Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

Updated on July 7, 2023

Have you encountered the desire to break a habit? You can think of a habit that has formed in your life, good or bad, and the origin of that habit. According to a 2018 study, a habit can be described as an overlearned process that generates automatic responses to contextual cues and is reinforced by repetition. I’ve outlined a few steps to unlearn or change a bad habit into a good one, but you will need perseverance, patience, and commitment. Breaking bad habits can be challenging but achievable with the right approach and determination. 

Recognize and understand the habit

The first step is acknowledging and identifying the bad habit you want to break. The most important part is understanding the triggers, consequences, and patterns associated with the habit. This self-awareness is crucial for making a change. Do you recognize the triggers that occur right before acting on the bad habit? Triggers are defined as a stimulus that elicits a reaction. Write down the feelings that occur within when you feel triggered, so you can understand the subconscious thoughts before leading up to actioning on a bad habit. You can develop strategies to avoid or manage these triggers by recognizing them. For example, if you eat unhealthy snacks when stressed, find alternative ways to cope with stress, like walking or practicing deep breathing exercises.

Set clear goals

Establish why you want to break the habit. Having a clear and compelling reason that means something personal will motivate you to stay committed throughout the process. Write down your goal on paper with a pen in a journal or notebook. One study proved that writing information down with a pen and paper helps our recall become stronger so that we can remember more clearly. Write down your goal(s) in a positive light, such as “I want to feel healthier.” 

Replace the habit

Instead of eliminating a habit completely and immediately, focus on replacing it with a more positive and healthy alternative. For example, if you want to quit smoking, you can replace it with exercise, chewing gum, or engaging in a hobby to distract yourself. Another great way to replace a bad habit is to participate in some form of breathwork. A 2022 study showed that breathwork reduces negative affect, symptom reduction for anxiety, and a reduction in rigidity. If you’re feeling triggered, I suggest participating in breathwork. Some apps, such as Open, guide you through short (10-minute) breathwork sessions. You have to listen and participate to feel these positive benefits. 

Break it down

A series of small actions often form habits. Break down your habit into smaller, manageable steps. For example, if you want to reduce your screen time, start by setting specific time limits for each day and gradually decrease it over time. This decreasing method can go for any habit you want to break. Again, writing these smaller goals down is helpful so they can be tracked and actioned on with focus. 

Practice self-discipline and patience

Breaking a bad habit requires self-discipline and willpower. Find strategies that work for you, such as setting reminders, creating a habit tracker, or implementing a reward system for each milestone achieved. It takes strength to make a change, so be proud of yourself for trying. Having patience with yourself is also crucial. Breaking a habit takes time and effort. Understand that setbacks may happen, but don’t let them discourage you. Stay persistent and committed to your goals, and remember that each day is a new opportunity to make progress. You got this! 

If you are struggling to break a bad habit, contact our office to book an appointment with one of our therapists. We can find solutions and set small goals to break your habits for good. 

By: Lindsey Schmid, LPC-A


Vanessa Allom, Barbara Mullan, Evelyn Smith, Phillipa Hay, & Jayanthi Raman. (2018). Breaking bad habits by improving executive function in individuals with obesity. BMC Public Health, 18(1), 1–8. 

Farizo, F. L. (2022). The Perceived Impact of Holotropic Breathwork: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis. The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 41(1), 51–74. 

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