How to Break Bad Habits and Crush It Every Day
Breaking bad habits can be a frustrating process that can feel like an exercise in futility.
It doesn’t have to be.
You can transform into a bad-ass habit crusher by attacking each one with scientifically proven strategies and owning your new self each day.
Because of the 20 years I lead my technology company from a small startup team to a 50 person organization, then giving workshops and talks around the world and coaching organizations and individuals on behavior design, I've seen how much people struggle with changing their behavior.
Whether it is trying to adapt to a new process at work or break bad eating habits, without a set of tools to systematically change your behavior, you're more likely to become frustrated and unsuccessful. Compounded over years and even decades, this can lead to missed career opportunities, unhappy relationships and a decreased healthspan.
Becoming a habit crusher isn't a nice-to-have skill. It's essential to thrive.
By working with both your motivation and your ability to do the behavior at the same time, you can crush your habits with systematic consistency.
I’ve spent years learning the science behind habit formation and managing teams to help drive their peak performance. From that experience, I’ve distilled 7 techniques to guide your transformation into a Habit Crusher.
7 Habit Crushing Techniques
1. The Environment
If you can make a single change to your environment that eliminates the opportunity for the bad habit or the thing that triggers it, then you're done.
Want to stop eating ice cream at night? Make a rule not to buy any ice cream for the home.
You can be really effective at eliminating the bad habit if you can create an environment that works in your favor. Increasing the friction to doing the bad habit makes it more difficult, requiring much more motivation.
For example, if you wanted to drink less coffee, you can remove the coffee maker from the counter. It's no longer there to prompt you to make coffee and if you get the craving, your ability to make it can be harder than your motivation to drink it.
If you want to eat less, use smaller plates and serve from the stove rather than family style at the table.
If you have trouble hitting the snooze, you can get an alarm clock that moves around the room to make it harder to sleep in. Want to eat less? Stop following food on Instagram. Your digital world is your environment too, and a powerful one.
By eliminating or significantly reducing your ability to do the bad habit, you've created a major obstacle to your motivation.
2. Build a New Positive Habit
Become the person who doesn't do the bad or unwanted habit
Developing a new habit is planting a seed for the person you are trying to become. It's the change you see in your future self.
That's Melissa, a salesperson at my company, who wanted to break her habit of unproductive browsing so she can make 50 more phone calls a week to help make more sales and go on that dream holiday to Europe.
It's John, who attended one of our workshops, and wanted to break his habit of eating sugary snacks at night to lose a few pounds to look and feel good for his daughter's wedding.
Building new habits that achieve those outcomes is extremely effective at muscling out and pushing aside those bad habits that are the roadblock to you goals.
Utilizing the Tiny Habits® method developed by behavioral scientist and Stanford professor BJ Fogg, I had Melissa and John focus on building small, new habits that were in opposition of the bad habits. Melissa focused on productivity habits to improve her sales efforts, and John focused on healthy eating and exercise habits to feel good for that proud moment of giving his daughter away.
Each time they performed the new habit they increased their belief in their innate ability to achieve those goals. Eventually, your brain would not be able to reconcile the two disparate behaviors. The identity you were working toward would drive out and crush the unwanted habits.
In his New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits, James Clear explains how true behavior change is identity change. Once you identify as that person, you are no longer trying to change your habits. You are acting in alignment with the person you already believe yourself to be.
“'Does this behavior help me become the type of person I wish to be? Does this habit cast a vote for or against my desired identity?' Habits that reinforce your desired identity are usually good," Clear writes. "Habits that conflict with your desired identity are usually bad."
Drive out the bad habits by building new positive habits and increase your belief in achieving your goals. Each Tiny Habit makes a tremendous difference over time. True behavior change is identity change.
Working with the habits that are in your mind
How you engage with your thoughts is a powerful tool to break bad habits. Changing the language you use to identify with doing your bad habit may seem small, but it is wildy powerful.
There's a difference between saying "I can't" do something vs. "I don't" or "I won't." Saying you don't do something arises from your own agency. You have control vs. you can't do something that you are defining as something outside of your control.
"I don't" or "I won't" is building your identity of someone who doesn't do the bad habit.
You can create a self-talk habit (using the Tiny Habits method). For example, when you wake up in the morning, tell yourself, I don't drink soda, and then smile to celebrate that.
The self-talk habit could also focus on your goal. When you open your eyes in the morning, think of that dream vacation where those unproductive browsing habits are getting in the way, and celebrate those thoughts.
As a Division 1 Track & Field collegiate athlete, I was trained on how the conversation you have in your own head is a key differentiator between top performers. In fact, nearly half of my entire off-season coaching was focused on how to build this practice.
The first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was think of being successful at a key competition and the last thing I thought of before going to bed was the same successful event. I often put a message next to my bed to reinforce this thinking.
Repeating this skill made me more resilient and able to excel against more naturally talented competitors. If collegiate coaches invest that much time on this technique, it's definitely something you should build into your daily ritual.
However, it doesn't work to try and not think about the bad habit and believe it will go away. You have the false idea that you can overcome it with willpower. Like a muscle, willpower gets tired over time.
“What you resist not only persists but will grow in size,” Carl Jung famously said.
Research shows that "thought suppression has counterproductive effects on behaviors." It pretty much guarantees your ability to eliminate bad habits will fail.
Reinforce your positive identity with words and thoughts by building a self-talk habit. Compliment all habit crushing techniques with positive self-talk to help develop your future self identity.
4. Swap or Replace
Switch Out Your Bad Habit with a New You Habit
When the cue that triggers your bad habit occurs, you replace it with a positive behavior that connects with your new, growing identity.
For example, if you're trying to eliminate soda from your diet, you can respond to the waiter when he asks what you want to drink (the habit cue or prompt), with a replacement, I want to order tea. Another swapping example would be taking a drink of water, instead of going back to sleep after hitting snooze.
I really liked what Sara did to stop biting her nails after going through my workshop. She bought two of those worry stones, those smooth stones with a groove for rubbing. She stuck them in her pockets in the morning and each time she felt the feelings she perceived as worrying, she rubbed the worry stones. A month later she said her nail biting began to disappear.
Emotions like worrying are the origin of all habits. “Emotions create habits,” is one of Fogg’s key learnings from his Tiny Habits method. You can use that insight to build positive habits. It's helpful to conjure up some cheer each time you perform a positive behavior after the cue or prompt that originally triggered your bad habit. That cheer could be as simple as a smile or congratulations thought to yourself, or as exciting as a full on boogy dance. The idea is to release some feel good dopamine in your brain. It's the neurochemical that instructs your brain to crave that behavior again.
Use the cues that trigger your bad habits to swap in new positive habits and celebrate that success.
5. Reduce Behavior
Put Yourself on the Path to Your New Identity
You might not be ready to fully give up your bad habit, but you know you want to reduce it.
For example, like me, you might not be ready or want to give up drinking wine, but you can decide to only drink it on the weekends.
Often we have an all or nothing attitude toward breaking bad habits. It's what leads to those "What The Hell" moments where you give up completely on any attempt at breaking the bad habit. You have the thought of why not? "I failed anyway."
Instead, you really need to cheer yourself for getting back on track and looking at why you didn't do more of the bad habit. That’s a key learning toward breaking your bad habit.
Turn that moment when you are beating yourself up for doing the bad habit or forgetting to do the new positive habit into a celebration.
Instead, at that moment of realization, you can visualize yourself doing the good habit and cheer for that. You might not be getting the full benefits of the good habit, but you're still building the habit forming brain pathway by visualizing doing it.
Even if it's a different solution, you need to have planned for how you'll respond to doing the bad habit again.
“The biggest oversight in the current models of behavior change is not designing a plan for how to recover from a relapse,” Kyra Bobinet wrote in her book Well Designed Life: 10 Lessons in Brain Science & Design Thinking for a Mindful, Healthy, Purposeful Life.
Reducing the behavior is still building your new identity, just a bit slower or at a more varied pace. Plan and practice for how you will respond to get back on track when you repeat the bad habit.
If all else has failed, you could look at aversion techniques. If you can make your bad habit so unsatisfying that there is no longer any dopamine driven craving, you can eliminate the bad habit.
For example, every time you do the bad behavior, you donate money to an organization you don't like. You want to add an instant cost to the behavior.
One company has taken making a negative association with a behavior to a shocking level. Pavlok is a wrist worn device that allows you to create an instant cost to your behavior by allowing you to give yourself a lightning-quick electric shock after you've done it.
Some bad habits may require a drastic aversion solution, but I would suggest this as a last resort.
The Magic Switch
It's the epiphany moment that immediately causes you to change your identity. My mother had one of those decades ago. She loved her soda, until one day when one of her colleagues in her office pointed out she was on her third Pepsi that morning.
"Oh my God," she said. It was her Ah Ha! moment. She never drank another Pepsi again. At that moment, she immediately changed her identity. Her brain instantaneously switched to an "I don't" drink soda mindset.
You can’t plan for this one, and it’s exciting to know it can happen.
While I've put these habit crushing methods in an order of my recommended priority, it's important to know, not all bad habits are created equal.
It’s worth repeating. Not all bad habits are created equal. Some are more complicated and are wrapped up in a combination of your unique experiences, environment, ongoing interactions with others, and the stories you tell yourself. But they can be broken.
I’ve repeatedly used these techniques to be more productive and show up as a better leader, partner, and friend. I’ve seen the success others have had using them to break unwanted and bad habits. The most important thing to remember as you become a habit crusher is to be kind to yourself.
Whether you’re crushing those bad habits or impressively crushing it each day with the habits of the person you want to come, to be consistently successful, it helps to have an experimenter's mindset. Try out something and know that if it doesn't work, it wasn't a failure. You aren't a failure. The experimenter's mindset says, "That approach gave me new information. How can I apply that to the next experiment."
Then, Practice. Practice. Practice.
Being a habit crusher is about continually strengthening the skill of habit design. It's about being mindful of the cues or prompts that trigger your habits and what emotion you connect with the behaviors. It's about being kind to yourself and cheering on each step of the way.
A habit crusher keeps a positive mental conversation and with each step continually builds your belief in your inherent ability to thrive.
You're ready to attack this, Habit Crusher.
Thank you to Deborah Teplow, Shirley Rivera, and James Stuber, for their feedback and suggestions on this piece.