How to Break a Bad Habit

I am as vulnerable to bad habits as anyone. On the weekends, I typically indulge in a drink or two, but a year ago, I developed the habit of drinking every night. It began with me having a drink after an unusually stressful day; then it progressed to an everyday occurrence. What was once a weekend ritual had become a nightly one.

Drinking Habit Loop

At the core of each habit is a neurological loop consisting of four components: a Cue, Craving, Routine, and a Reward. The Cue, in this case, was me arriving home after work, tired and stressed. The Routine was drinking a cold refreshing drink. The Reward was the sense of relaxation I was craving. When you are trying to break a bad habit, it is always a great idea to let supportive friends and family know what you are trying to do. Not only will they provide a layer of accountability and encouragement, often they can help you formulate a plan. We lack objectivity when we are solving the problems we created for ourselves. My wonderful wife asked me why I drank. I told her that it helped me to relax, and I enjoyed the cold refreshing beverage after a long day. She suggested that I substitute the alcoholic beverage for some Topo Chico with a slice of lime. The calorie-free mineral water would give me the sensation I was craving without the empty calories. An additional benefit was waking hydrated instead of slightly dehydrated. Substitution is a very effective way of breaking a bad habit. Typically, the Cue, in this example, me arriving home, isn’t something we can change, but my Routine can be. We cannot eliminate every cue, but we can change how we will react to them. “The Golden Rule of Habit Change: You can’t extinguish a bad habit; you can only change it.”[i] Charles Duhigg

The most effective substitutions are those that provide similar rewards. In this example, the Topo Chico provided the cold refreshing sensation that helped me to unwind after a stressful day. If you don’t have someone to help you solve your problem, think on paper. Jot down the Cue, Routine, Craving, and Reward associated with the bad habit. Then find a new Routine that can scratch the same itch as the bad habit. “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Socrates

Another technique you can use is shaping your environment. In this example, removing alcohol from our home would have eliminated the temptation of drinking. I didn’t choose that option, but I did shape my environment by ensuring I always had lime and a couple of cold bottles of Topo Chico in the refrigerator. Perhaps you want to replace the habit of staying up late watching Netflix with nightly readingYou could shape your environment by programing your router to turn-off each evening and by setting-up an ideal reading area. Ensuring that you always have a great book, adequate lighting, a bookmarker, a highlighter, and your journal to capture your notes in would foster the new habit. You could establish a contextual Cue, for example: after dinner, I will clean-up, and then read for a few minutes. Shrink the commitment to 5-minutes. When it comes to habits, consistency is most important. Start small and build momentum. Most times, you will read more than 5-minutes, but never less

Your net worth to the world is usually determined by what remains after your bad habits are subtracted from your good ones.” Benjamin Franklin

[i] Charles, Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House Trade Paperbacks (January 7, 2014).

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