Well-Being//

How to Change a Bad Habit in 10 Simple Steps

Remember those New Year’s resolutions you made at the start of the year? How are they going?

Photo Credit: Wulf Voss / EyeEm/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Wulf Voss / EyeEm/Getty Images

By Jenise Harmon, LISW-S

Remember those New Year’s resolutions you made over the holidays, the ones about changing bad habits? How are those going?

Don’t view setbacks as a reason to quit. See them as part of the process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back.

Getting in the habit of doing something differently can be incredibly hard, but it is possible. Here are 10 guiding principles to help make your changes successful.

1) Define what you want to do differently.

Is it quitting something? Beginning something? Be as detailed as you can. For example, you may wish to have a cleaner house. What, exactly, does a cleaner house mean? Is it keeping the counters clear and the dishes done? Does it mean mopping the floors every week? Every day? If you want to decrease the amount of alcohol you consume, what does that entail? Is it limiting yourself to two or fewer drinks a night? A week? A month? The more specific you can be the better. Clearly define your goal.

2) Specify why you do what you do.

If you find yourself watching too much Netflix, is it because you feel tired in the evenings? Do you use it as an emotional escape when you feel depressed? If you’re trying to quit smoking, do you light up because your friends do or automatically smoke when you get in the car? Knowing why you engage in behaviors is critical to knowing how to change them.

3) Understand why you don’t want to do it anymore.

Are your kids embarrassed to have their friends over because your house is a mess? Has your drinking become a problem because your spouse has noticed or because you have a DUI? Consider how changing your bad habit will affect your life for the better.

4) Make your plan.

Break the plan into small steps. For a cleaner home, this might mean starting with one activity at a time. The first week, you’ll be sure to make your bed. The next week, you might add vacuuming three times. For drinking less, it might mean getting rid of most or all of the alcohol in your home or ceasing to drink when you’re alone. Quitting “cold turkey” works for some but not all.

5) Be patient.

Think about change in terms of a journey—a long-term process that is sometimes more direct and quicker than at other times. You might have heard it takes only 21 days to form a positive or control a negative habit. That’s not quite accurate. According to a 2010 study, it can take as few as 18 and as many as 254 days to be successful. Value patience.

6) Anticipate setbacks.

Don’t view setbacks as a reason to quit. See them as part of the process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. What might your setbacks be? Perhaps it’s holidays, after-work activities, or increased stress.

7) Don’t compare yourself to others.

Your brother may have stopped smoking in three days with no ill effects, but this does not mean it is possible (or healthy) for you. Each person has their own strengths, weaknesses, and ways of changing.

8) Consider what would make change easier.

For someone who wants to lose weight, not having junk food in the house may help. For someone trying to begin an exercise plan, it might help to make a verbal agreement with a friend to be accountable to each other. Another idea is to not frequent places where you engage in the behavior. Certain areas or people may be triggers.

9) Celebrate big and small. 

Note and acknowledge changes you make along the way. Some people reward themselves at certain points. If you’ve been anticipating attending a special event or wanting to buy yourself something, this may be a good time to set an incentive.

10) Find support.

This might mean finding a therapist. It might be in the form of family, friends, or in-person or online support groups. A quick search of the web may yield online and local groups. Talk to friends and family about how it’s going and let them know if you need extra support.

Changes can be difficult but are by no means impossible. Comment below and let me know what has worked and not worked for you!

Jessie Harmon is a licensed clinical social worker, counselor, and psychotherapist.

Reference: Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology.

Originally published on GoodTherapy.

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