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How To Replace Bad Habits With Good Ones

Whenever you’re making a big change in your life, it’s important to understand the process your brain and body are going through. More specifically, I want you to have a solid grasp of habits: what they are, and how to change them.

The dictionary definition of a habit is a “settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” There are good habits, and there are bad ones.

As luck would have it, giving up a bad habit is infinitely harder than adopting a good one. Why is that?

an ash tray full of cigarette butts, a hot dog, and a martini are x-ed out in red. The title reads HOW TO REPLACE A BAD HABIT
How to replace bad habits with good habits

How You Form A Habit

I’ve written about breaking bad habits before. I pull a lot of my insights from Charles Duhigg’s work and his book The Power Of Habit, which I cannot recommend enough.

I’m going to take his process and apply it specifically to drinking, but you can replace it with any habit that you want to get rid of. 

Duhigg cites a study from MIT researchers that examines the behavior of habits in terms of a loop.

The habit breaks down as follows:

  • Cue: a trigger of some sort that makes you want to do a behavior
  • Routine: the behavior or action
  • Reward: the positive feeling or benefit you get from taking that action

In the case of bad habits, the benefits of these rewards are temporary, but the negative impact of the behavior usually has major long-term consequences.

Smoking a cigarette alleviates the craving and gives you a temporary sensation of calm and relief, but the stained teeth, respiratory problems, and lung cancer are hardly worth the trade-off.

Learn how habits are formed and reinforced
habits loop explaining how habits work

If you have the time and interest, here’s the process explained in excellent detail from the man himself:

How You Change A Habit:

If you want to change a habit, you have to understand it. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of that process.

woman resisting being offered several items of bad habits
how to replace bad habits

#1. Understand your habit loop.

Duhigg suggests that if you want to change a habit, you must understand your habit loop. I’ll use drinking as an example.

A cue (or trigger) for your drinking habit could be any number of things. Let’s say it’s 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon in the office, and everyone is gathering their things. That’s a possible cue.

The routine is to head to the bar down the street from work with your coworkers like you do every Friday. The reward could be that you get to enjoy the camaraderie of your colleagues, the alcohol makes you feel relaxed after a long week, or happy hour is fun.

One note about habit loops – sometimes, the cues and the rewards are not particularly obvious.

For example, when I first quit drinking, I would come home and look at my balcony and feel an intense craving for alcohol. Why? It’s a balcony!

Well, my routine used to be to come home, mix a drink, and sit outside. The visual cue of coming home to see my balcony triggered the habit loop in my brain, which didn’t like this new routine.

You have to learn your habit loop. What are the cues and triggers that make you want to do this behavior you’re trying to change?

This works whether the behavior is drinking, smoking a cigarette, eating sweets, or hitting the snooze button instead of going to the gym.

#2. Understand Your Rewards

Duhigg suggests that you play scientist to determine what exactly are the rewards you get from any habit or routine. Let’s go back to breaking the habit of going to happy hour on Fridays and getting drunk.

It’s time to experiment.

Try going to happy hour with your colleagues and order something non-alcoholic. Are you still having a great time? Is it the energy of being with your colleagues that drive your happy hour habit?

What if happy hour without booze is small torture?

The following week, try going and only having one drink and then leaving early, so you’re not ruining your entire Friday night by being hammered by 7 pm.

Can’t do it? Then perhaps it’s the getting drunk part that’s doing it for you.

Man questioning where his bad habits come from
Questioning the drivers of bad habits

What is the ACTUAL reward of happy hour?

If it’s just the camaraderie with friends, you should be able to attend without drinking and be fine, or at the very least, not get silly drunk and limit yourself to one or two drinks.

But if you can’t do either, perhaps the real reward is the release that being drunk gives you.

And perhaps the reason you get wasted specifically at happy hour with this group of people is that there’s something toxic about your work environment that you’re all looking to escape.

Or maybe it’s that you’re intensely lonely, and this is the only group you hang out with, so you drown your loneliness in alcohol and ride the energy wave of the after-Friday-work-hangout till the last person’s gone home.

Get granular. What are you really getting out of this?

If it feels more like something you can’t control, then it’s worth examining if your drinking has crossed over into problem drinking territory

#3. Understand Your Cues and Triggers

Sometimes cues are easy to sort out, but often, there are deeper, less obvious things triggering us to engage in a routine that we’re trying to avoid.

If you’re unsure of what exactly is causing the urge to grab your coat and head to the bar, Duhigg suggests keeping track of five categories.

  • Location (Where am I?)
  • Time (What time is it?)
  • Emotional state (How do I feel right now?)
  • Other people (Who else is around?)
  • Immediate preceding action (What action proceeded the urge?)

Every time you feel like running to the bar for happy hour, write the answers down to these questions. I’ll give some examples:

  • Where am I? I’m at my desk finishing an e-mail
  • What time is it? It’s 5:15 PM
  • How do I feel right now? anxious 
  • Who else is around? My work bestie Chelsea
  • What action proceeded the urge? Chelsea told me to pack it up because it was time to head to the bar.

Do this a few times and see what consistently triggers you to head over to happy hour. Does an emotion cue your desire for happy hour? Is it other people? Is work bestie Chelsea the one who gets you to cave every time?

It might be as simple as, well, it’s 5:00 PM on a Friday, and this is what I always do at this time on this day, but maybe it’s something else. Once you identify it, then you can change it.

Whether your bad habit is unhealthy snacking, spending too much time on your phone after work, or something else, this process will help you unpack the conditions that trigger your bad habit

#4: Disrupt your habit loop to change it.

Once you’ve got a firm grasp of the cues driving you to this routine and the reward it gives you, you’re ready to make some changes.

Let’s say the cue is time. At 5:15 pm every Friday, you get hit with the urge to go to happy hour and get drunk because it makes you feel relaxed after a long week.

What can you do instead?

What is something else you can do to feel relaxed on a Friday after work? Do you enjoy kickboxing? Would a non-alcoholic dinner with friends at a place with delicious food be just as satisfying?

Experiment with this as well until you find something that gives you a reward equal to the benefit you received from the old habit.

Let’s say kicking and punching a bag for an hour after work is really doing it for you. Congratulations! Make a plan.

At 4:50 pm every day, my alarm goes off to remind me to hit up kickboxing class. I leave before anybody can talk me into skipping my class and going to happy hour instead. 

Use alarms and reminders to hold yourself accountable until this new routine replaces the old one and happy hour on Fridays is no longer on your radar.

Alas, what seems simple in theory, is often not.

The idea is to disrupt the cues that trigger the behavior so that you can choose a different action. The more you can disrupt your cues, the better equipped you will be to avoid the bad habit.

#5. Integrate healthy substitutes into your routine.

Once you’ve established what you want to stop doing, it’s time to start integrating the behavior you want to start doing.

Don’t just subtract the bad habit. Replace it with a healthier one.

If you have a bad habit of snacking midafternoon, don’t just eliminate the snack. Bring some cut-up fruit (or whatever healthier option) and eat that instead before going for a walk.

If you have a habit of drinking alcohol after a stressful day, find a replacement behavior.

Instead of drinking when I get stressed, I’m going to connect with a therapist. Or, instead of drinking when I get stressed, I’m going to attend a yoga class.

It’s not easy, and you have to slowly integrate the new habit to make it stick, but this is the basic framework of how it’s done.

Why Is Breaking A Bad Habit So Hard?

I have asked myself this question so many times in my life.

It is one thing to replace your habit of ordering McDonald’s after work. It is quite another to replace something like smoking cigarettes, for example.

The same principles apply to both.

James Clear is another habits guru helping people to ditch bad habits and replace them with new ones. Beyond changing your habit loop, he offers up additional tools you’ll need to kick hard-to-break bad habits, particularly those on which we’ve developed a psychological or emotional dependency.

Most Of Your Bad Habits Are Caused By Stress And Boredom

Bad habits that become a source of physical and psychological dependency are the toughest to overcome.

Examples include alcohol, sugary foods, and cigarettes.

If you’ve been a longtime consumer of any of these, you know how hard it can be to deal with everyday ups and downs without them.

These are the habits that hijack our brains. You can convince yourself that nothing will ever ease the stress or boredom like your beloved cocktail or cigarette.


Our brains are hardwired to crave things that feed us dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Alcohol, nicotine, and even bad food can all do this. Once it becomes a part of your habit loop, your brain is resistant to letting it go.

Eventually, it comes to relying on your bad habit to give it that dopamine boost, and stops producing enough dopamine on its own. This is especially true with alcohol, which changes the structure of your brain in ways that make you more emotionally reactive and less capable of cutting yourself off.

Even though going for a run has the potential to boost dopamine levels naturally, your brain isn’t going to automatically say, “Oh, this is fine, too.”

It will crave what it knows, and that’s why you feel like you’re fighting yourself when looking for a new reward.

Eventually, your brain will catch up. To help it do that, here are some tips from the experts.

1. Eliminate As Many Triggers As Possible.

There’s a popular saying in the recovery world, “If you don’t want a haircut, don’t go to a barbershop.” Avoid people, places, and things (where possible) that trigger your bad habit.

If you’re trying to party less and work out more, don’t go to the bar the night before a big training session.

Once you know your cues and triggers, proactively eliminate as many of them as possible. For those you can’t eliminate (like inevitable emotional triggers such as stress), find alternative coping mechanisms.

2. Change Your Tribe.

To the greatest extent possible, seek out people who are living the life you want to live.

You aren’t going to replace your bad habit while hanging around people who still engage in it. You just aren’t. Get that out of your head now.

Clear also recommends getting an accountability buddy. Whether that’s someone you know in real life or online accountability community, create a support network around your new lifestyle. Luckily for us, there are hundreds to choose from!

3. Visualize Yourself Succeeding.

There is great power in allowing yourself some mental space to picture yourself as this new, improved person who no longer has this awful habit.

My suggestion is to take Clear’s tip to visualize yourself this way whenever your brain is in attack mode. Are you getting swept up by that negative voice telling you, “This is stupid! Just have a drink, cigarette, cake, etc.”

Force yourself to change the picture in your head.

For example, if you’re trying to quit drinking or drink less, make yourself daydream about being someone who isn’t hungover every weekend. Someone happy, healthy, and good-smelling!

It might seem cheesy, but it’s a hell of a lot more useful than the emotional mosh pit currently banging around in there.

4. Embrace The Power of “BUT.”

This is another James Clear nugget that packs a powerful punch. Negative self-talk is a devil, one I know all too well. Maybe you do too. It’s that inner voice that never thinks you can do anything right and isn’t afraid to say it.

Lord, help us whenever we mess up. That inner voice is LOUD.

Instead of beating yourself up and letting that voice completely take over, Clear recommends using “but” statements.

Here are some examples.

“I slipped up and drank some wine last night, but I can start again today, and it doesn’t mean I’m ruined forever.”

“I might crave alcohol all the time right now, but there will be a day when I don’t anymore, and I will be happy if I just keep pushing through.”

“I’m a quitter, but I’m learning how to break the cycle and am developing skills to change.”

Take those internal assaults and turn them into “but” statements. Force yourself to remember that it doesn’t always have to be this way.

Additional Resources

Here is a video from Charles Duhigg explaining the habit loop and how to break bad habits. If you’re officially inspired and interested in learning more, check out his book, The Power of Habit, or James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits.

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