6 Tips to Help You Change Your Bad Habits Without Stressing Out

Road signs labeled 'New Life' and 'Old Life.'

You can break bad habits and even improve good ones without turning your world upside-down. (Image: Theaphotography via Dreamstime)

Everyone has habits. Some are good ones, like turning the lights off whenever you leave a room, while some are not so good — like spending too much time on your phone when you should be in bed. But no worries, you can break bad habits (and even improve the good ones) without turning your world upside-down. 

No, it’s not the easiest thing to do and will require time and effort, but with the right mindset and understanding of how you create these habits in the first place, you’re empowered with the control to do things better. 

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Understanding bad habits

Habits are routine behaviors that we tend to practice subconsciously. Since we do it so often, it becomes a fixed way of thinking and acting, a sort of loop in our day-to-day lives. The core of every habit is essentially composed of three parts: Cue, routine, and reward. 

Escape the loop of bad habits by recognizing the cue, routine, and reward.
Escape the loop of bad habits by recognizing the cue, routine, and reward. (Image: Alphaspirit via Dreamstime)

According to Charles Duhigg, author of the top-selling book The Power of Habit, the key to successfully breaking a bad habit is changing it to a new one. Instead of the usual notion of completely stopping the behavior, it’s easier and more productive to overwrite bad practices with good ones. 

While there’s no perfect formula for reshaping your bad habits, your success in achieving a breakthrough depends on consistency and is focused on the three components mentioned above. 

6 ways to start changing your bad habits

1. Evaluate your actions

The first step to breaking habits is being aware of your actions. Go over the things you usually do in a day and identify which activities you do out of familiarity and necessity. This process can help you recognize habits, which you can then sort into good or bad. 

Make a list of the habits you want to change. For example, if your goal is to be healthier, you could put ordering fast food on your list of things to change. 

2. Know your cues

Now that you know which actions you want to reshape, the next move is to determine what starts it all. The cue is a trigger for your habit. When the cue happens, your brain shifts into autopilot and starts the routine so you can feel fulfilled with the reward. 

Knowing your cues allows you to be conscious of your behavior and avoid mindlessly indulging in your habit. Let’s say you have the bad habit of immediately checking your emails once you receive them. In this case, the push notification is the cue. 

3. Determine your routine

The routine is easy to determine, as it is the habit itself in action. This is the behavior you want to change. Some common bad habits are sleeping too late, not exercising, and not drinking enough water. 

4. Figure out the reward

The reward is the “craving” that your habit is satisfying. It’s the sense of fulfillment or benefits we gain from the action. When your bad habit is eating junk food when stressed, the reward in this situation could be stress relief, feeling full, or just wanting to chew on something for distraction. 

What is the benefit or sense of fulfillment you get from your habit?
What is the benefit or sense of fulfillment you get from your habit? (Image: Denisismagilov via Dreamstime)

It really depends on the person. Most of the time we’re not even conscious of the fulfillment that drives the behavior, which is why identifying your habit’s rewards may need a little bit of experimentation. Go back and forth to determine what satisfaction you get out of the routine. 

Why is it important to know the rewards? Because for you to effectively break your bad habits, you need to feel the same fulfillment even when you apply the changes.

5. Make a change

Once you’ve sorted out your cue, routine, and reward, it’s time to make the change. When the cue is triggered, the change is the new routine you want to put in place of your bad habit, but which can still offer the same reward. 

Going back to stress-eating junk food, if the fulfillment in the situation is chewing as a distraction, you could replace junk food with chewing on gum. Meanwhile, if the reward is feeling full, you can practice eating fruit instead. 

The change of habit is all up to you. Find a healthier or more acceptable alternative as long as it accomplishes the rewarding part. 

6. Take note of it 

Consistency is key and writing things down is a great help for you to stay on course. Writing your plans down is extremely helpful in implementing a new habit. It’s a gentle reminder that helps you focus on your goal and a good way to keep things in check. 

This simple format “When (the cue happens), I will (do the routine) because it provides/helps/makes me feel (the reward)” can do wonders. For example: When I feel stressed, I will chew on gum, because chewing makes me feel distracted and at ease. Follow these steps and you’ll soon be on your way to changing habits without stressing out.

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