How to Break a Habit

Two Parts:Changing your ThinkingChanging your Behavior

Do you bite your nails? Chew on your hair? Suck your thumb? Pick your lips? Regardless of your particular habit, or how deeply ingrained it is, the process of breaking it will be similar. With persistence and the right mindset, it's possible to break your bad habits, and these instructions help you through the process of doing so.

Part 1
Changing your Thinking

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    Commit to a goal. Although it may seem obvious, it is important to understand that the first step in breaking a bad habit is developing a true desire for and committing to changing your life.[1]
    • Many people embark on the path of breaking a habit without being certain that they really want to change. Breaking habits is a difficult task, so if you aren't fully committed to it you are likely to fail.[2]
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    Understand your habit. Most habitual behaviors are patterns that have evolved because they have been rewarded in some way. They make it easier to perform a common task, or to deal with various emotional states.[3]
    • A “habit loop” forms from a cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to start the habitual behavior. The brain processes a “reward” from this behavior, in the form of neurochemicals, that reinforces the habit loop.[4] Interrupting the behavior part of this loop is how to break a habit.[5]
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    Examine the context of your habit. To determine the most effective way to break a habit, it will be helpful to determine the situational and emotional context that triggers the habit.[6] This can help you understand what “rewards” your brain is looking for.[7] Having this understanding will allow you to develop other, healthier means of achieving the same rewards that the bad habit provided.[8]
    • Many bad habits come about as a means of dealing with situations that cause stress or boredom.[9]
    • For example, for many people smoking provides a relief from stress. Procrastination temporarily provides free time to engage in more fun activities.[10]
    • When you feel the urge to perform your habitual behavior, make a note of it. Often, habits have become so ingrained that we don’t even notice why we do them. Developing that awareness will help you pinpoint what is going on to prompt your habit.[11]
    • When you make your note, jot down what was going on at the time. For example, if you’re a nail-biter, note whenever you feel the impulse to bite your nails. Take a few notes about how you’re feeling, what has been going on during the day, where you are, and what you were thinking.
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    Make a plan. Once you understand the situation that triggers your habit and the reward you receive for engaging in the undesirable behavior, you can make a plan that involves goals for behavior change and strategies for minimizing habit triggers.[12]
    • Studies show that having a clear, specific plan greatly increases your chances of success in breaking habit. It helps break down unwanted behaviors and also helps create new patterns of action.[13]
    • Plan to make mistakes. Do not make a plan that will be deemed a failure as a result of a single slip-up. Most people give in to the temptation of old habits at some point while trying to break them. If you accept this in advance, you will be less likely to let negative thinking defeat the whole enterprise of breaking the habit.[14]
    • You should include in your plan mechanisms for keeping yourself accountable, in the form of rewards for successes and feedback from others who support your goal of breaking the habit. You are more likely to succeed in your goal if you share it with others. More details on this are provided later in this article.
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    Visualize success. In your mind, repeatedly practice breaking the habit by imagining scenarios in which you engage in desired behaviors rather than the bad habit.[15] Imagine situations in which you would be tempted to engage in the undesired behavior and choose a better option. This helps reinforce positive behavior patterns.
    • For example, if your goal is to eat less junk food, imagining yourself in your kitchen preparing a healthy meal, and sitting down to eat it.[16]
    • Some people find it helpful to write down "scripts" of their desired behavior and read them every day.[17]
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    Practice mindfulness. Increasing your mindfulness in daily life can help you become aware of your actions, rather than functioning on “autopilot.” Mindfulness focuses on being aware of what you are experiencing in the moment, and experiencing it without avoidance or judgment. With practice, mindfulness can become a healthy habit that can counteract the bad habits you want to avoid.[18][19]
    • Mindfulness trains your brain to respond to situations differently. It can actually “reprogram” the way you respond to situations and stressors.[20] It can help give you time before you react to something, and decrease your tendency toward “automatic thoughts,” which arises in response to a situation.[21]
    • Be conscious of when you are tempted to give in to bad habits. What are the situations that lead to the undesired behavior? What are the sensations in your body or thoughts in your mind that promote the undesired behavior? Understanding them without judging yourself will help you resist the behavior.[22][23]
    • Don't suppress thoughts about the habit. If you try not think about something, ironically, you will start to see it everywhere and become overwhelmed.[24]
    • Trying not to think about smoking, for example, could result in you becoming hypersensitive to anything that reminds you of smoking. You are much better off to recognize your craving and the situations that promote it, and deal with these issues head-on.
    • Try mindfulness meditation. Taking a few minutes every day to become quiet and focus on your breathing will help you develop awareness of your body and your thoughts.
    • Yoga and Tai Chi also encourage meditation, and they’re good for your health.
    • Note when you feel the urge to perform your habit, but don’t judge those thoughts. You could try saying something like, “I’m feeling the urge to smoke right now” or “I really want to bite my fingernails at the moment.” Acknowledging your feelings will help you move past them without getting stuck on the thoughts.

Part 2
Changing your Behavior

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    Change your environment. Research suggests that sometimes our environments can cue us to perform certain behaviors, even if we're actively trying to stop.[25] Breaking a habit, then, is partially a matter of reducing situational triggers until you can develop new ways of dealing with them.[26]
    • Novel situations promote more use of the parts of your brain that are geared toward consciously making decisions, rather than slipping into automatic behavior patterns.[27]
    • A good way to avoid bad habits is to find a way to change your scenery and see if your bad habit becomes less tempting. For instance, if you like to smoke out on your patio, remove the chair you sit in and replace it with a plant. If you tend to overeat at the same location at the dining room table, move to a different seat or rearrange your furniture such that you're facing a different direction than usual when you eat. Subtle changes to the environment can make a habit less rote and force your mind to reassess what's happening.[28]
    • Forge relationships with people who support your desired behavior. You don't need to ditch your old friends entirely, but finding some new ones who live the way you want to can help minimize triggers.[29]
    • Go on vacation, if you can. One of the most effective ways to break old habits is put yourself in a completely new situation for a while, and develop new, healthier habits that you can then transplant into your normal life when you return.[30]
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    Create barriers to the habit. If you can create obstacles that make the habit more difficult or unpleasant to engage in than some other course of action, this can help you break the routines that have reinforced this habit in the past.[31] Here are a few suggestions:
    • Tell supportive people about your plan to break your habit, and invite them to call you out on your slip-ups. This will create consequences for succumbing to temptation.[32]
    • Or, even better, find someone else who wants to break the same habit as you, and quit together, keeping each other accountable.[33]
    • Anything you can do to break up the sequence of events that normally leads to the undesirable behavior is also a good idea. For example, if you are trying to stop smoking, keep your cigarettes in another room. If you are trying to stop logging on to Facebook during working hours, disconnect the internet or use one of the available apps that blocks access to sites like this.[34] Even though these obstacles can be easily overcome, they are sometimes enough to break up the behavior pattern that leads to the unwanted behavior.[35]
    • Create small "punishments" for lapses. For example, you can use the same rationale behind a swear jar: every time you slip back into the habit, put a dollar (or more) in a can or jar. Set an amount that you'll hate to cough up whenever you give into the urge, and stick to it. When you've successfully kicked the habit, spend the money on a reward or donate it to a charitable cause.
    • Or, if you are trying to stop overeating, add 10 minutes to your workout every time you overeat. A punishment related to the behavior will probably be most effective.[36]
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    Start small. Some habits, such as procrastinating, can be difficult to change because the solution seems so daunting. “Stop procrastinating” can seem such a big task that you wouldn’t be able to do it. Try splitting up your goals into small, achievable steps. You will get the “reward” of seeing success sooner, and your brain is less likely to resist your ultimate goal as “too big” to accomplish. Instead of saying “I’ll stop eating junk food,” say, “I’ll eat a healthy breakfast.” Instead of saying “I’ll go to the gym more often,” say, “I’ll go to yoga on Saturday mornings.” As you find success in those small steps, increase them to meet your ultimate goal.[37]
    • For example, instead of saying “I’ll stop procrastinating today,” set yourself a goal of “I will stay focused on my work for 30 minutes today.”
    • The highly popular “Pomodoro method” can help you. Use a timer and set yourself a block of time in which you will focus on your work without doing anything else. Make this block short, no longer than 45 minutes. It can be as short as 20. The goal is to set yourself a task that’s reasonable and achievable.[38]
    • After you’ve finished that block, take a little break! Do something fun, surf Facebook, check your texts. Then, set yourself another block.
    • This type of technique can “trick” your brain into setting new, good habits because you see immediate success (something your brain likes).
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    Reward your successes. Because habits are created when a behavior is rewarded in some way, a great way to create new habits is to reward yourself for good behavior.[39]
    • The most successful reward will be one that comes immediately after the desired behavior, and which is something you genuinely want or enjoy.
    • For example, if you are trying to break the habit of being late for work, you could reward yourself with a cup of gourmet coffee each day you arrive on time, until the reward is no longer needed.[40]
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    Find a placeholder. Try to replace your habit with something new and positive in your life. The key is to have a plan for an alternative action to take when tempted to engage in a bad habit. [41]
    • For instance, if you're trying to stop smoking, eat a sucker, do breathing exercises, or walk around the block when you would usually light up. Filling the void left by your old habit with another activity will help you avoid backsliding.
    • Try to make sure the alternative action isn't boring or unappealing. If you can make your new habit something you actually want to do, something you enjoy, or something that results in some obvious (and ideally immediate) positive outcome, it will be easier to make the switch.[42]
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    Be patient. Behavioral conditioning is a long process, and breaking a habit takes time, so you have to stick with it. Be patient and kind with yourself.
    • Conventional wisdom and self-help books have suggested that it takes 28 days to break a habit. The reality is more complicated, as recent studies have suggested that how long the process takes depends on both the individual and the habit, and can range from as few as 18 days or as many as 245.[43]
    • Even though this process varies between individuals, it is probably safe to say that the first few days will be the hardest. Some neuroscientists suggest people go through a "withdrawal" period during the first two weeks, as our nervous systems struggle to deal a a change in the chemicals triggering the "reward" centers of our brains.[44]
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    Stay kind to yourself. Telling yourself you can't do something is a bad cognitive habit that will reinforce your belief that you can’t. Remember: being harsh on yourself for having a hard time or lapsing isn’t helpful to you, and it can make bad habits worse.[45]
    • If you notice that you’re criticizing yourself, remember that things that seem contradictory can coexist. For example, imagine that you want to break the habit of eating junk food, but you “gave in” and had a bag of chips with lunch. It could be easy to beat yourself up for this. However, being kind to yourself acknowledges your lapse and recognizes that this isn’t failure. You don’t have to continue giving in because you gave in once.
    • Try adding and to your statements and creating positive plans for the next time you face a challenge. For example: “I had that bag of chips with lunch. I’m upset with myself for that, and I can help myself by packing snacks to take to work so the vending machines don’t tempt me.”
    • You can also add the word "but" and follow it up with a positive statement, e.g. "I totally screwed up, BUT everybody makes mistakes sometimes."[46]


  • When the going gets rough, think about what will happen in the future when you have finally overcome your bad habit.
  • Take on one habit at a time, two at most. Any more than that, and you'll feel overwhelmed.
  • Some people find gradual reduction of habitual behavior to be easier, others find it easier to quit "cold turkey," stopping entirely all at once. Figure out what works for you, even if it means you have to make a couple of attempts.[47]
  • If you bite your nails, paint them. It just looks too pretty to bite and it tastes horrible.


  • Consult a mental health professional (psychologist, psychiatrist, or a counselor) if you find that you can't control the habit, especially if it's a dangerous one.
  • Substance abuse, eating disorders, self-mutilation and other self-destructive patterns could be signs of addictions or mental disorders. Seek professional help to combat them.

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