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How to Finally Succeed at Breaking Bad Habits

Updated: Aug 3, 2019

how to break bad habits for good, long term solutions, mental health, behavior change

Bad habits can start at any age, and continue for as long as we let them! The longer we tolerate bad habits in our daily lives, the longer it will take for us to abolish these annoying behaviors. But, you may ask, what if I don't know all my bad habits yet? No worries, check out the definition of 'bad habit' and vice just below, followed by some common examples.

What is a 'bad habit'?

"an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary (MW)."

What is a vice?

"a habitual and usually trivial defect or shortcoming (MW)."

Examples (include but not limited to):

  • nail-biting

  • smoking

  • staying up too late

  • sleeping in too long

  • substance abuse (addiction, alcohol, drugs)

  • negative self-talk

  • learned helplessness

  • forgetting important dates

  • putting off chores

  • putting off homework

  • popping pimples (dermatillomania)

  • junk food

  • not putting items away

  • short temper

  • bad choices

  • etc.

Now you may be thinking, "I love to sleep in late!" or "Junk food isn't always a problem for me," and that's okay! Not all of the examples are bad habits or vices, but if a behavior gets in the way of healthy living, then it may be a bad habit.

There are plenty of short-term solutions to busting bad habits and vices, but these methods may not last! That's why seeking a long-term solution is crucial to smash your unwanted bad habits, so they are terminated and stay terminated.

For more resources, visit Mental Health Resources on

how to break bad habits for good, long term solutions, mental health, behavior change

The Long-Term Solution:

Breaking Bad Habits for Good

The best long-term solution to breaking that annoying bad habit is a self-monitoring system. As a new Behavior Therapist practicing ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), I've learned more about shaping behavior and replacing problem behavior. The first steps to breaking a bad habit are observing the behavior and the behavior's function (function/reason for happening).

Observing a Behavior and Its Function

The first step involves patience and self-reflection. It's also helpful to have strong emotional intelligence when observing a 'bad habit' behavior and to find the function of the behavior. Ask yourself these questions to begin:

1. What is the behavior I consider to be a bad habit/vice?

2. How does this behavior impact my daily living?

3. Does anything happen before the behavior that triggers it?

4. Why do I think this specific behavior is occurring?

5. What emotions do I feel before the behavior, during the behavior, and after the behavior?

After you've answered these questions, you'll be able to self-monitor your bad habits. You can use the free emotion chart from 7 Free Themed Mood Trackers to help observe and identify your emotions accurately. Either you will observe behavior that you consider a bad habit or vice, or others may. Don't change your quirks for every person who tells you to change, but listen to people close to you and ask their advice if you're unsure.

how to break bad habits for good, long term solutions, mental health, behavior change

The next step after observing a behavior you'd like to work on is identifying the function of the behavior. Determining the function of the behavior will help uncover healthy replacement behaviors that could serve the same function! Thus, leaving no purpose for the previous 'bad habit' behavior to continue.

Functions of Behavior

The functions of a bad habit will vary from person to person, but most bad habits will fall under two general categories, automatically-maintained or pleasure-producing. These categories can, and often do, intertwine with one another. One common factor with bad habits, challenging behaviors, vices, etc. is repetition.

Repetition seems obvious. Ex: Sally bites her nails and notices that she hates her nails when they're short. Sally doesn't bite her nails anymore.

But what happens when Jimmy bites his nails, doesn't like his nails short, but continues to bite them every time he gets stressed out? This continuous action of undesirable behavior is the repetition in play.

Automatically-Maintained Bad Habits

Automatically-maintained bad habits are behaviors that repeat themselves and become automatic processes (naturally occurring, without having to think about it). These bad habits can form when self-control isn't exercised as soon as we notice the undesirable quality of the behavior.

Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, found that automatically-maintained bad habits could be reduced or prevented by strengthening self-control. In the article, Breaking Bad Habits, he says,

“We’ve found that you can improve your self-control by doing exercises over time,” Baumeister says. “Any regular act of self-control will gradually exercise your ‘muscle’ and make you stronger.”

This is good news for those who hate their bad habits and see no reason why they have these behaviors at all. For others, bad habits can cause relief or even pleasure. This is the difficulty many face when the two categories of behavior functions intertwine.

Pleasure-Producing Bad Habits

Pleasure is produced in the brain, mainly by the neurotransmitter Dopamine. Once you begin to increase your levels of dopamine, whatever behavior is causing the increase will likely happen again. For example, if smoking causes your brain to release large amounts of dopamine, then you're more likely to continue smoking.

When your brain doesn't detect the behavior that usually releases a ton of dopamine (aka that annoying bad habit), then your dopamine levels may drastically decrease. This decrease in dopamine is temporary, but also explains why it can be so hard to break a bad habit when you first start trying.

Creating Functional Replacement Behaviors

Once you've identified your bad habit and the reason why you do it, you're one step closer to breaking that bad habit! Next, you must replace that bad habit behavior with a healthy behavior that serves the same function.

Here is one example of self-monitoring your behaviors to break bad habits:

free therapy resource, breaking bad habits, behavior therapy

You can download this free resource by clicking here to subscribe to Rose-Minded! You'll get both of the free resources mentioned in this article sent directly to your inbox.

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Here is another example of self-monitoring your behaviors throughout the week:

free therapy resource, breaking bad habits, behavior therapy

You can download this free resource by subscribing to Rose-Minded. Head here to check it out!

The Importance of Social Support

Self-monitoring your behavior, whether good or bad, can lead to healthy lifestyle choices and changes. The practice of self-monitoring your behavior should never cause you to isolate yourself from others. Social supports are still a necessary part of your thriving mental health, and shouldn't be excluded from any mental health treatment plan.

Find a few close people and share your different journeys and struggles. Transparency in friendships and relationships is healthy and actually strengthens your bond. Make sure you are confiding in others who can be transparent with you too!


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