Home » Healthy Habits » The Science Behind Replacing Bad Habits With Good Ones

The Science Behind Replacing 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, it’s the latter that is often so difficult to give up. Why is that?

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

The Anatomy Of 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.

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

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

A cue 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 up their things. That’s a possible cue.

The routine is to head over 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. You’ll need to sit down and think through whether or not you know for sure what cues your habit and what reward you actually get from it.

Understanding 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 is giving 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 from.

Or maybe it’s that you’re intensely lonely and this is the only group you really 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. 

Understanding Your Cue

Sometimes cues are easy to sort out, but oftentimes, there are deeper, less obvious things triggering us to engage in a routine that we’re trying to avoid (i.e. happy hour). 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’s 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

understanding rewards and cues for bad habits

Changing Your Habit Loop

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?

people taking kickboxing classes to avoid indulging bad habits
finding healthy replacements for bad habits

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.

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.

wrestling with the challenges of breaking bad habits

Most Of Your Bad Habits Are Caused By Stress And Boredom

Bad habits that turn into 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 either, you’ve likely reached a point where you have ZERO coping mechanisms for either emotion that doesn’t involve your chemical crutch.

These are the habits that our brain fights us tooth and nail over. 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 it dopamine, the feel-good chemical. Alcohol, nicotine, and even bad food, can all do this and once it becomes a part of your habit loop, your brain is resistant to letting it go. (Perhaps an understatement).

Eventually, it comes to relying on your bad habit to give it that dopamine boost and stops producing enough dopamine on its own.

Even though going for a run has the potential to create the same dopamine rush, 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. In order to help it do that, here are some tips from the experts.


Eliminate As Many Triggers As Possible

We’ve already discussed the importance of avoiding triggers in early sobriety, but it’s important to note again just HOW important this is for creating new habits.

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.

Change Your Tribe

new group of friends hiking who support each other's healthy habits
make friends with people who support your healthy habits

To the greatest extent possible, seek out people who are living the life you want to live. You’re not 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. Do you know anyone in real life also doing Dry January? Lean on each other for support. If not, there’s always the Soberish Facebook Group.

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.

Make yourself daydream about being someone who isn’t hungover every weekend, is 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.

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 asshole who never thinks you can do anything right and isn’t afraid to let that opinion be known.

Lord help us whenever we mess up. That inner asshole 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 the verbal assaults raging around your brain and turn them into “but” statements. Force yourself to remember that it doesn’t always have to be this way.

change the way you think about the process of the habits

What If I Feel Like I Still Can’t Control My Drinking? 

When your drinking has devolved into the realm of addiction, it is no longer just a bad habit to be replaced. It’s more serious than that and you need to approach it as such.

If you find yourself physically or mentally sick from not drinking alcohol, you’ll need to consider counseling, group program like AA (or other similar programs), and maybe even in or out-patient rehab.

Changing habit loops is not an EASY endeavor, even if the process seems simple enough. You still have to contend with that pesky inner voice that wants to pull you back into the familiar, bad habit. You’ll still have work bestie Chelsea at your desk begging you to come to happy hour this week.

This is not that.

You can deal with that inner voice. You can handle Chelsea if you put your mind to it. But if you’re feeling especially powerless, you may need to seek counseling or additional help to get yourself through this. Chances are happy hour on Fridays is not your only destructive routine involving alcohol.

Journal Activity For Today

I want you to take time today to really get to know your habit loop. What are your drinking cues? What is your drinking routine? What rewards do you get from drinking? List out as many thoughts as you have when thinking about these things and begin designing new, healthy habit loops to replace drinking.

You likely have several loops to replace. You’ve got your happy hour routine to replace. Perhaps you have an after-work routine to replace as well. Maybe there’s a Sunday afternoon game day routine to replace.

Know your loops and make a plan to replace them with better ones that match your personal goals.

Additionally, you can think about the following:

  • When did this habit start for you? How has it changed over the years?
  • What does that negative voice inside your head like to say to you? Create some “but” statements to confront these ideas. 
  • Write about what your life will be like once this habit has been successfully replaced. What do you picture in your mind when you think about it?

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, you can buy his book The Power of Habit here.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *