How to (Finally) Break That Bad Habit

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, adds that looking at data can be a good starting point. “For fitness habits, it could be things like your Apple Watch or Whoop band or MyFitnessPal. There are many different ways to get data,” he says. “It also can be true for habits that maybe you wouldn’t think about tracking.” For example, looking at your calendar for the past year to determine whether you spent enough time at home with your family, or whether you were traveling for work too much. “If you’re so busy that you never give yourself time to think about what you’re doing … it’s really hard to improve, because you’re just busy repeating the same thing again and again. You don’t have a chance to look at the bigger picture.”

Picking Your Habit, Digging Deeper, and Creating a Plan

Once you’ve done your review of the habits you’d like to break, you should pick one of them to start with.

“I look at a number of the challenges a patient is facing and then ask myself, ‘Which one is in the driver’s seat?’” says Mendelsohn. “Meaning if I tackle one of these problems, are the rest of them likely to get better?”

The next step is to decide how you’re going to go about breaking the habit you’ve chosen, based on your history with it and the context or cues that lead to you performing the behavior. Here are a few examples:

Spending Too Much Money

Say you spend too much money and this is the habit you would like to stop. You’ve determined that you started overspending when you added your credit cards to your Apple Wallet or PayPal. This then made it extremely easy to buy things when you saw an ad on social media or a friend sent a link to something they thought you would like. “You want spending money to be as difficult and thoughtful as possible,” Wood says. “Putting all your credit cards on your phone that you carry everywhere is counterproductive—you are further automating the process of spending money.” To fix this, you decide to remove your cards from all online payment services so each time you want to buy something, you have to physically go and pull out the card, which then gives you a bit more time to think about the purchase itself. You could also ask friends not to send you products and unsubscribe from any product marketing emails.

Checking Your Phone All The Time

If you’re trying to check your phone less often, David Kadavy, author of Mind Management, Not Time Management, suggests locking it in a lockbox for part of the day. “Make it as hard as possible to actually perform the habit,” he says. While you’re still going to get the cue to check your phone, the effort of going to the lockbox and unlocking it can help block the behavior from triggering. Or, say you’re trying to check social media less often: “Just delete the social media apps from your phone,” says Kadavy. “Block them with the parental controls or, at the very least, don’t have them on your home screen.”

Eating Unhealthily

Clear has a great example of a negative eating habit from his own life. In the house he used to live in, there was a McDonald’s right after the highway exit on his way home. He found himself stopping there multiple times a week. “I looked at myself after the last one, and I was like, ‘Am I going to do this every time I drive home? Am I just going to stop here and eat here every single time?’” he says. “Ultimately, what I decided to do was to start taking a different path home. If I went left off of the exit instead of right, it would take an extra three minutes, but I wouldn’t pass the McDonald’s. I changed the environment so that I wouldn’t be exposed to the cue. That added enough friction and enough separation that the habit would change.”


“A lot of people tend to procrastinate, then rely on anxiety and fear to motivate them to get tasks done,” says Mendelsohn. “This can be effective at getting things done, but at the cost of causing unnecessary stress. Breaking tasks down into smaller ones can be a harder strategy to implement at first, but more sustainable in the long run.” To help you get started, Mendelsohn suggests writing these tasks down using a pen and paper, as it can be “really helpful for people to keep their organizational strategies separate from the digital tools we use all day.”

Sometimes, substituting a negative behavior for a more desirable one can work at blocking it—but, Wood says you have to know what the cue is, and the alternative behavior has to be both easy and rewarding. Say you’ve decided to drink a glass of water whenever you have the urge to look at your phone, instead of locking it away somewhere or putting it facedown next to you. “For most people, drinking a glass of water isn’t going to be as interesting as looking at their phones, so I don’t know if that’s going to work particularly well,” says Wood.

If your chosen way to try and break your habit isn’t working, maybe it’s time to try something else. Another thing to keep in mind is that “for some specific behaviors, like quitting smoking, multiple attempts is actually a good thing,” Wood says. “Because most people who ultimately quit have to keep trying until they figure out the right thing that will work for them.”

So don’t get discouraged if it’s taking a while to break your habit. Sometimes you just need to approach it a different way or dig deeper into the context or cues that lead you to perform it in the first place.

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