Breaking up with your bad habits


By Caitlin Bethell, Head of Psychology


We all have habits that we are not exactly proud of – whether that is smoking, not exercising, nail-biting – and these can translate into our working lives – leaving work until just before the deadline, skipping lunch or eating at your desk, or not communicating enough.  They can cause us harm, both mentally and physically resulting in stress and worry which stops us from being our most productive.  But how do we stop them? How do we break up with our bad habits?

Before we think about that, it would be useful to understand more about habits and how we form them.

A habit is a behaviour that has been repeated enough times for it to become automatic and unconscious – they are the things we do day-to-day without even thinking about them.  Habits are often formed without people intending to acquire them.  They are formed to help us navigate the world.  We have them because they cause us to be more efficient and to perform useful behaviours without wasting time and energy by trying to decide what to do in a situation.  However, they do become deeply ingrained into us which then makes those ‘bad’ habits difficult to break.

Habits are built through learning and repetition – when we are working towards a goal, we often begin to associate certain cues with behavioural responses that help meet the goal.  For example, if we were planning to run a long-distance race we would build exercise habits into our routine, or if we have an exam coming up, we would revise every day.  In Charles Duhigg’s book “The Power of Habit”, he explores the science behind why we do what we do with a psychological pattern called “habit formation”.

Habit formation is a three-part process:

  1. A cue, or trigger, that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behaviour unfold.
  2. The routine, that is the behaviour itself.
  3. The reward, that is something that your brain likes which will help it remember the “habit loop” in the future.


An example of this that you might find you fall into is the following:

  1. A trigger – feeling stressed at work.
  2. A behaviour – browsing the internet and procrastinating.
  3. The reward – feeling satisfied.


Every time we reinforce a behaviour with a reward, the more likely we are to repeat the behaviour.  We want to do more of the things that make us feel good and less of the things that feel bad, or stressful.  This is why we end up in a cycle of bad habits – we are striving to avoid stress and boredom.


So, what can we do to break up with our bad habits?

  1. Identify your triggers. If you recall, these are the first steps in developing our habits and by identifying them we can start to move past them.  You might want to spend some time thinking about your habits and if they follow any patterns e.g. when or where does the behaviour happen, how do you feel when it happens, what are you doing when it happens?  Do your best to cut out those triggers or to avoid them, change your environment.


  1. Enlist the support of a friend or colleague. It is often easier to break a habit when you have someone holding you to account and vice versa, as you have someone who is facing breaking that habit alongside you.  Cheer each other on when you do well and encourage each other when you feel challenged.  You can gently remind each other of the reason for working towards breaking your habit to make sure you don’t slip.


  1. Replace your bad habit with a good one. People often find it easier to replace their unwanted behaviour with a new one.  If we take our example from above where feeling stressed at work leads to browsing the internet, we probably will end up feeling more stressed eventually because we are avoiding doing the work.  However, we can replace the behaviour of browsing the internet with something more productive, such as speaking to a colleague or going for a walk, which would help reduce the stress levels.  As you repeat new behaviours, the impulse to follow a new routine will develop.


  1. Prepare to slipup from time to time. There is nothing more challenging than trying to break an old habit.  It can be very easy to slip back into old patterns when our new ones haven’t been solidified.  If you mentally prepare for your slipups, you will be less likely to feel guilty or discouraged when you do.  However, don’t let the slipup drag you back into the old habit.  Learn from it and what led you to that setback and if there is anything that you need to change about your approach.


  1. Give it time. Change never happens overnight, it needs hard work and perseverance for it to stick and this is the same with habits.  We reckon it takes around 66 days for a habit to form, and the same can be said for breaking a habit too.  If you have had the habit for a long time, it may take longer as you need to break your habit loop.  But don’t let this dishearten you – stick with it and you can do it!


Which bad habit will you try to break up with first?




Photo by Canva

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Here’s your next read: an article on whether you should be focusing on building new habits or breaking old ones.

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