By Leo Babauta

This month, we’ve been working on the basic habit skills, but eventually you’ll probably want to tackle more advanced skills. Today we’ll talk about the one that seems to get the most requests: quitting a negative habit.

Most of us have a bad habit we’d like to quit: smoking, addiction to games or TV or Internet distractions, negative thinking, eating junk food, biting nails, criticizing, getting angry at the kids, alcohol/drugs, and so on.

I’d like to point out that there are a couple of types of negative habits here, and in some ways they’re pretty different:

  1. Physical habits like smoking, alcohol, playing video games, which you can easily see when it’s happening.
  2. Thinking habits like negative thinking and anger, which do have physical manifestations (you might yell at someone or have an unhappy look on your face) but which you don’t always realize are happening right when they’re happening.

The thinking habits take more awareness, and so I wouldn’t do those right away. Take on a more visible bad habit first, so you have some experience with it.

Why These Are Advanced Habits

What makes these habits harder than, say, stretching every morning after your coffee is ready?

A few things:

  1. They have multiple triggers. When I quit smoking, for example, I discovered a bunch of triggers, including stress, being tired, driving, drinking coffee, drinking alcohol, being around other smokers, eating. When you have one trigger (coffee’s ready), it’s much easier to remember to do your habit than if you have to be watching for a bunch of triggers throughout the day.
  2. The triggers happen at variable times. For starting a positive habit, I recommend picking a trigger that happens once a day, at around the same time each day. That way it’s much easier to remember to do it. But what if the trigger is stress? You never know when that will happen, so you have to be much more mindful, all day. You’ll likely miss some instances when you’re not paying attention. Some days, it might never occur, other times the stress trigger might occur numerous times. This kind of awareness of variable triggers takes a lot of practice, and tackling a habit like this can be frustrating for people who aren’t good at habits yet.
  3. The urges (and rationalizations) can be very strong. On top of all the requirements of creating a regular habit, you have the added layers of strong urges to do your old habit, and your brain’s rationalizations to give in and do the old habit. These are not easy to be mindful of and overcome.

Finally, I should note that I recommend starting a positive new habit for each trigger. So actually quitting a negative habit is managing multiple habit changes at once. That’s not something to be taken on by beginners.

That said, it’s doable — especially if you prepare yourself.

When to Take On This Advanced Skill

Before we go into the How of quitting negative habits, let’s talk about the When.

I recommend you do at least four simple, positive habit changes as we’ve been doing this month. And they should all be successful habit changes. If you mess up on one or two of them, keep practicing until you get good at the basics.

It’s like trying to build a house when you still don’t know how to hammer nails and saw boards. Get good at the basic skills before going into something more complex.

The Plan of Attack

Because of the complexity of quitting bad habits, you’ll need to do some extra steps in your habit change. Here’s the plan:

  1. First, become aware of your triggers. You can’t change the habit if you don’t know the triggers. So spend 3-5 days carrying around a small notebook or piece of paper and a pencil, and make a tally mark each time you do the habit or get the urge to do it. This builds awareness of the habit as it happens. Also write down triggers when you find them — if you make a tally mark, ask yourself what happened right before you got the urge. After a few days, a list of triggers will emerge, and you’ll have more awareness of them.
  2. List the needs and replacement habits. For each trigger, your habit is meeting a need — if the trigger is stress, then the habit is your way of coping with stress. Other needs might include comfort, pleasure, entertainment, socializing, or coping with hunger, boredom, nervousness, etc. So list the needs that your habit is meeting, and then think of a replacement positive habit for each of those needs. Write all of these in your habit plan.
  3. Have a strong Why. When things get hard, you’ll ask yourself why you’re doing this. You should have an answer, and it should be very powerful. Not something like, “Because it would be nice,” but more like, “Because my life depends on it” or “Because my child’s life depends on it.”
  4. Create a habit plan. Mark a Quit Date on your calendar a week from when you make the plan (after the above two steps). Plan for your triggers, reminders, accountability, and so on.
  5. Be very mindful, & create your new positive habits. When you start implementing the plan, you’ll want not only reminders for each predictable trigger, but physical reminders around where your variable triggers often happen. And you’ll need to be extra aware of your variable triggers, careful to notice them and implement your new positive habit instead. As you can see, this takes a lot of awareness, a lot of practice. You’ll probably miss triggers sometimes, but that’s OK — it’s a learning process. Don’t expect perfection.
  6. Watch your urges, and delay. There will be strong urges to do the old habit, and rationalizations. Be very aware of them, watch the urges arise but don’t act on them right away. Delay for a little while, and watch the urge pass. This is a very important skill.
  7. Have support. When things get hard, have someone you can call on. A support group or partner who you get on the phone when you’re about to crack.
  8. Consider gradual change. When I quit smoking, I did it “cold turkey,” quitting all at once. This was difficult. More recent research supports the idea of gradual reduction, where you wean yourself from the old habit one stage at a time. You’ll want to experiment to see what kind of reduction works for you. One idea is to quit one trigger at a time, creating one new positive replacement habit at a time. I haven’t tried this consciously, though it has happened for me accidentally when it comes to eating junk food — I slowly created better habits for each trigger, without intending to do it that way.

As you can see, this won’t be easy, so expect to put a lot of focus and effort into this change. It is doable, and lots of people have done it. But many more have failed because they took it too lightly, or didn’t understand what was required. Be prepared, and put everything you have into it.