How do you break bad habits?

Have you ever had a bad habit you wished to break? This could be anything like constantly eating junk food or waking up late. For me, it was spending hours on end watching Youtube and browsing reddit on the couch after dinner. Why is it so hard to break these bad habits? Today, I will dive into Charles Duhigg’s “Power of Habit” into how habits work, how to break bad habits, and how to form new ones.

The Power of Habit – By Charles Duhigg

How Habits Work

Habits are a way for your brain to save energy. There are things you do every day like putting on your shoes or brushing your teeth that you don’t even have to think about. Even complex actions such as driving to work can become a habit. When we first learn to drive, every action was deliberate and our brains are processing our surroundings. After driving for years, everything becomes automatic after we press the gas pedal. 

The Routine Cycle

According to Duhigg, there habits work in a 3-step loop: the cue, routine, and reward. The cue is a trigger that tells your brain to switch into automatic mode. The routine would be your response, which is the habit. Then comes the reward, where you get a dose of dopamine. The better  you feel about the reward, the more likely your brain would want to remember this habit.


For me, the cue was finishing dinner and going to the couch to relax. Once I was there, the routine was to automatically watch Youtube or browse Reddit. Finally, the reward for surfing the internet would be shots of dopamine when I’m entertained by videos or new social media posts. This would be my continuous cycle.


The reason why habits are so hard to break, is because unless we deliberately try to change, our brains go into auto-pilot and the cue, routine, and reward cycle repeats itself over and over again. The more times a habit is executed, the more it becomes ingrained into our brains.


So how can we break habits?


The Golden Rule of Habit Change

Charles Duhigg suggests that the trick to changing a habit is to switch only the routine while keeping the cue and reward. He calls this the Golden Rule of Habit Change

The Golden Rule of Habit Change – Image by Unbox Science from Pixabay

Once you understand how habits work, you can identify what the cue is. The trick to changing a habit is to switch the routine, and keep the cue and reward in tact. For me, the cue heading to the couch after dinner. Was it boredom? Trying to find something to do and relax after a long day?


I found that when switching the routine to something I still enjoy such as heading to a coffee shop or going for a walk breaks the habit. If I want productive nights after work, changing the scenery alleviates the desire to mindlessly browse the internet and focuses my mind to my projects at hand. At the end of the day, I still get the reward of taking a break after dinner but keep track of the time on social media.

Sometimes getting some coffee can change a habit!

Understanding what your cues are is half the battle. Once you can consciously pick up when the brain goes into auto-pilot, you can deliberately combat habits by choosing different routines. It may be junk food, or even coffee addictions. Try to figure out why those are the immediate responses. Is it because you’re bored? Need a small break from work? Change the routine to something else, such as talking to friends, going for a walk, or meditate for a few minutes.


With deliberate practice, you can morph your habits to better ones! 


How to Create New Habits

Habits form due to the elation you feel after receiving the reward. To ingrain new habits into your life, you have to dangle a carrot in front of yourself to induce craving. For example, if you want to go for a run every morning, first you need to have some sort of cue such as putting your exercise clothes and shoes near the door the previous night. Then, after your run, you can treat yourself to a smoothie, mid-day snack, or other treat. 


A big point here is that a treat is not enough to form habits. You have to learn to crave the treat. In this way, once you see your running shoes in the morning, your brain will automatically have a craving for the delicious watermelon smoothie in a few hours.

Write down your habits – Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

So, try it out! Write down a habit you want to form.

  • What is your cue?
  • What is the habit routine you want to form?
  • What will you crave as a reward?


Take Action!

What habits do you want to break right now? Write down the cue, routine, and reward and brainstorm other routines you can substitute next time.


Write down new habits that you want to form. Again, list the cue, routine, and a reward for this new habit. Take back control of your brain’s autopilot!

4 thoughts on “How do you break bad habits?”

  1. My bad habit is social media.. Is it really that bad though? I just get sucked in and by the time I know it an hour has passed! Thank you for the book review, I’ll look into it!

  2. Interesting. This is similar to what I was taught in a cognitive behavioural therapy class, to modify your routine when learning to move forward, break pain cycles, and pace after the onset of chronic pain. Amazing how well this works, once you manage to set up a new routine to break past habits.


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