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The 8-Step Process That Helped Me Break A Bad Habit — For Good

Corinne Keating
February 12, 2018
Corinne Keating
Written by
Photo by Alto Images
February 12, 2018

We all have habits we’d probably be better off without. Whether you bite your nails, smoke cigarettes, or want to improve your eating habits, it can be hard to know where to start and imagine what life would look like without this habit. Getting rid of the habits that have a negative effect on your life can seem like a daunting task. For me, my big bad habit was finally giving up smoking. I’d tried it multiple times over the years, using a variety of different techniques—patches, gum, going cold turkey, even hypnosis—only to be back at it the next time something stressful happened.

I finally found the one thing that worked for me, and it didn’t involve anything from the pharmacy. I had to break my bad habit down into smaller and more manageable pieces. The best thing about this process is that it’s good for more than smoking—it can be applied to any persistent habit you're ready to quit. Here's the method that worked for me:

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1. Want it.

The first step to getting rid of a bad habit is to want it, but it’s more than just saying "I want to quit smoking" or "I want to eat healthier." You have to want to ditch your bad habit with every fiber of your being.

If there’s some small part of you that wants to hang on to your bad habit, even unconsciously, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. That was my problem. I wanted to quit smoking because I knew it was bad for my health, but in the back of my mind, I wanted to hang on to it because I used smoking as my response to stressful situations.

When you change the way you think about it, and want it first, everything else will become a little easier.

2. Make a list.

This step will involve your favorite list-taking tools. For me, that’s a notepad and a pen, but if you swear by apps for lists, use them! It's time to make a list of all the habits you would like to get rid of at some point.

Start at the top of the list with the highest-priority habits. Smoking was at the top of my list because I was concerned about my health, but other habits that made the list were biting my nails and fighting on the Internet.

Organize your bad habits in whatever way feels right to you, but your highest-priority habit should be at the top of the list. This will give you some clarity and permission to tackle them one at a time.

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3. Tell someone.

When you’re working on ditching a bad habit, it’s tempting to keep all that hard work to yourself.


Before you get started, tell someone you’re planning to ditch a bad habit. It helps keep you accountable, especially if you can find someone who will hold you to your plans and a gentle push (or more, if that's your thing) if you fall off the wagon.

If you can’t find an in-person friend to keep you accountable, try looking for an online accountability buddy. You don’t have the benefit of face-to-face conversations, but it enables you to find someone to keep you accountable without worrying about judgment from friends and family.

4. Take action.

Step 4 of this eight-step process is often the hardest step of them all: Turn all your talk into action. Throw away your cigarettes, make it day one of your healthy eating plan, or get a manicure so you can stop biting your nails.

There are two ways to go about this—either go all-in at the beginning, or break your goals down into smaller steps.

Going all-in can be useful if you’re worried about taking baby steps—stop your bad habit cold turkey and shake it off. The problem with that, though, is that you put yourself at risk for burnout. If you are worried about burning out, take smaller steps instead. Break your goals down into manageable portions.

To quit smoking, I had to break my habits down into smaller steps. First, I reduced the number of cigarettes I smoked during the week, then I switched from cigarettes to electric cigarettes, and then I slowly lowered my nicotine levels until I could finally quit outright. If you’re quitting smoking and can quit cold turkey, then more power to you. If you can’t, there are other options to help you break it down into smaller pieces.

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5. Plan for failure, and know yourself.

Repeat after me: S*** happens. This will be your mantra for breaking bad habits. This is not an easy thing, so it’s important to plan for failure and have a plan to pick yourself up and recover after you’ve failed. Understanding what sets you off and how you cope gives you so much information. In turn, that awareness will help you change your habits.

For my own journey toward quitting smoking, I’ve had a number of setbacks. Even though I decided I wanted to quit smoking and stop using it to help me deal with stressful situations, for the first couple of months, I was right back into a pack of my favorite poison sticks. It’s discouraging, if I’m being totally honest, but if you want to finally break a bad habit, it’s important to pick yourself up and get back to it.

6. Replace instead of remove.

We all know that getting rid of bad habits is difficult at even the best of times. One good and scientifically proven technique for making it a little bit easier is to replace the behaviors associated with your bad habits with good, mindful ones.

This could be as simple as chewing a stick of gum when you want a cigarette or choosing a healthy snack when you’re craving a candy bar. By reinforcing your choices with good behavior, you make it easier to break your bad habits and incorporate healthier habits into your life.

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7. Reward yourself.

As the meme goes, take the time to "treat yo’ self!" Once you’ve reached a milestone in your journey to rid yourself of a bad habit, take the time to reward yourself. This also helps to reinforce those positive habits you’ve been developing in the last step. A reward is just another giant type of positive reinforcement.

The one caveat is that you don’t want to reward yourself with the bad habit you’re trying to break. Don’t reward your healthy eating with a chocolate bar, for example. There are plenty of other things you can use as a reward.

8. Don't give up.

This is arguably the most important step in the process of breaking bad habits. DON’T GIVE UP. Don’t waste all your hard work by giving up, especially when things get tough. Brush it off, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, and do whatever you have to do. Just don’t give up.

Now you have all the tools you need to help you break all those bad habits that have been lurking in your New Year’s resolutions for who knows how long. Just work your way through the steps one by one and make sure you remember the last step—don’t give up!

Want more habit-breaking inspo? Here's one exercise that can help you break habits, plus the daily habits of the most mindful people we know.

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Corinne Keating
Corinne Keating

Corinne Keating is a health and wellness writer and enthusiast. When she isn’t writing for her blog, Why So Well, you can find her hiking, biking, or at the nearest coffee shop.