How to Break a Habit
Heidi Zwart
how to break a habit

While building habits is the pursuit of many, breaking habits may be a necessary place to start for some. Ultimately, our habits lead us closer to or further away from our goals and values, so if you need to learn how to break a habit, here are some ways to do that more successfully. 

Remove the trigger

Habits are agnostic. In other words, they don’t care about the outcome, whether it’s good or bad for you. Habits are responses to a trigger, also known as a prompt or cue. To break a habit, then, the first step is to remove the trigger that leads to the undesired behavior. Keep the temptation out of sight to reduce the likelihood of your unwanted behavior from occurring. For example, keep tempting food in the back of the fridge or pantry, choose a new path to work that eliminates your cue to stop for a drink or fast food, or say no to a social invitation that’s likely to lead you to choices you regret. Removing the trigger from your environment is a great starting place to break a habit and build a healthier one. 

Make the behavior harder

Our brains like the easy path, so when it has to work to make something happen, it likely won’t. Your unconscious brain will often decide up to 10 seconds before you’re even aware of it what choice it will make. By making the behavior harder, you give your rational brain time to kick in and make the decision you would prefer. Here’s how this works. Keep tempting foods like ice cream, soda, or chips out of your home so that you have to travel to the store to get them. Put your phone in a space furthest from your desk during your workday so you have to go get it when you’re tempted to scroll social media. Making the unwanted behavior effortful is an effective way to break a habit. 

Reframe your identity

Aligning your choices with your preferred identity is another way to break a habit. Your brain prefers to act in ways that are consistent with who you say (or think) you are and it will make excuses to justify your behavior when your identity and actions don’t align. Shifting your identity to say “I’m the kind of person who _____” helps set the course for your behaviors. If you want to start a running routine in the morning, for example, but you can’t stop hitting snooze, if you fill in the blank with “I’m the kind of person who runs in the morning” you are more likely to do it. This simple shift in your identity will help you break a habit (hitting the snooze button) and replace it with a healthier one (running in the morning). 

If you want to break a habit, these 3 tips are a good place to start. While breaking a habit can be hard, removing triggers, making a behavior harder, and reframing your identity are all grounded in the best behavior science has to offer and have proven success in breaking habits and building new ones.     

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