5 Science-Backed Ways To Kick Your Most Stubborn Bad Habit


Whether you’re a nail biter, food smacker, hair twirler or cigarette smoker, know that you’re not alone in dealing with your habitual flaws and you’re definitely not alone struggling to kick them to the curb. Approximately 54 percent of people who set out to squash their bad habits fail to hold on to their new way of life after a measly six months. And the average person actually attempts the same fix a whopping 10 times, all without success.

So what are we all missing here? It shouldn’t be that impossible to kick even the most stubborn bad habit. Here are five science-backed strategies that, when employed together, could finally help us turn things around.

1. Notice the patterns that ultimately lead you to your bad habit.

Unsplash/Chris Arock

Bad habits don’t just manifest out of thin air. They are our brain’s reactions to particular feelings, situations or spaces that we come to find comfort in over the years that we rely on them. So the next time you catch yourself twirling your hair, take a moment to analyze your current scenario. Are you bored in a work meeting? Are you nervous waiting for your date to arrive? Are you impatiently waiting for rush hour traffic to budge? When you can identify the time, place and trigger of your habit, you’re that much closer to being able to gain control over it.

2. Strongly identify your “why” and keep coming back to it.

Unsplash/Coline Haslé

Before rushing into your new resolution to “quit smoking once and for all,” sit with your bad habit for a moment and genuinely ask yourself why you want to change it — not why you should. To muster the willpower to tackle your goal successfully, you need a deeply rooted sense of motivation for the change. It’s okay to be a little self-critical with this one as you dig to understand why this habit you’ve adopted years ago so desperately needs to leave your life now and for good. That is the “why” that you will need to keep coming back to as your own empowering reminder of the healthy choice your making for yourself.

3. Replace your bad habit with a less offensive activity.


Research suggests that it’s much easier for the brain to replace a bad habit with a new activity rather than simply trying to abstain from the bad habit. So if you tend to bite your nails on your morning subway commute, train your hands to do something else with their idle time like hold a book. It’s amazing how a good storyline can distract your mind from the pre-work jitters you’re feeling, and if your fingers are responsible for holding pages in place, there’s no way they’ll end up near your mouth.

4. When your willpower is running low, remember the acronym HALT.

Unsplash/Imani Clovis

This powerful acronym comes to us from the mind of psychologist Christopher Willard, and it suggests that in the moment when you feel most compelled to give into your bad habit, do your best to stop and ask yourself the following questions first:

Am I hungry?

Am I angry or anxious?

Am I lonely?

Am I tired?

So many of our bad habits developed as subconscious reactions to these feelings rather than addressing them head-on. All it takes is a few calm minutes of self-awareness to clearly address the issue at hand and know how to solve it rather than leaning into an old crutch.

5. Change up your environment.

Unsplash/Nathan Fertig

Sometimes where you spend your time is the biggest trigger for your bad habit. Take cigarette smoking, for example. If you only smoke after you’ve had a few cocktails at the bar and use it as a means of social connection, maybe you should limit how many drinks you down in a given evening or work on your sober social skills before bringing alcohol into the mix. Better yet, create an entirely new Saturday night scenario for yourself so that you can not only avoid an existing bad habit but also develop new positive ones.