How to Break Bad Habits and Develop Good Ones

There is no question that habits are important parts of our lives. We do many things in our lives not from conscious decisions, but from habits. So understanding how habits work is essential.
For that reason, I was excited when I learned that there was a new book on this topic titled The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I bought the book through Kobo and read it. As it turns out, the book covers not just personal habits, but also organizational and social habits. Here, however, I will focus only on personal habits.
There are several things I learn from the book about how to break bad habits and develop good ones. Here they are:
1. Every habit consists of three elements
The three elements are cue, routine, and reward. Together they form a habit loop. Cue is the thing that triggers you to do the habit, routine is the activity part of the habit (the thing that you want to change if it’s a bad habit), and reward is what you want to get by doing the habit. Habit loop works like this: when the cue is there, you do the routine in order to get the reward.
2. To break a bad habit, you need to identify its elements and insert a new routine
You can’t really eliminate a bad habit. Instead, you replace it with something else. To do that, you need to keep the old cue and the old reward, but insert a new routine.
Let’s say you want to stop a smoking habit. First you need to understand the elements of the habit. The routine part is easy (it’s the activity that you want to change, which is smoking in this example), so your job is to identify the cue and the reward. What is it that triggers the habit? Is it a certain time of the day, a certain emotional state, or something else? And what is it that you want to get by doing the routine? Relaxation perhaps? Identifying the cue and the reward isn’t easy, so take the time to identify them. There is a detailed example in the book of how to do this.
Once you identify the cue and the reward, you need to find a new routine that can give you a similar reward. You might need to experiment with several routines before you can find the right one for you. Then you need to make a specific plan about what you will do when the cue is there. It might seem simple, but studies show that making a plan does make a difference.
3. To develop a good habit, make a craving out of specific cue and reward
Let’s say you want to develop an exercise habit. What you need to do is choosing a specific cue (like a certain time of the day or putting your running shoes nearby) and a specific reward (like the sense of accomplishment from tracking your running miles).
But that’s not enough. You also need to make a craving out of them because craving is what drives the habit loop. You do that by choosing a reward that appeals to you and allowing yourself to anticipate it. Think about that reward and how good it will be when you get it. Over time it will become a craving and the new habit will become automatic.
4. Willpower is the most important habit for individual success
There are some good habits that can start a chain reaction; once you master one such habits, it will affect other areas of your life as well. These habits are called keystone habits. Among them, studies show that willpower is the most important one. The ability to delay gratification for something better in the future will definitely have a positive impact on many areas of your life.
You can train your willpower by forcing yourself to do something that is good for you but you don’t feel like doing. For example, if you don’t have the habit of exercising than forcing yourself to exercise three times a week will train your willpower muscles. Over time, your willpower muscles will get stronger until willpower becomes a habit.
These are some important ideas I learn from the book, but there are still many ideas there that I haven’t covered here. There are also stories in the book to illustrate the points it makes. All in all, I enjoyed reading the book.
But of course, the most important thing is to apply the ideas. Understanding them is one thing but actually applying them is a different thing. Building a willpower habit seems like a good start. What do you think?
Photo by kaibara87


  1. Donald,
    This post is great–I really like the deconstruction method of explanation that you’ve used here. Habits–good or bad–are a part of life, and by recognizing and acknowledging them, we can change the ones we don’t like!
    Thanks for some food for thought–off to grab the book!

  2. Donald,
    Your post is right on. I’m a time management instructor and I’ve found that the biggest challenge people have in improving their time management is to replace their bad time management habits with good ones.
    I agree with a key point in the book that says you can’t really eliminate a bad habit. Instead, you replace it with something else. Instead of focusing on what you’re going to stop doing, focus on what your going to start doing.

  3. Very Intersting topic!
    Discovering our bad habits and breaking them is truely a key factor to success in may ways..
    Thanks 4 Sharing!

  4. It is said that if you can do something consistently everyday for 21 days, a habit is formed. If we can make sure from the beginning that we form good habits we would not spent so much time and energy breaking bad habits. This is however a challenge.

    • I heard that too. I also agree with you about the importance of forming good habits. That will take deliberate effort though, because it’s much easier to form bad habits instead.

  5. Indeed a Very Good Article.
    Planning to buy the Book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

  6. Interesting article!
    As a personal and professional life coach I work with making new habits on a regular basis. This is what I have found most helpful:
    Find a way that “compel” you to do what you want to start doing. For example, if I want to wake up at 5.15am, I may be determined when I go to bed at night, but when the alarm sounds it’s all a different story…
    So if I have thought beforehand about what I’ll be doing as soon as I get up, and I find this compelling, all I have to do when the alarm sounds is to imagine myself doing it.
    In my case it’s drinking a cup of white tea while I check the latest comments in my blog. I enjoy doing this, and getting out of bed is more of a “pull” than a “push”.

  7. Thanks for a great post!
    One thing about willpower though… It is true that willpower is essential if you want to change something but it is a mistake to believe that willpower alone can help you change in the long run.
    With a few remarkable exceptions, most of us lose willpower after some time. That’s just human nature and has nothing to do with character or being good or bad.
    So, you want to back your willpower up with as much support as possible from as many different sources as possible. That’s the trick!

  8. Well having a good habit should give a person the tenacity to resist change. Good article for this one Donald! =)

  9. Great information Donald. Everyone talks about breaking habits, not replacing them with something else.
    I specifically like #4, Willpower is the most important habit for individual success. I wrote a post a while ago about the benefits of being tempted ( that talked about building up willpower by resisting in the face of temptation.
    If you always give in or never put yourself in a position to be tempted, your willpower muscles get weak. As with any training, it is best to start small and I have found success with small steps in the right direction. For example, if you want to wake up 1 hour earlier, don’t set your alarm 1 hour earlier, try 5 minutes. Do that for a week. Then 5 more minutes. Before you know it, you will hit your target time, and all it took was a few baby steps.
    It is funny how often people will disregard that process, thinking that if they can complete their goal initially, it is not worth the effort. This seems to happen more in exercise; if someone wants to run more, they don’t want to run for 5 minutes, increasing that every week until they reach their desired goal. They often want to start with the 5 mile runs that not only wears them out, but discourages and physically injures them. We all want instant results but only some of us are willing to do the work to get them.
    Thanks again for the great post Donald.

  10. I’m not a huge fan of willpower, because it whenever something is forced, it causes stress. Lately, I’ve been adopting new habits, and making it into daily habits. Everyday I run one mile , do yin yoga for 45 minutes, meditate and do EFT tapping for an hour. I’ve been doing this for 2-3 months now. I always have that lingering urge to go back to my old way of life of doing nothing except watch TV all day

  11. Aloha Donald,
    I work a lot with habits. I love the idea of creating a craving for the positive outcome.
    I find really having a clear picture of what you do want, make it emotionally rich and really savoring the outcome helps but the idea of creating a craving takes it to the next level. Thanks for your post and I am off to see if The Power of Habit is available on Kindle.
    I just found your blog and I WILL be back, have a craving even to read your future posts.

  12. Hi Donald,
    I don’t fully agree with some of this. It is a limiting beliefs that you can’t get rid of old habits. I’ve done alot with Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) but I do agree with the part of having something else instead makes it more powerful, as just letting go of something isn’t as powerful as installing something that serves you better instead.
    And the notion of willpower only will take somebody so far if they have alot of subconscious programming and negative emotions towards the subject, that will win out in the end.
    But the good thing is, the more you let go of this stuff, the more your willpower seems to naturally strengthen. Using this method of letting go has allowed me to effectively change my habits where before I couldn’t just using force/willpower with nothing else.
    My latest example is i’ve been wanting to change my sleeping for so long and I just couldn’t as much as I told myself I wanted to, until I started exploring the emotions and fears around this (such as “if I do this I will lose friends I usually see at night”) I have changed it from getting up at 3pm because I used to work at nights to getting up at 8am!
    Anyway, I just hope to post this to give you a new viewpoint and it can definately be used with the other tips in your article!

  13. Ann Marie Stelma Graff
    Ann Marie Stelma Graff

    That makes so much sense. I never thought about it like that.

  14. Interesting insights into habits. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of bad habits and many addictions that were very unhealthy.
    It’s interesting to me as I think about the entire cue, routine, reward thing. That how with addiction, we continue even once the reward has become negative; as in completely ruining our lives.
    Although in recovery, I meditate, run, exercise and do all sorts of healthy habits today. I even have spiritual or emotional cues, the routine is then to meditate or pray and the reward is serenity.
    I can attest to the craving aspect as well, both from a chemical abuse standpoint and exercising. I often spend the majority of my day gearing up my mind about my nightly run (like staying hydrated), then by the time I’m on my way home from work, I’m really craving the run and ready to go.
    Thanks for the great insight and sharing this info with us.

  15. thank you very much god bless you for helping so much people its amazing.

  16. […] Life Optimizer breaks down habits in a way I’ve never seen laid out before. From “How to Break Bad Habits and Develop Good Ones” […]

  17. Those are very interesting points you brought across. We all have habits but you have really given insight into how we operate when it comes to our habits. I didn’t notice some of the areas you pointed out before now and i think i am definitely going to apply these ideas.
    Thanks for giving me the first push to actually get over my habits.

  18. These are great tips that can easily be incorporated into your work life. Thanks!

  19. Willpower a is definite key ingredient in maintaining goods habits. It’s really so easy to fall back into bad ways, this is why one must be strong and have supreme self discipline.

  20. yeah , to beat a bad habits is such a challenge thing that we should always remember we must get it down all the time

  21. Good article! What do you recommend to people who are having challenges replacing bad habits with new ones?

  22. Nice article, I could’nt stop myself to thank Donald..
    Thanks ones again,

  23. From my personal experience i can tell you Hypnotherepy is mot Effective.If you re in able hands like Joseph R Giove.Then you can cure anything from losing weight to Quit smoking.So,
    when people try to give up the addictive habit of smoking, they are attempting
    to lose more than the craving for nicotine. They may be giving up a
    long-established tool that has helped them cope. A friend of sorts. And that
    can be the hardest part.Finding
    how to now address healthy needs that were not able to be satisfied in the past
    may be key for change. A new sense of self-worth, soothing, and connection can
    be achieved that can diminish the allure of cigarettes.

Comments are closed.