How to Break Bad Habits Successfully: 7 Strategies

Have you been searching online for tips on “how to break bad habits”? Look no further: We have 7 steps that are proven to be successful.

how to break bad habits

Wondering how to break bad habits, whether they involve junk food, smoking, lack of exercise, or any number of other examples? Be methodical: Start with just one, as our author advises.

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The question shouldn’t be: “How to break bad habits?” Rather, think of it this way: “How to break bad habits successfully.” There are literally thousands of website pages that provide information on breaking bad habits. All you may need, though, are the seven steps below.

So, go ahead and get started. Before you know it, you’ll be free of that bad habit.

#1. How to break habits? For starters, choose just one.

The reason New Year’s resolutions often fail is that people bite off more than they can chew—that is, they resolve to eat healthy and exercise, not realizing that they’re actually trying to break five or more habits at once instead of focusing on only one bad habit at a time.


  • Smoking
  • Being a couch potato (too much TV)
  • Spending too much time on social media or your cell phone
  • Heavy alcohol drinking
  • Eating unhealthy snacks late at night or binge eating
  • Eating ________ (fill in the blank—sodas, chips, sweets, fast foods…)
  • Skipping breakfast
  • Overspending your way into debt
  • Being stressed, worried, or anxious all the time
  • Overusing medications
  • Biting your fingernails
  • Cursing
  • Drinking too much caffeine
  • Gossiping
  • Getting too much (or not enough) sleep
  • Tardiness/being late to appointments
  • Playing video games too much

For example, “eating healthy” is a multi-faceted goal. It can mean any or all of the following strategies:

  1. Stop unhealthy snacking throughout the day
  2. Eat more nutritious fruits and vegetables
  3. Avoid sodas
  4. Cut out sweets
  5. Stop fast-food binges
  6. Limit intake of fried, fatty foods
  7. Avoid emotional eating

When you throw in a new exercise routine three times per week, you’re now up to 10 new habits you’re trying to conquer. That’s incredibly overwhelming to do all at once.

Instead, choose one bad habit to break at a time. Once you’ve mastered the first bad habit, move on to another one.

In the sidebar here, you’ll see a list of 17 common bad habits. Select one from the list (or choose your own), and then follow steps 2 through 7.

how to break bad habits

How to break bad habits? Pick a start date and stick to it.

#2. Select a date to start breaking the bad habit.

Set a date and mark it on your calendar—one or two weeks from now?—and then stick to your date. Write a note or send yourself an e-mail that reads:

On _______ (start date), I will stop ____________ (the bad habit).

#3. Follow the 21/90 rule.

The 21/90 rule will be invaluable to you for breaking a bad habit. This refers to the fact that research shows it takes 21 days to create a new habit, and 90 days to create a lifestyle. After you have selected your one bad habit (above), try to break the habit for 21 consecutive days, and continue until you reach 90 days. Edit your note or email to read:
On _______ (start date), I will stop ____________ (the bad habit) until ________ (day 21 date). By _________ (day 90 date), I will be free!

Read and re-read your note because the first 21 days will be very difficult. But, the next 22 to 90 days will get easier. After three months, you will have conquered the bad habit. It will be hard, but force yourself to do it and you will succeed!

how to break bad habits

Tip for success when learning how to break bad habits: Replace a bad one (e.g., fast-food fare) with a good one (a healthy choice).

#4. Replace the bad habit with a good habit.

When it comes to learning how to break bad habits, think in terms of swapping—as in, a good one for a bad one. This will work only if you personalize your “good” habit.

For example, if you want to stop eating so many sweet foods, replace the sweets (cake, ice creams, cookies) with fruit. But, choose fruits that you actually like to eat. Don’t say, “I’m going to eat oranges when I’m craving a chocolate bar” if you don’t like the taste of oranges. Perhaps you really love the taste of strawberries or grapes instead. Make sure you select a few alternatives (e.g., several varieties of tasty fruits) so you don’t get bored eating or repeating the same thing over and over again.

Below is a list of good habits from which you can choose to replace the bad habits.

SmokingChewing gum
Being a couch potato (watching too much TV)Exercising (walking, or at least exercising during commercial breaks)
Spending too much time on social media or your cell phoneTaking up a hobby or craft
Heavy alcohol drinkingDrink water or fresh juices
Eating unhealthy snacks late at night or binge- eatingEating healthy snacks instead (e.g., almond butter with celery, fruit, pistachios.)
Eating ________ (you fill in the blank—sodas, chips, sweets, fried foods, fast foods, etc.)Replace sweets with fruits, sodas with sparkling water, chips with nuts, etc.
Skipping breakfastHave a protein shake or breakfast bar each morning
Overspending your way into debtCreate a budget and reward yourself with a small item for sticking to it
Being stressed, worried, or anxious all the timeFind a one or two friends to talk to about your anxiety, or join a group or church
Overusing medicationsReplace with vitamins or supplements
Biting your fingernailsChewing gum or sunflower seeds
CursingFind a less offensive word to replace your “bad” words
Drinking too much caffeineDrink decaffeinated coffees or teas
GossipingSay positive affirmations about others; look for strengths instead of weaknesses
Sleeping too much or not getting enough sleepTry melatonin and set a routine schedule for falling asleep and waking up
Tardiness/being late to appointmentsPlan to leave 10 to 15 minutes earlier to all appointments or set all of your clocks forward 10 minutes
Playing video games too muchParticipate in a competitive sport


Now, edit your note or email to read:
On _______ (start date), I will stop ____________ (the bad habit) and replace it with ____________ (the good habit) until ________ (day 21 date). By _________ (day 90 date), I will be free!

Here’s an example:
On Aug. 1, I will stop spending too much time on social media and replace it with painting, reading, and walking until Aug. 21st. By Oct. 29th, I will be free!

#5. Make sure the good habits are readily available and cut out as many triggers as possible.

how to break bad habits

How to break bad habits? Think also in terms of good habits to replace them.

If you’ve set a start date of one week from today, make sure that you purchase whatever you need by the start date. In the example of substituting fruits for sweets, make sure you buy plenty of oranges and grapes before your start date begins. And, make sure your house and office (or desk) is cleared of candy bars or other sweets so you’re not enticed by these bad habit triggers.

#6. Don’t give up if you fail.

If you don’t make it to 21 days, it’s okay! At least you’re trying. Simply set another date and give it another go. If you restart, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure; it means you’re human. Whatever you do, don’t give up.

#7. Surround yourself with people who will support you.

Habits are contagious. If you want to break a bad habit, you need to associate with people who are trying to break the same bad habit or who have already successfully broken the habit. Smokers, for example, are more likely to quit when they’re hanging out with other people who are trying to quit. On the other hand, to develop good habits, you need to surround yourself with people who share those habits (people who exercise, for example).

Also, make sure that you have one or two people who can be your “go-to” for accountability. It’s much easier to break a bad habit when you have someone cheering you on and encouraging you. Plus, you’ll have someone to celebrate with you when you reach that joyous 90-day mark!

So, there you have it: how to break bad habits successfully in seven steps. Now, get going and tackle that bad habit! After you’ve accomplished your goal, please tell us about it in the Comments section below. We would love to hear about your success. And, you will be encouraging others who are trying to break a bad habit, too.

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Jami Cooley, RN, CNWC

Jami Cooley is a Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant as well as a Registered Nurse, but her interest in integrative medicine grew out of her experience in conventional medicine. Cooley … Read More

View all posts by Jami Cooley, RN, CNWC

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