and bad – provide a benefit because your brain is always looking to save effort. Converting a sequence of actions into an automatic routine is an evolutionary process to conserve energy for more important tasks, like searching for food.

Your brain can’t make the distinction between good and bad habits; it is only concerned with forming habits for the sake of conserving energy in the present moment. Since habits play such a crucial role in your life, you cannot simply eliminate a habit. Something must fill the void left behind.

Eliminating a bad habit is not enough; it needs to be replaced with a good habit instead. But for this to work, a good habit must address the same need.

For example, if you always turn on the TV when you get bored, telling yourself to stop watching TV isn’t enough to invite change. Telling yourself “no” doesn’t address the root problem; you’re still bored. You may have the self-discipline to deny yourself TV for a week, but without a healthy alternative, you will soon revert to the path of least resistance. Instead, come up with productive ways to combat boredom, such as scheduling your downtime to join a workout class or to read an interesting book.

Knowing the importance of replacing a bad habit is a start, but it is not enough to make a change. You must also know the right steps to break your bad habits.

How to Break A Bad Habit

There are four steps to breaking a bad habit:

  1. Make the cues invisible.
  2. Make the cravings unattractive.
  3. Make the response difficult.
  4. Make the reward unsatisfying.

Make the Cues Invisible

Cues for triggering a bad habit come in many forms: your phone buzzing, seeing a box of donuts on the counter, having a TV in every room. Knowing what cues trigger your unwanted behavior and eliminating as many as you can is one of the most effective strategies for breaking a bad habit.

If you are always checking your phone when working, then leave your phone in a separate room. If you always grab a donut from the kitchen, then throw the box away. If you always turn on the TV as soon as you get home, then remove the TV from the room or hide the remote. Breaking your bad habits become easier to accomplish once you remove the associated cues.

Make the Cravings Unattractive

Do you find yourself regretting staying out late on weekends after a night of consuming too much booze and greasy food? If so, make the late-night weekend routine less attractive by scheduling a morning workout class for Saturday or Sunday morning. Even better if the gym charges a fee for not showing up to your scheduled class. Staying out late will become unappealing when you must be up at 7 AM for an intense hour-long workout.

Make your bad habits unattractive by surrounding yourself with people who find that type of behavior unattractive. If you struggle to eat a healthy diet, then consider joining a gym where the members take their health seriously. Do you have a hard time turning the TV off when you know you should be working? Go to a library where you will be surrounded by others focused on their work.

If you continue to surround yourself with people who condone your bad habits, then you are setting yourself up for failure. Making a radical change in your life, like breaking a bad habit, is going to take more than just your finite willpower. You need a support group to encourage you to become the type of person you wish to be.

Make the Response Difficult

Most of our bad habits form because we desire to take the path of least resistance. Why respond to stress and boredom by doing something difficult when you can bring quick relief by doing something easy. Make it easier to break a bad habit by increasing the amount of friction associated with performing it.

If you find yourself wasting time scrolling on social media, then consider installing a browser blocker like Freedom. If you have trouble with snacking on junk food in the evenings, then throw it all away and replace it with a bowl of fruit and nuts. If you stay up too late on weeknights, then add an automatic sleep timer on your electronic devices to alert you when its time to get in bed.

Our bad habits are hard to break because we make them too convenient in our lives. Increasing the number of steps to perform them or making the process difficult will make the habits inconvenient. Your bad habits will quickly fall out of favor once they are no longer convenient. Simultaneously, find ways to reduce the friction of performing your good habits so you will seek them out.

Make the Reward Unsatisfying

The final step to breaking a bad habit is to make the associated award unsatisfying. Often, the costs of your good habits are in the present while the costs of your bad habits are in the future. What gets immediately rewarded is what gets repeated and the reason why bad habits that bring instant gratification stick around.

The costs of eating dessert every night are future weight gain and increased rate of disease, while the reward is the immediate dopamine spike from the combination of sugar and fat. Our brains are not wired to weigh long-term costs against short-term gains accurately, so you must create a way to make your bad habits immediately unsatisfying.

An effective way to solve this problem is to find an accountability partner. If your goal is to stop smoking, you are going to feel pressured to quit if you have to report to someone daily about the last time you smoked. The guilt of admitting defeat and hurting your ego may be the only force powerful enough to overcome the dopamine hit from lighting up on your lunch break.

Being successful with this step is about making the punishment for acting out your bad habit worse than the pleasure you get from doing it. It becomes evident once you realize life is a game of incentives with the biggest motivators being the desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Make your bad habits more painful and your good habits more pleasurable and observe how easy it is to improve your life.

Having Success

Your old habits of coping with stress and boredom didn’t arise overnight, so don’t expect to make a radical change overnight. Bad habits are built over the years, so expect a similar amount of time to replace them with more productive habits.

The good news is you can be successful with this process by having a simple plan-of-action. Time is passing you by regardless of whether or not you decide to take action, so you might as well put in the initial effort to make the process of changing your life as easy as possible.

Enjoy the success of replacing the bad habits in your life by following these steps:

  1. Pick one bad habit to change at a time.
  2. Use the four steps listed above to breaking a bad habit.
  3. Start with small wins to build momentum. Your initial goal should not be so difficult that it invites failure.
  4. Get others involved. Tell a spouse, friend, or family member what you are trying to achieve so you can be held accountable.
  5. Make your good habit replacements enjoyable so they can fill the void.

Breaking a bad habit takes time and effort. Most people often fail the first couple of times before finally making a permanent change. Have perseverance and success will soon find you.