How to Change Bad Habits

Post written by Leo Babauta.

One of the most common things people want is to replace a bad habit with a good one.

You want to stop smoking and start exercising instead, or stop staying up so late and wake up early instead, or stop eating junk food and eat healthy food instead.

That’s all good, and it’s all possible. It’s also more difficult than most people realize, and when learning habits, I recommend starting with easy ones so you learn how to change habits first. Once you learn how to change habits, you can tackle more difficult habits.

So I recommend that you start with new positive habits rather than changing bad habits. More here: Habits You Shouldn’t Start With.

That said, there are some things you should do to change a bad habit:

  1. Learn your triggers. Often bad habits have multiple triggers. Make a list of all of them. For example, when I quit smoking, I took a few days to make a note of anything that triggered the urge to smoke: stress, eating, meetings, other people smoking, drinking alcohol, waking up, sex, etc. Try to make as complete a list of your triggers as possible.
  2. Have a replacement good habit for each bad habit trigger. So what will you do when you face the trigger of stress? You can’t just not do your old bad habit — it will leave an unfilled need, a hole that you will fill with your old bad habit if you don’t meet the need somehow. So have a good habit to do when you get stressed, or when someone gets angry at you, etc. Make a list of all your triggers, with a new habit for each one (one new, good habit can serve multiple triggers if you like).
  3. Do the new habit each time the trigger happens. This will take a lot of conscious effort — be very aware of when the trigger happens, and very aware of doing the new habit instead of the old automatic one. If you mess up, forgive yourself, but you need to be very conscious of being consistent here, so the new habit will start to become automatic. This is one reason it’s difficult to start with bad habits — if there are multiple triggers that happen randomly throughout the day, it means you need to be conscious of your habit change all day, every day, for weeks or more.
  4. Be aware of your thinking. We justify bad habits with thinking. You have to watch your thoughts and realize when you’re making excuses for doing your old bad habit, or when you start feeling like giving up instead of sticking to your change.

Thinking habits are the hardest of all, because they’re often done unconsciously. I don’t recommend people start with thinking habits, such as negative thinking or anger, because you’re more likely to slip up with something that’s done unconsciously, as opposed to starting a new physical habit like yoga or writing or meditation.

But again, it can definitely be done. I quit smoking, and became a much more positive thinker, though it took a lot of awareness and conscious action.