How to Break Bad Habits (Ideas from Atomic Habits & The Power of Habit)

Have you ever been frustrated to break an old habit?

Willpower doesn’t seem to work.

Lapses seem inevitable.

In this post, you’ll learn why these two problems that you’re encountering are just a little part of the story.

I break this post down into two parts: The first part is for the fundamentals of breaking bad habits, and the second part is for the actionable, proven strategies that work INSTANTLY upon implementation.

Let’s get right into it.

How to Break Bad Habits 101: The 3R’s of Habituation

Before you even break an old, bad habit or create a new one from scratch, it’s important for you to know about how a habit works so you can apply them to your own situation.

Habits are, after all, an action performed consistently that produces increasingly valuable/detrimental results in your life, as I’ve learned from the book, The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy.

How to Break Bad Habits: Compound Effect

According to The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, every habit follows what we call the habit loop: Cue-Habit-Reward.

After a certain condition is met (feeling bored, stressed, etc.) we do certain actions (the habits) that make us feel a little bit better (reward).

James Clear, another habits expert, revised this concept of the Habit Loop by adding another factor that influences our habits, craving, as stated in his book, Atomic Habits.

How to Break Bad Habits: Habit Loop

After consuming a lot of information about habit formation and experimenting with it, I’ve found great success using a simplified approach (still based on the books): the 3R’s of Habituation.

Reframe your Identity

Do you consider yourself as a productive person or a lazy one?

Do you consider yourself a fit person or an unhealthy one?

If you don’t live up to a certain identity that you want, then it might be the reason why you can’t quit a certain habit or even form a good one.

From the book, Atomic Habits by James Clear (the book this guide is mostly based on), this is referred to as an Identity-Based Change.

Photo by James Clear from Medium

Here’s how it works:

Imagine you have a habit of chronic procrastination.

If you have this habit, perhaps most of the things you do “vote” for your identity to become a procrastinator (more on this later).

Or worse, maybe you even get approval for becoming a good procrastinator (yes, there are people who get success even while procrastinating.)

Now, when you think of putting something off again, what response do you think will work better?

“I should do this now, I’m avoiding to procrastinate.” Or “I’m a productive person who doesn’t put off tasks when it can be done now.”

Of course, the latter would.

Having a positive identity to live up to rather than an avoidance-oriented one gives us a sense of purpose; a deeper meaning to why we do things.

Replace your Habit

Before breaking a bad habit, you must realize that it’s easier to replace it rather than avoid it altogether.

More importantly, make sure that the ‘substitute habit’ that will replace the old, habit accomplishes the same rewarding feeling that you gain from that habit.

Here are some examples:

  • Feeling thirsty – instead of soda/soft drinks, drink water (better if carbonated)
  • Feeling hungry – instead of eating junk food, eat healthy, satiating snacks
  • Feeling stressed – instead of scratching your head, breathe deeply to relieve it

You get the point: Habits, whether good or bad, makes us feel good.

This explains why those suffering from drug addiction have a hard time quitting—because habits are so damn powerful.

Even though they know full well that drugs/cigarettes are bad for their body, their reward systems overthrow this logical conclusion.

So, make sure to think of that ‘substitute habit’ that you’ll do before you try to break your bad habits.

Repetition for Habituation

Each and every time you successfully do a habit, you’re casting “votes” for your identity.

If you write every day, you cast a vote for becoming a writer.

If you meditate every day, you cast a vote for becoming a more mindful person.

If you learn new things every day, you cast a vote for becoming a better learner.

Perhaps this is why Affirmations work for people. (haven’t tried it)

My theory is that they eventually change their identity and state of mind to actually make themselves choose better decisions that lead to their goal.

Anyway, enough theory.

Here are actionable steps that you can take to use the 3R’s of Habituation

  1. Determine exactly what identity you’re trying to form
  2. Think of the ‘substitute habit’ to replace the bad habit you’re trying to remove
  3. Get a pen and paper and take note of the next chapter. Seriously.

The next section will teach you precisely how you can achieve the “Repetition” part of your newfound habit—consistently, and easily.

How to Break Bad Habits: The “Exploits”

Since there are 4 factors that highly influence habit formation, we can essentially exploit their properties to our advantage.

Here’s how.

Exploit the Habit Triggers: Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Have you ever felt so anxious about “when will motivation hit me again”?

“Feeling Motivated” is overrated.

It’s just an intermittent, unpredictable feeling that we have that occur after a magical combination of emotions and events become present, and it’s sad to say that despite this unreliability, we still rely on motivation to get us going.

What matters more is Discipline. As Jocko Willink, retired Navy SEAL says, “Motivation makes you go, but Discipline makes you grow.”

In addition to Discipline, research has shown that people who have high self-control operates more by avoiding temptations in the first place than by resisting them.

In other words, people with high self-control encounter less triggers for their bad habits.

Triggers, also called cues, are the ones who activate our craving for the habit (Location, Time, or Objects), and this property is the one we’re exploiting right now. How? By designing our environment.

You want to take every cue for your bad habit out of your sight.

For example, I just recently put a table inside my bedroom (because it’s the only place we have an air-conditioner, and I also wanted to write articles upon waking up).

However, I placed it beside my bed, where I could see the bed.

Every time I take a 5-minute break, it ends up becoming a 30 minute to 1-hour procrastination session just because my bed is always getting on my radar.

When I rotated the table such that I could work with my bed behind me, I noticed myself lying down FAR LESS than when I had my previous setup.

So, here are two action steps that you can take to design your environment:

#1. Determine the cues for your bad habit so you can do something about it.

For example: If you use a smartphone as an alarm clock, then after you wake up, you will immediately see your phone (cue). What you can do is to replace it with an analog alarm clock.

#2. Make your cues effectively Invisible.

We can’t make time or location invisible, but at least we can get the objects that trigger the cues out of our sight.

Lock them away in another room, cover them with something, or totally do a makeover of your room.

Exploit Social Approval: Social Media Does This, So Should You

Dopamine, the “reward” neurotransmitter of the brain, is released not only when we experience pleasure but also when we anticipate it.

In fact, social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are exploiting these reward systems to encourage our minds to spend even more time using their services.

As Tristan Harris says, in the book Digital Minimalism, “It’s a race to the human brain stem (one component of the brain’s reward system).”

Habits, even bad ones, are usually ones that we acquire from three social groups that, whether we like it or not, social media also illusively exposes us to the three rules of habit acquisition:

  • The Rule of the Close – we acquire habits from those we spend the most time with (the way they talk, facial expressions are some)
  • The Rule of the Many – we acquire habits that are seen as normal to our “tribe”
  • The Rule of the Powerful – we acquire habits from people that we see as authoritative or powerful

The human desire for social approval is the one responsible for creating habits that we adopt from the “tribe”—if our habits can get us approval, respect, and/or praise from the “tribe”, we find them attractive to do.

This explains why the “Like” button or the “Tagging” feature of social media gives us a dopamine hit every time we get them.

Because this is the case, here are some specific action steps that you should take:

  • Join Interest Groups that promote good behavior and despise the bad habit. (Subject to ALL 3 Rules)
  • Consume content that highlights the harmful effects of your bad habits. (Rule of the Many and Rule of the Powerful)
  • Influence the people we spend the most time with to do our ‘substitute habit’, too. (Rule of the close) (Tip: Talk in terms of what they want)
  • Find a mentor that came from your position, and got to where you want. (Rule of the Powerful) (This is something that most successful entrepreneurs have. They also adopt some of the habits of the successful people they look up to)

Exploit the Path of Least Resistance: Habit Roadblocks and Habit Highways

Since our willpower is limited, we must expose ourselves less to actually resisting temptations to do our bad habits and more to actually inviting us to do our good habits.

In other words, make our bad habits extremely difficult to do by creating what I call habit roadblocks.

Habit roadblocking is basically a method that prevents you from doing a bad habit mindlessly, for instance:

  • Not buying junk food, so you have to drive towards the grocery to eat one
  • Putting your smartphone in another room while working
  • Throwing away your lighter so you can’t immediately smoke
  • Extreme: Having someone lock your clothes away to force you to finish your work at home

We also want to make our ‘substitute habit’ the easiest thing to do in the world, by using habit highways.

Creating habit highways are just the opposite; just remove the extra steps needed to access that habit, OR create an extremely tiny version of the habit. This goes perfectly with designing a habit-friendly environment.

For example:

  • Get your study materials ready the night before, and then just commit to reading for 5 minutes
  • If you want to read more, get your book outside of the shelf and put it where you can immediately grab it first thing in the morning and read for just 3 pages (Tip: Make it easier to get than your smartphone)
  • If you want to meditate more, (based on personal experience) when you enter the bathroom and enter the shower, take only 20 deep breaths while focusing on your breath.
  • If you want to work out more, then prepare your gym clothes before sleeping, so that the next morning you won’t be able to procrastinate on it.

Establishing a habit only means that you “show up”, not do the entire thing once and never again.

As James Clear, habits expert, says: “You can’t improve what doesn’t exist.”

Establish a habit before you improve it.

Exploit the Reward System: Accountability and Tracking

Since the last part of the habit loop (Reward) is the one that reinforces us to avoid a habit, we definitely have to think of strategies to take advantage of it.

Usually, our bad habits provide INSTANT rewards, while good habits provide DELAYED rewards.

This is precisely why people who practice delayed gratification end up more successful than others who want instant gratification—it’s common sense.

Now, what we want is to create an extremely unsatisfying consequence for our bad habits.

When you have Fitness keystone habits like Strength Training, for example, it’s really easy to create this scenario because the effect of your bad eating habits quickly reflects on your performance.

It’s easier to break a bad habit when you end up feeling worse after doing it.

In fact, that’s how I was able to quit social media—it just doesn’t make sense for my productivity and mental wellness.

If you don’t have one yet, however, you can use these techniques to “hack” your reward system:

  • Have an accountability partner – Have someone that will keep you responsible. You’ll easily find them in interest groups, or even subreddits on, well…Reddit.
  • Hire a coach – if you have the money, then you should hire a coach—a strict one, to help you stick to your good habits and avoid the bad ones, once and for all.
  • Use BeeMinder – here’s a website that makes you spend a certain amount of money whenever you don’t stick to doing something about your goals. I learned this one from Thomas Frank.

BONUS TIP: Habit Tracking

If you want even more satisfaction for creating a new habit, it’s always good to have a habit tracker or a habit journal.

A basic calendar will do the trick.

If you want, however, to buy something just to prove to yourself how dedicated you are in changing your habits, I recommend buying something like James Clear’s Habit Journal.

Aside from the 12 Habit Trackers, it also has a “One Sentence Per Day” journal entry so that it’s extremely easy to form a Journaling Habit.

If you don’t want to buy anything else for your habit tracking, then just a basic notebook will do.

You’ll be perfectly fine with it.

Bottom Line

All that’s left is to take action on your habits!

What habits are you trying to replace? What is your ‘substitute habit’?

Let me know in the comments! If you like my content, make sure to share this to your friends! 😊

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