How to break bad habits and build new ones

Jan 9 · 6 min read

I have a shameful secret. My Evernote colleagues don’t know about it — in fact, no one I’ve met recently knows. But I’m willing to confess it to you now.

I used to be a smoker.

Yes, I knew the health risks when I started; that was half the fun. I was a teenager certain of my own invincibility — smoking was the perfect accessory to a devil-may-care attitude that included driving a little faster than necessary and climbing big rocks just for the thrill of it.

And it was fun…for a while. But soon I began to resent the hold cigarettes had over me. Morning coffee? Have a cigarette. Walking to the train? Have another. Drinks with friends? Make sure the bar has a smoking section or I can’t make it.

So I set a goal to quit. Again…and again…and again.

Each time, I would last a few days. Once I even made it to a month. But every time, my willpower would weaken and I’d fall back into my old, bad habits.

Willpower isn’t enough

If your social media feed is anything like mine, you’ve seen plenty of inspirational messages like “Set goals and crush them,” especially at this time of year when everyone is making New Year’s resolutions. But if all it took to reach a goal was desire, we’d all be happier, healthier, and more successful — and that’s not how life works.

According to, “a staggering 92 percent of people that set New Year’s goals never actually achieve them.” What went wrong for these people? Did they lack willpower? Did they overestimate themselves? Or did they just not want it badly enough? I had a goal of quitting smoking, and I definitely wanted to succeed, but it wasn’t enough.

Clearly, the goal wasn’t the problem. It’s that I didn’t understand the power of habits, how they are formed, and how they can be changed.

The Habit Loop

We are creatures of habit — and that’s a good thing. If we had to consciously think about the thousands of little decisions we make every day, from which shoe to tie first to how to drive a car, we’d be exhausted from the mental effort. And so our brains reduce the cognitive load by creating shortcuts — ”if this, then that” statements to help us navigate our environment with as little conscious effort as possible. They allow our brains to find solutions to problems without us having to focus our attention and energy on them.

These shortcuts aren’t random, though; they follow a predictable, consistent pattern. In his book “Atomic Habits,” author James Clear calls this pattern “the Habit Loop.” Based on a concept introduced by Charles Duhigg, James breaks it down into four steps:

  1. Cue — This is a piece of information that predicts a reward; it triggers our brains to initiate a specific behavior. In my case, the smell of coffee was my cue to reach for a pack of cigarettes.
  2. Craving — This is what motivates us to act. What we’re seeking is not the habit itself, but the feeling it brings. I knew that smoking would relax me, and my brain craved that feeling.
  3. Response — This is what we think of as the habit — how our brains automatically respond to the previous two steps. It could be an action or a thought, but it is our brains’ solution to the problem. For me, it was the physical act of smoking, but it could be watching TV, eating junk food, or working out.
  4. Reward — This is the ‘feel-good’ step. It’s the dopamine rush our brains have been seeking, and it keeps us coming back for more. This closes the loop and reinforces the behavior.

By understanding the process by which your brain responds automatically to stimuli, you can use this loop to build better habits. Alternatively, by interrupting the loop at any point, you can break any habits that aren’t in your best interest.

Note: For a closer look at the Habit Loop and how you can use it to your advantage, check out our conversation with James Clear:

Real change is gradual

Now you may have noticed I said I used to be a smoker. So how did I eventually succeed? The answer is simple — but not easy. I did it gradually.

The secret I unwittingly stumbled upon is that changing any habit begins with a single step. If you make one small change today, and stick with it — day after day after day — you can change your life.

James Clear calls these small changes “atomic,” in the sense that they are at once tiny, yet capable of producing remarkable results. As James writes, “The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them… It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.”

For me, it was as simple as saying “I’ll wait before I have my next cigarette.” Every time I felt the urge to light up, I made myself wait an extra five minutes before indulging. Admittedly, I had one eye on my watch the whole time, but knowing the reward I craved lay at the end of that span gave me the willpower to resist.

A week later, I stretched the wait to 10 minutes. Then 20… 30… a whole hour, and so on.

Build systems, not goals

Big goals can be intimidating. And while there may be the rare breed of person who is inspired and driven by big goals, for most of us they’re just scary. So we find excuses for why we can’t start (“I’m not ready”) or why we don’t succeed (“I’m too busy”).

The solution? Forget about your goals. Instead, think about what a person who has achieved your goals — who has what you want to have — would actually do. Then build a system to match.

That’s a subtle shift, but it takes your self-talk from being outcome-based (“I want to lose 10 pounds”), to being process-based (“I’m going to work out three times a week”). That makes your big goal suddenly much more manageable. If you build a system that has you working out three times a week, your weight loss goal becomes almost inevitable.

The final layer of behavior change is identity-based. As James Clear says, this is “a simple two-step process: 1. Decide the type of person you want to be. 2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.” Instead of saying “I want to run a marathon,” tell yourself “I am a runner.” That small change in mindset will motivate you to lace up those running shoes and get out the door. Because that’s what someone who is a runner would do, right? Every time you act on that impulse, you are a runner.

My system was waiting before I lit up a cigarette. It helped me break the Habit Loop by decoupling the link between the craving and response mechanisms — suddenly, one did not lead automatically to the next. And while it may have taken a few months, the day finally came when I reached for my last cigarette (April 3, 2006, lest you think I’d forgotten). And I haven’t looked back since.

Maintain your momentum

Real, lasting change isn’t easy, but it is possible — I haven’t smoked in almost 13 years. The key to creating good habits — and eliminating bad ones — is to start small, identify the effects of the Habit Loop in your life, and build systems to help you shift your focus from what you want to achieve to who you want to be.

If you’d like some support on the journey (and let’s face it, we could all use a little of that), check out the Ever Better Challenge from Evernote. It’s a free 30-day program to help you break the habits that have been holding you back, so you can finish what you start.

What big goals have you reached? And what strategies did you use to accomplish them? Let us know in the comments below!

Anthony Bartlett may have given up some of his worst habits, but don’t worry, there’s plenty more where they came from.

Focus Culture

Where organization, passion, and creative thinking meet. Brought to you by Evernote.


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Focus Culture

Where organization, passion, and creative thinking meet. Brought to you by Evernote.

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