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Science Says This Is How to Break Any Bad Habit

It’s 3 p.m., and you’re deep in an afternoon energy slump.

You head towards the office kitchen to grab a glass of water where you encounter a box of treats that seems to be calling your name. “Just one,” you swear. But that’s the third time you’ve given into your sweet tooth this week.

As a smart, ambitious person, you know bad habits keep you from reaching your goals. You know you’re capable of self-control. Yet, despite your best efforts, you’ve been unable to change.

Whether it’s mid-day snacking, procrastinating, or skipping workouts, feeling powerless in the face of bad habits can really take a toll on your motivation, even your self-esteem.

What if it’s not a lack of willpower that’s to blame? What if the advice you’ve been given about how to “break” a bad habit is actually wrong?

If you’ve been trying different methods over and over but nothing’s working, it’s time for a new approach that leverages the science of behavior change.

The Psychology of Bad Habits

You can spend hours researching life hacks. However, if you don’t first understand the psychology driving habits, you’ll never see any real success.

When you break it down, habits are comprised of three distinct stages:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

In the mid-day munchies example, the cue is fatigue. This triggers a routine: getting up and heading to the kitchen. The reward? Yummy goodness that gives you a temporary energy boost.

It turns out that the habit loop is incredibly powerful and is something that has been hardwired into our psyches.

It also helps explains exactly why habits are so hard to shake. The truth is, we actually never break bad habits, rather “bad” behaviors are replaced with more positive alternatives.

Putting the Habit Loop to Work

If you’re ready to kick bad habits for good, here are three steps for leveraging the habit loop to finally change your behavior.

Step 1: Identify the stages

First identify the cue, routine, and reward that lead to your habit. Look at the circumstances surrounding the behavior including the time of day, who you’re with, and what emotions you’re feeling.

For example, recognize how after a tough day at work (cue), you come home and plop down on the couch (routine). Flash forward and you’ve finish an entire series on Netflix (reward). The downside is you’ve also squandered free time meant to be used for working on your side business.

Step 2: Explore alternatives

Now that you have a clear breakdown of what’s happening at each stage of your habit loop, brainstorm healthier routines that will produce the results you want.

What alternative behaviors might provide comparable reward to the one you are trying to eliminate? What else would give you a sense of accomplishment, happiness, relaxation — whatever core need your current “bad habit” is satisfying?

Create a list of options. Could you swap out your open-ended Netflix binge for brief meditation or a walk with your partner? Focus on new routines that will help you decompress after a stressful day (the cue) and leave you in a positive frame of mind to get freelance work done (reward).

Step 3: Commit to change and tweak as you go

Now it’s time to experiment with subbing in new routines to get a sense of what works best for you.

Make do-able commitments to test drive new routines and approach them as a series of experiments. Maybe you try a post-work meditation for two weeks and find it’s not for you. After more testing, you may find more vigorous exercise is what helps you get in zone.

Step 4: Anticipate setbacks

Behavior change is hard. No one is immune from the occasional slip-up, so when itĀ happens, don’t beat yourself up or retreat into negative self-talk.

Instead, make your habit loop bulletproof: anticipate and plan for setbacks. If you’re trying to stick to a diet, think through situations that might challenge your healthy eating habits such a fancy business dinners, traveling for work, or high-stress times.

Once you learn how to work within the psychology of habits, rather than against it, chances are you’ll find greater success in beating negative behaviors once and for all.

Science Says This Is How to Break Any Bad Habit

Melody Wilding, LMSW

Melody Wilding, LMSW is a performance coach, licensed social worker, and has a Masters from Columbia. She helps established and rising managers and executives advance in their careers. Her clients work at companies like Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, HP, and Deloitte. She also helps entrepreneurs take bold steps to grow their businesses. Melody has helped over 10,000 smart, self-aware people like you. Her coaching gives you actionable strategies to reach your goals. You get concrete steps to overcome the complex struggles of success. Melody loves arming ambitious people with tools and tactics to boost their confidence. She can teach you skills for assertiveness and influence. Her specialties include better managing your emotions at work. Melody also teaches Human Behavior at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. She writes about psychology and careers for Inc., Forbes, Fast Company, and more. Click here and grab the FREE COURSE to go from insecure to unstoppable confidence 5 DAYS TO FREEDOM FROM SELF-DOUBT..

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APA Reference
Wilding, M. (2018). Science Says This Is How to Break Any Bad Habit. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 16 Aug 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.