Breaking Bad Habits Using Psychology (Guide)

This smoking woman needs to break her bad habit.

Take Control. Stop the habit.

Breaking a really sticky habit may seem close to impossible. Most people try to kick the habits that haunt them for weeks, even years, before they get desperate enough to really change. Because you are here, I know you are at the point where you are ready to transform your life. How can you end your habit? The good news is that the more it matters to you the easier it will be to emerge victorious from your battle.

Throughout this article, we will use cigarettes and nicotine addiction as our go-to example. It will be easier to change if you understand how your habits work.

Habits cycle through 3 stages:

  1. The cue reminds you of the behavior you want to eliminate. For smokers, the cue inspires the urge to smoke a cigarette. The cue could be as simple as seeing a friend or coworker head out for a smoke-break.

  2. The reward is the experience that satiates your urge or craving. For smokers, this is the euphoric feeling of nicotine entering the brain in the form of a buzz or high.

  3. The routine is the process, or cycle, by which you consume the reward. A nicotine addict grabs a pack out of his car, selects a smoke, lights it, and takes a hit.

Those are the three steps of the cycle. What can we do with that information? First, we will go on a tiny tangent to discuss social pressure and circumstances. These are critical because you, as a person, tend to reflect your peers and friends.

Avoid social pressure while breaking bad habits.

Social pressure that encourages unhealthy behavior is the leading cause of addiction and bad habit formation. Furthermore, when the habit is a social ritual, when other people expect you to accompany them in their unhealthy behavior, it becomes very difficult to quit. This is because you feel obligated, and thus have a justification, to continue your behavior. Do you eat too much sugar? What are you going to do if your significant other drinks a two liter of soda every day, and expects you to join him? You are going to give in because the social pressure offers a rationalization.

This is especially true for those who have recently broken a habit. You are at your most vulnerable immediately after you stop consuming the reward. You will feel the urge to give in to your desires very strongly. All you can think about are the things that would satisfy your longing to experience the reward one more time.

It is easier to break bad habits if you have good friends.

Do not hang around people who encourage the types of behavior you want to avoid. As I said before, people who promote the habit you are ditching will pressure you to continue, especially if they feel bad about the habit themselves. Be careful in selecting the people with whom you spend your time.

Cigarettes in an ash tray.

New bad habits form fast. You are most susceptible to giving-in while you are kicking an old one. On the other hand, good habits are hard to form. But they will make you a more productive, efficient, happy person in the long run. They are worth every drop of sweat. Your choice of friends will either help or hurt you. Good friends will encourage good habits and behavior; bad friends will promote practices you want to avoid. An environment filled with friends who do not help you grow but limit your potential, prevent you from breaking bad habits, and waste your time will make it impossible to develop yourself. Do not make your life more difficult.

It is the choices you make on a daily basis that will eventually tilt your life either toward failure or achievement. Your social circumstances heavily influence these choices. Do not underestimate the power your friends and family have over you.

After you have assessed your relationships, we can begin to talk about what you can do at each stage of habit cycle.

The Cue

Whenever you feel the urge to satisfy a craving, take a breath and close your eyes. Analyze your circumstances. Ask yourself:

  • What time is it?

  • Where are you?

  • Who else is around you?

  • What activity are you engaged in?

  • What emotions are you feeling?

You may very well find the cue among the answers to these questions. Once you have identified your cue, take some time to think about how you can avoid encountering it.

The Reward

What are you craving? What is occupying your mind and your thoughts? What are you fighting to forget? Sometimes the reward is not what we think it is. For example, a person who drinks a lot of soda may think they are thirsty, but actually the drinking relieves anxiety. Another example is the smoker who is looking for the high not the cigarette.

After you have described the reward you are craving, figure out how you can substitute the harmful reward with a neutral or positive reward that will make you feel good about yourself.

Exercises like running can help you break bad habits.

Heavy smokers use tools like nicotine chewing gum. By chewing gum instead of smoking, the addict protects his lungs while enjoying the stimulus of nicotine. This situation is not ideal, since the addict has not beaten their addition, but it is better than breathing toxic smoke. It is well documented that electronic cigarettes are less harmful to the human body. These devices allow smokers to experience the sensations of smoking a normal cigarette.

Substitute the buzz provided by a cigarette with the endorphin high that you receive from running a few miles or hitting the gym. In my opinion, exercise is the best substitute for any habit.

I cannot overemphasize that I have kicked the majority of my bad habits through channeling my frustrations and cravings into fitness.

The Routine

Once you have identified the cue and the reward, it is time to change your daily behaviors to eliminate the routine. If possible, choose an activity that is triggered by the old cue and delivers the old reward.

In my smoking example, the cigarette itself is not the reward, the nicotine buzz is the reward. A smoker could substitute the smoking activity for chewing nicotine gum or smoking an electronic cigarette.

If you are a strong person that can simultaneously kick a bad habit and form a good one, choose a healthy routine. Some nicotine addicts will brush their teeth instead of smoking, chew none-nicotine gums, or drink a glass of water when they feel the urge to smoke.

After 10 days of avoiding the habit, you have beat the worst part of the habit breaking cycle. I keep track of my progress while kicking bad habits and forming good ones in a habit tracking app. The longer my streak, the stronger my determination to keep going.

Now go out there and break some habits. I hope this article has been helpful. This guide should be useful regardless of your goal. People use the information canvassed here to lose weight, stop sexual impulses, defeat drug addictions, etc.

If you want more information about habit formation check out Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit