How to Kick a Bad Habit

Many of you will be looking not to create a new habit, but to break an old, bad habit — smoking, drinking, procrastinating, checking email too often, watching television, driving too fast, eating too many sweets, drinking coffee, etc.

Here’s the secret: replace the bad habit with good ones.

You’ll notice the plural there — in most cases you’ll be creating several new habits to replace one bad habit. And in fact, you might make those several new habits a good part of the six habits you choose.

1. Triggers. What you need to do first is make a list of all the triggers you have for your bad habit. What things trigger the urge to do the bad habit? To answer this, I recommend you do an exercise for a day or two: every time you do the habit, just make a tally mark on a small piece of paper that you carry around with you everywhere. This will help you become more aware of your habit.

Once you’ve done that, take a day or two to write down your triggers each time you do the bad habit. There will be several, or perhaps many.

Example: when I quit smoking, here were some of my triggers (these are from memory – it’s not a complete list): waking up and using the bathroom, drinking coffee, drinking soda, eating, socializing with other smokers, meetings, driving, stress, going out and drinking.

2. Replacement habits. Now that you know your triggers, you need to select positive replacement habits for each trigger. Sometimes one habit can cover two or more triggers, but in many cases you’ll be finding one new habit for each trigger.

As an example, here’s a list of the replacement habits I formed when I quit smoking:

  • waking up and using the bathroom – instead of smoking, I would read.
  • drinking coffee – also read.
  • make a list of all the triggers drinking soda – I drank water instead, as it’s healthier.
  • eating – drinking water, going for a walk.
  • socializing with other smokers – I ended up socializing with smokers less.
  • meetings – type notes and send any necessary emails right after meeting.
  • driving – focus on driving slower and being more present.
  • stress – exercise, deep breathing, walking.
  • going out and drinking – I ended up going out less.

3. All at once, or one at a time. This is a tough question. When I quit smoking, I decided to go cold turkey and quit all at once. It wasn’t easy and took a massive effort.

However, I’ve kicked other bad habits (sweets, procrastination) by changing one trigger at a time, creating one positive habit at a time. I recommend this method, as it’s easier and less likely to fail.

If you do this, focus on one new good habit for one or more triggers. Running to burn off stress, or first thing in the morning, is a good example.

Eventually, you’ll have conquered all your triggers, and the bad habit will be erased.