Breaking Bad Habits,
April 18, 2019

As we head into summer, many of us are taking stock of habits we resolved to change at the start of the year. Perhaps we are trying to eat better, start a new exercise regime, get to bed earlier, or even quit smoking.

Despite our resolve, we have a hard time sticking to the program. In this letter we are going to address what makes us have such a hard time changing our habits, and how we might be able to improve.

Bad habits take a very long time to learn, but in the end, they become almost ingrained. This makes it no surprise that they can also take a lot of hard work and time to unlearn. While pure willpower is certainly important, there is a lot more to changing your behavior than just having good intentions. Below are four main steps you can take to help boost your success:

  1. Come up with a clear goal that you fully intend to complete***
    • By itself, this may partially work in overcoming weak habits, but for moderate or strong habits goals alone cannot do the trick.
  2. Create an if-then plan (If X happens, then I will do Y)***
    • This involves specifying a situation where the habit occurs (X) and a response to help you avoid engaging in the habit (Y).
  3. Monitor your actions and cravings intensely and carefully**
    • A key part of overcoming a habit is to know exactly how we behave or think in specific situations. Understanding our impulses can help us resist them.
  4. Create new desirable habits in the place of undesirable old ones*
    • Remember not to aim too high with the good habits you try to form. If it isn’t feasible for you personally, you may not be able to keep it up.

Which method(s) works best for you may depend on how strong or weak your current bad habit is. The stronger a habit, the more difficult it is to break, and the less likely goal intentions or if-then plans will work.** With habits that are more difficult to overcome, focus on the third and fourth steps. It may even be worth keeping a diary to make sure you are monitoring your behaviors carefully and effectively.

If your 2019 so far is not as healthy as you had hoped, don’t give up! We all have bad habits and it’s important that we forgive ourselves for having natural impulses. Failing once to change an unhealthy behavior does not mean all hope is lost. Try implementing the strategies above and see if you can “unlearn” your bad habit slowly, but successfully.



*Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7, S137-S158. doi:

**Quinn, J. M., Pascoe, A., Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2010). Can’t control yourself? monitor those bad habits. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(4), 499-511. doi:

***Webb, T. L., Sheeran, P., & Luszczynska, A. (2009). Planning to break unwanted habits: Habit strength moderates implementation intention effects on behaviour change. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48(3), 507-523. doi:

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