How to make or break a habit in three steps

Learn to make or break a habit in three steps.

Man's hands  breaking cigarette to break smoking habit

Whether you want to start brushing twice daily or stop biting your nails, most of us have at least one habit we should make or break. It all comes down to these three steps:

Step 1: make it conscious
The first step is to be aware of the habit. Figure out when and why you smoke, bite your nails or crack your knuckles. Compulsive body-focused nervous habits come in many forms, from harmless to damaging. Locating the underlying reason or emotional catalyst for your habit will help you to end it.

When it comes to forming a habit, scheduling it into your routine will help it become a normal part of your day. For instance, if you want to start brushing your teeth in the morning, try leaving yourself a reminder note on the bathroom mirror or tick the days you do it off a calendar.

Step 2: set a goal
According to a study done at UCLA, people who visualise themselves in the process of completing their goals are more likely to be consistent and actually achieve them. Instead of wishing you read more, set yourself a goal of reading a book every two weeks or 20 books over the year. Then write it down and choose some books to make it real.

When quitting a habit, realistic goals are important. For some people, stopping cold turkey works, but for most of us it’s about taking small steps and being consistent with the behaviour. Being patient with yourself also goes a long way – practice makes perfect.

Step 3: Switch the bad for good
Switching out a bad habit for a harmless one is important when breaking a habit. This is called ‘competing behaviour’. Whenever you feel like engaging your bad habit, have a diverting action ready. For example, when you want to stop biting your lip, pop in a piece of chewing gum instead. If you compulsively reach for your phone to check for messages, keep a smooth stone in your pocket and hold that for a few minutes instead.

When forming a new habit, switching passive thoughts for active thoughts is important. If exercising more is one habit you want to learn, each time you think ‘I should go for a walk now’ try giving yourself a five-minute leeway before starting. The more you sit around thinking about it, the less likely you will actually do it. Train yourself to be reactive to your thoughts; each time you just get up go, it will become easier.

Remember, forming new habits and breaking bad ones is about reshaping the neural pathways. Your brain learns to expect particular behaviour and it’s within your power to retrain your brain.

Have you ever successfully made a new habit or stopped a bad one? What worked for you?



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    Capn Dan
    31st Oct 2016
    I found electronic cigarettes or vapour 'Vaps' were very good to help stop a thirty-year habit. But I have been told that those who know better and want to save us have made them illegal. Are we over-governed yet?

    31st Oct 2016
    If you are a smoker, have a chest X-ray, and if that doesn't encourage you to quit, have a stroll through a hospital cancer ward. Drinking alcohol I gave up years ago without a problem, but smoking was a bit harder, so I told all my friends and acquaintances that I quit, and so not to be called a "weak dog" (or worse), have never smoked since. Give these three suggestions, in the above order, a try.
    The pom
    6th Jul 2017
    I have only one comment to make and that is a stroll through the hospital cancer ward may shock the pants off you when you find how many of the nurses are smokers. It is a few years since I used to visit a patient in the cancer ward and I was staggered to discover how many of the nurses smelt of tobacco smoke.
    31st Oct 2016
    For me, going "cold turkey" was the only way to stop smoking permanently. I tried everything over the years - hypnosis, nicotine chewing gums and sprays etc etc. Nothing worked. My doctor said it was because by putting nicotine in my body, albeit in small doses, I was "feeding" the habit. I booked two weeks alone at a health resort where tobacco and alcohol were forbidden. Voila! No more smoking. I came home refreshed, healthier, and determined to remain nicotine-free, despite returning to the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. I understand that not everyone has the means to escape like this, but if you can I recommend this method.
    31st Oct 2016
    I did the cold turkey too, after a 25 year habit. I did a lot of self education beforehand and also made a self-hypnosis tape which I listened to at least daily. No nicotine replacement was available back then, so the mind alone had to do it all. To help with the purely physical habit I spent quite a lot of the time with something like a pen or pencil between the lips - probably looked pretty silly but it eased the wanting to a large degree. 34 years clean now! I still remember the day and date - pathetic isn't it?
    31st Oct 2016
    Well done, Jenny! It's not pathetic, it is a great achievement and you should celebrate that date every year.
    31st Oct 2016
    The biggest problem today seems to be over eating and under exercising. Controlling food addictions and lack of motivation is very hard for a lot of people.

    I find writing out a menu and sticking to it great but I do need to work on exercise especially in retirement as I tend to move a lot less than when at work.
    The pom
    31st Oct 2016
    On active service with the British Army in 1954 I was getting though about 50 fags a day and realised I would be bankrupt in a week on return to the UK so I went cold turkey. I think it worked as I haven't smoked since, but I did start drinking, and about 40 years ago realised that was getting a bit excessive, so went cold turkey again. Now a happy non drinking non-smoking pensioner in my eighties live very happily. As I am allergic to giving money to other people I don't gamble
    Nan Norma
    31st Oct 2016
    If you want to give up smoking go see the Russell Crowe movie The Insider. If that doesn't convince you to stop smoking nothing will.
    1st Nov 2016
    A book by Alan Carr set me up, I planned and weaned myself off, smoke free for over 10 years now. Cold turkey is really the only way, and a commitment. And yes I agree replace your bad habits with new good ones. keep your brain busy as well as exercise too.
    21st Jul 2017
    I just lost my article. Ok, I'll try and summarize on how I gave up after 42 years smoking.

    Step 1.- Be honest and work out the pros and cons of smoking

    Step 2. Don't deny yourself a smoke if you are weak and can't make up your mind, but wait 30 minutes before smoking.

    Step 3. If the answer is still yes, wait another 30 minutes before lighting up.

    Step 4. If it's still yes, consider yourself a spineless individual who will never stop. Having convinced yourself you can't deny yourself a "perceived" pleasure, you ain't gonna stop, so give up trying. You have now branded yourself as a gutless person.

    Step 5. If you came to your senses and thought it through, one hour wasn't that bad, try another hour.

    Step 6. You have now managed two hours, why not challenge yourself to go 4 hours, then 8, then 16 and so on.

    Step 7, after 24 hours, you start to smell things, you cough up thick mucous tar, and it tastes unbelievably awful. The next day your lungs start breathing as if you just ate a menthol lolly.

    Step 8. You start feeling so good you wonder why you smoked in the first place.

    Step 9. If the pangs come back, just apply the steps above again, and this time having proved to yourself you can go without a smoke for a week, you won't easily fall back to old habits.

    Step 10. It's comforting and rewarding to know you can control your own stupid urges.

    Enjoy the fresh air before it's too late. In my case, nothing else worked but my own reasoning.

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