Your Bad Habits are Hurting Your Progress: Here’s What Science Says on How to Break Them

Kaye Ramos
Oct 9, 2017 · 9 min read

Research shows sixty-six days is the average time for a person to form a habit. It varies from 18 to 254 days for it to stick.

Habits are the brain’s way of helping us by establishing a pattern that neurons can follow. They put us on autopilot.

They can be your servants or masters. Most people choose the latter by fostering the bad ones.

They waste time in front of their smartphones or TV screens instead of doing their work.

They stress out during submissions because they can’t break their procrastination.

They struggle with weight and health because they can’t stop their bad eating habits.

They feel good when they do it but feel bad afterward. They promise to break the bad habit, but they cannot resist the temptation. They pledge to do it tomorrow until the idea disappears into the ether.

There is nothing to be embarrassed about when you have bad habits. Every person has. I know I have.

Being open to break them puts you on the advantage against most people who deny them.

You cannot change something if you can’t accept that something has to change.

Small, bad behaviors when piled up can have a negative impact in the long run. Your bad habits can create a dent in your productivity.

Many cannot accept that the results they are reaping today are the sum of what they repeatedly do. No wonder only a few benefit from the power of habits.

Five Ways to Bid Your Bad Habits Goodbye

“The soul, like the body, accepts by practice whatever habit one wishes to contact.” — Socrates

Habits are difficult to change because they are already ingrained in your system. Doing things regularly condition your neurons to make the action automatic.

This is why your brain does not exert a conscious effort when you perform your morning regimen.

Bad habits are magnets that pull you away from your goals. They slow down your growth.

Many people would like to stop them. Despite their best efforts, they are unable to change. Their habits take them to the direction they don’t want.

Bad habits are difficult to break because they make a person feel good.

Dr. Russell Poldrack said that pleasure-based habits are harder to break. The brain releases a chemical dopamine when it experiences an enjoyable behavior. He said:

“If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you’re not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again.”

People have different habits, and so the way to break them differ from person to person.

It takes a lot of trial-and-error before you can nail what works for you. There is no one-size fits all formula that everyone can apply.

Here are some science-backed ways that can help break your bad habits or at least minimize their existence:

1. Identify Your Habit Loop

Whether devouring a pack of potato chips or procrastinating, you have one bad habit you want to bid goodbye.

Charles Duhigg shared the “habit loop” concept in his best-selling book, Power of Habits. He explained that habit consists of three parts: a routine, a reward, and a cue.

Once you identify each part, you can tailor ways to combat or replace those habits.

First is to pinpoint the behavior you want to change or your Routine.

It’s when you get your phone and scroll social media feed instead of doing what you must. It’s when you take a long nap even though you need to finish something. It is when you grab a box of cookies when you have to eat salad instead.

This routine robs your time that can be devoted to tackling more important tasks. Recognizing the routine that impedes your improvement is a key to correcting it.

The Habit Loob by Charles Duhigg

Next is to identify the Reward that you get from the routine. It is what makes you repeat the activity. It is the pleasure you get from doing it.

Duhigg said to test different hypotheses to find out what drives your craving. As you test, change some variables like the location, time or object involved in the habit.

After each experience, write three words that you can associate with the activity.

What makes you satisfied doing it?

Is it the salty taste from the chips? the crunch? the texture?

Is it the gossip from social media? the funny meme? the updates from friends?

Is it the quietness from your nap? the softness of the bed? the smell of the room?

Writing down the words can help you remember the thoughts involve in that experience. Once you have identified the reward, you can find another activity to replace it.

The Cue is what triggers the habitual behavior.

Certain time, place, activity, emotion or people can trigger habits. Making a plan to avoid what triggers them can create a difference.

Many people want to stop eating unhealthy chips, yet, they cannot stop from buying them.

You can develop a principle “out of sight, out of mind.” When you don’t see that craving, it is easier to ignore it. Limit your contact with it.

Your habits may reflect how you feel. When you are bored, you are likely to lurk on social media. Few minutes will turn into hours. It steals your attention and productivity.

To find out the cue, Duhigg suggests writing five things when the urge hits.

To have a clear picture, identify the five categories: location, time, emotion, people and preceding action. Track down the activity for at least three days until you find the recurring pattern.

If your bad habit is being on your phone for a long time, study the cues involved.

Time: Is it there a certain time of the day you do it?
People: Are there people involved when you do it?
Emotion: Are you agitated or bored that prompt you to pick your phone?
Preceding Action: What did you do before you pick your phone? What action triggered you to pick it?
Location: Is there a part of the house where you always do it?

Once you identify your habit loop, brainstorm possible activities to replace that behavior. You can test by changing the cue that drives the habit.

It may take a while before you find the exact factors that drive them. Knowing what to correct can lead you to better planning than targeting different things at the same time.

2. It’s Not That “I Can’t” But “I Don’t”

Researchers from the University of Houston performed an experiment where they instructed one group to use “I can’t” while the other used “I don’t”. After the study, they were offered a granola bar or chocolate. The 39% of people who used “I can’t” chose the granola bar while 64% of people who used “I don’t” chose it instead of chocolate.

This experiment demonstrates the importance of word choice and how it can affect the motivation of a person.

Instead of saying, “I can’t eat potato chips” reframe it as “I don’t eat potato chips.” It is sort of convincing yourself that you don’t actually do the behavior.

Most people are easily persuaded by others when they respond with I can’t.

Looks familiar?

“Here, try this. Just one glass of beer.”

“No, I can’t drink that.”

“Oh common, don’t be a baby. One glass won’t kill you.”

“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t… Okay, just one.”
As opposed to:

“I don’t drink beer. My body does not respond well to it.”


Your words are powerful. What you utter sends signals to your brain on what to follow.

Choose words that can help you in a situation. Take extra caution on how you use “I don’t.” Use it in situations that can serve you well.

3. Replace the Bad Habit with a Good Habit

Stopping anything can be difficult. Psychologist Timothy Pychyl said that to break a bad habit, one must establish a new habit.

When habits are formed, the neurons in the brain follow a pattern that makes the activity easier to perform. This pattern is difficult to break. To weaken it, you must establish a new habit.

Your neurons will gradually create a new connection that will become a pattern when the behavior is fostered consistently.

Neuroscientist Elliot Berkman also confirms that the brain finds it easier to do something new than to stop doing the habitual activity without replacement.

When you decide to replace your bad habit, think of the activity for a while.

If you want some changes for 2018, start thinking about those changes now. Expose yourself to the materials involve and educate yourself about the matter. By doing so, you are preparing your subconscious to the transition you are about to launch.

The longer you’ve had the habit, the more challenging to replace it.

Many people cannot stand the process. They easily give in to the cravings of their body.

But people who are motivated enough to change are capable of succeeding.

4. Don’t Take It Slow

When it comes to breaking a habit, many often hear the advice “take it slow.” If you want to stop eating unhealthy, cut your sugar first, then fat and so on.

But recent neuroscience research suggests that taking it slow can limit our abilities to break the habit. They say that dealing with several bad habits at the same time is effective if they are closely linked.

Do you find yourself falling asleep in the afternoon while browsing your phone?

Or maybe you enjoy eating while watching that made you gain weight?

You can work on both at the same time by identifying the reason behind it. That’s where the habit loop can help you.

Though they are two different activities, they are closely related. They both affect a certain area of your life and performance.

Tackling them at the same time can stretch your ability and discipline as a person. You can always improve with repeated practice and conscious effort. Your accountability can take you to the level you want.

5. Activate the Red Traffic Light in Your Brain

Nicole Calakos, one of the researchers from Duke University, trained mice to develop habits. These mice were conditioned to press the lever, so they could get a treat.

They compared the brains of the trained mice with those of untrained and looked for patterns. They found out there are two cell types with approximately equal numbers — one that triggers “go” signal and other triggers “stop.”

They tested the two groups using the same lever experiment. The untrained mice are better at resisting because their “stop” signal came first. While the brains of trained mice activate the “go” signal first because of the habits they formed.

When behaviors are repeated, the go trigger becomes strong and gets activated when prompted. Reducing exposure to the activity can slowly reduce the capacity of “go” signal in the brain. This is good for breaking bad habits.

When you remind yourself to stop the behavior, the go signal isn’t reinforced as much. When the go signal does not activate often, the habit becomes weak over time.

Will They Break You or You Break Them

“Cultivate only the habits that you are willing should master you.” — Elbert Hubbard

Changing what you always do can be challenging.

Most people can’t do it. People who don’t get discouraged easily are able to overcome them.

Habits can work to your advantage. They can make you work faster. You can be efficient in any activity you decide to do.

But habits can cripple your progress too.

Many people are crippled to reach their goals. They let the bad habits thrive. They don’t exercise their control muscle that resists temptations.

The champions of the world are people who are willing to sacrifice comfort to win.

Breaking the bad habits can be painful at the beginning. But you become a winner when you endure the pain and suffering in the training.

You can rebound and repair the injury that bad habits caused.

If it does not work out the first try, that’s fine. Allow your failures to inspire you to redouble your efforts, instill new habits and seek challenges to better yourself.

When you confront your struggles, you become stronger and more capable to face the next phase.

Before you know it, those bad habits are now part of history.

They don’t get in your way anymore. They don’t enslave you. They don’t dictate your actions.

Instead, you lead the way.

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Kaye Ramos

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Sharing things that Matter and Deliver. I aim to inspire you through my writing.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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