Women using phone on the sofa

How to break
a bad habit

04 January 2022

Six tips to help you break that bad habit for good.
We all have a bad habit we want to break, whether it’s smoking, late night snacking, spending too much time on the couch, eating junk food, biting our nails or repeatedly refreshing our Instagram feed.

Without realising it, we engage in a huge number of automatic behaviours and actions every day. These behaviours are called habits. Since habits take practice and repetition to form, the same is true when it comes to breaking them.

They say old habits die hard and there is some truth to that. While there are studies that indicate it takes 21 days to break a habit, it can often take months and even years. Breaking bad habits can be difficult, especially if we’ve been engaging in them for a long time. But fortunately, it is possible to shake off a bad habit – with hard work, dedication, and a plan-of-action.

Try our six simple tips to help you break that bad habit for good. 

The first step to breaking bad habits is to understand how they work. Habits, good or bad, follow a three-step pattern called a “habit loop”. First, there’s a cue, which is the trigger for your behaviour. Then there’s the routine, which is the behaviour itself. And finally the reward, which is the payoff you feel you get from the action.

Cue – you’re feeling stressed, routine – you grab a bottle of wine, reward – you feel relaxed and happy. The link between the cue and routine is reinforced when you engage in a habit. And by repetition, the link grows stronger and becomes more embedded in your brain. 

Now that you understand how habits are formed, you can turn your attention to changing them. If you want to break a bad habit, you have to identify the cue that triggers it. Every time you engage in your bad habit, ask yourself why you’re doing it. Identify whether there are particular situations that seem to trigger your bad habit. Jot down some notes to help you including the time, location and emotion associated with the bad habit. 
Research has shown that the best method to beat a bad habit is to replace it with a better one. For example, replacing coffee with green tea might be faster than giving up caffeine altogether. Instead of drinking a glass of wine, swap it for a glass of sparkling water. Or if you are craving a cigarette, try going for a short run instead. The idea here is that in moments when you are craving the old habit you will already have an alternative in place that you can enjoy instead. 
Motivate yourself to change your habits by using incentives or rewards for success. Consider setting a goal for the week, and if you reach it, treat yourself. Knowing there’s a reward in the future will motivate you to stick with your plan to break the habit.
It is much easier to break a bad habit if you have the help of a support network. Family and friends can be invaluable aids in helping you to break bad habits. When you're struggling, they can provide the strength and motivation you need to stay on the right path. What works even better is if you can form a partnership with someone who shares the same goal or who is trying to kick the same habit. 

Even with the best intentions, lapses will happen. Don’t give up if you have a slip up along the way. Just have a plan to get back on track. The longer you give yourself to keep trying, the more likely your chances are of breaking a bad habit. But the good news is, if you keep at it, your new behaviours will turn into habits, too.

Take it one step at a time. Whether you’re striving for an early morning run, eating more green vegetables or less screen time, you just might find you enjoy the change. 

Need some additional help breaking that habit? With our Expat  Assistance Programme (EAP), you can be reassured that no matter what life throws at you, you can get support, anytime, anywhere. Through EAP, you have access to a range of services, including expert counselling, personalised wellbeing content and podcast and audio tips.