How to Break Bad Habits

Apr 1, 2019

Each year, people set out to build better habits, aka resolutions, and soon enough those ambitious goals are broken. That's because there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to building or (you guessed it) breaking habits.

Hold up. How do habits even happen?

Depends on who you ask. Here’s the long and short of it….

  • The short way…the idea that it takes 21 days to form a new habit comes from plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. He found that amputee patients took about 21 days to adjust to their bodies post-surgery and wrote about it in his book, ‘Psycho-Cybernetics.’ The book was published in the 1960s, sold millions of copies, and heavily influenced the way we think about habit formation. This theory has been thoroughly disputed. Because, you know, losing a limb isn’t quite the same thing as kicking a nail-biting habit.

  • The long 2009, researchers from the University College London dispelled the popular 21 days notion. They found that it took an average of 66 days for people to hit autopilot on a new behavior. When looking at individual times, they observed anywhere between 18 and 254 days. The study also found that some habits took longer than others to stick. Shocker.

So...there’s no magic number?

Nope. On top of the actual habit, some experts say getting into formation varies based on...

  • Your personality…Gretchen Rubin, of “The Happiness Project” fame, says it boils down to your personality type. In her New York Times bestselling book, “The Four Tendencies,” she writes that there are four different kinds of people: upholders, questioners, obligers, and rebels. Each personality comes with its own motivators and strategies for making and breaking habits.

  • Your brain...Charles Duhigg, journalist and author of “The Power of Habit”, says it’s all about the ‘the habit loop.’ Goes a little something like: cue > routine > reward. When you take a behavior around the loop enough times, it gets hard-coded onto your brain. Here’s one example: you get home from work, head straight for the couch, turn on the TV, and sink in with a bag of chips. In this case, beelining for the couch is the ‘cue,’ binge-watching is the ‘routine,’ and swan-diving into snacks is the ‘reward.’

    Here’s another: you get home from work, lace up your running shoes, hit the gym, and release those endorphins. In this case, tying your shoes is the cue, sweating it out is the routine, and endorphins making you happy is the reward.

Either way, the first step is recognizing your behavior and understanding the pattern so you can shake it up.

Thanks for the book recs. How do I actually break habits?

Here are some common techniques paired with pesky habits...

  • Piggy-backing...not of the money variety. To start flossing, piggyback on what you’re already in the bathroom (and in your mouth) for. Make brushing your teeth the cue for remembering to floss. You’re more likely to stick with it since it’s ‘piggy-backed’ onto a habit you already do successfully.

  • Replacement...TV and snacks go together like the Kardashians and Twitter feuds. Replace the action of mindless snacking with something that keeps you busy in front of the tube – like folding laundry or grooming your pet. Habits are tricky because they’re something we do mindlessly, so replacing them with mindful actions is a popular strategy for kicking them to the curb.

  • Physical tricks...Creating physical barriers can be a helpful hack for getting rid of all kinds of habits, like nail biting. Try keeping your nails short, applying a bitter top coat, or getting acrylic nails at the salon that you can’t break (unless you want to break the bank, too).

Cool. Is there anything I can do to make sure it sticks?

The key is your environment. Building a space – whether it’s your home, your circle of friends, or even your phone – that supports your new intention is key to making everything click.

What do you mean ‘phone’?
There’s an app for everything. Including habits. Here are a few that can help…

  • For if you get easily overwhelmed...Habits are complicated. The Productive app is not. The interface is very user-friendly, so you can get started ASAP.

  • For if you get bored quickly...Habitica is designed to look like a video game that makes keeping track of your habits and goals fun.

  • For if you need to visualize your success...Momentum lets you import data into an Excel doc, so you can track your habits on different screens.

  • For if you’re good under pressure…Sign on the dotted line with stickK. When you sign up, you make a commitment contract with yourself and the app. You can also bet money on yourself and add friends or family to help you keep eyes on your progress. No pressure, but, pressure’s on.

  • For if old habits die hard… mixes traditional habit tracking with the added bonus of a community to keep you motivated, and the option to hire a professional coach to help you stay on track.


Habits are like the human version of Pavlov’s dog. Yes, one of us is a dog in this scenario. But don’t stress. Turns out, there are a ton of ways to teach an old dog new tricks.

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