How to Ditch Bad Habits and Build New Ones

Emily Boynton Fact Checked
Woman works on a laptop
© Alia Images / Stocksy United

In this COVID-19 world, we’ve gone through some phases. There was the toilet paper and beans phase, the bread-baking phase and the more recent at-home haircut phase.

But as the pandemic continues to stretch on, we’re all facing the fact that, unlike hoarding cans of pinto beans, navigating COVID-19 is not going to be a short-lived phase.  

One small silver lining? The new normal gives us the chance to reexamine what we do on the daily and determine if those repetitive thoughts and activities are what we really want for ourselves.

In fact, people across the U.S. have added old hobbies like arts and crafts to their routines and a recent survey suggests more than a million people in the U.K. have quit smoking since the start of the pandemic.

So, if you’re looking to kick your caffeine addiction or start a yoga practice, here’s what you need to know about building and breaking habits. 

How do you form a habit?

Habits are patterns of thoughts and behaviors that you do automatically. They’re formed by doing the same thing over and over again until you do the activity without conscious attention.

“We normally do things in the same way, at the same time, in the same manner,” says Ty W. Lostutter, a clinical psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. He conducts behavioral health research at the Center for the Study of Health & Risk Behaviors (CSHRB) and conducts his clinical work at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Consider when you leave your house. While at first you had to remind yourself to grab your keys and lock up, you likely now do so without thinking about it at all. Because of the repetition, locking your door when you leave has become a habit.

This same process of forming habits of behavior also happens with your thought patterns, Lostutter notes. 

If you repeatedly compliment yourself after little successes (or tear yourself down after setbacks) these thought patterns become ingrained habits. Eventually, you’ll instinctively praise yourself or criticize yourself, without consciously realizing why that thought occurs.

Why is it so hard to change your behavior?

Even when you have a strong desire to change your habits, ditching that after-work TV binge or nail-biting tick can be easier said than done.

Lostutter notes two main reasons why changing your habits is so difficult: environmental cues and internal cues.

On the environmental side, the people and places that surround you can influence and reinforce your habits. 

If your roommate or partner turns on the TV at 5 o’clock sharp, it’s a lot easier to slip back into binging shows than if your housemate’s go-to hobby is to whip out some watercolors or take the dog for a walk around the neighborhood.

Similarly, internal cues can predispose you toward a habit or nudge you back into old routines. 

Certain biological factors can influence cravings and addictions, making it harder for you to quit smoking, drinking or eating to excess. And something as simple as a bad day can make you turn to old habits for comfort.

How do you change your habits?

We’ve established that changing your routine is hard, but the good news is it’s possible to break old habits and build new ones. 

Lostutter recommends these tips to help make things easier. 

Determine your reason for making a change

Start by thinking about why you want to change your behavior, Lostutter says.

Ask yourself what your motivations and intentions are for shifting your habits. This way, when things get hard (like moments when you’re facing those environmental and internal pressures), you can remind yourself of the reason you are putting in the effort to make a change in the first place. 

To help solidify this, you can write down the “why” behind your goal or hang up an image that will remind you of your motivation in a prominent place so that you will see it regularly.

Plan ahead

Once you’ve decided you want to break or create a habit (and determined why), you can start preparing for how you’ll go about changing your behavior. The goal here is to make it difficult to fall back into your old habit and easy to stick with your new routine. 

For example, if you want to reinforce a reading habit, you could keep a book on your bedside table and set an alarm 30 minutes before you want to sleep so that you have scheduled time to read each night. 

In contrast, if you want to break a habit of eating unhealthy snacks, you can make it harder to access highly processed food by tossing out the chips and cookies in your pantry. 

Substitute old habits with new ones

“If you take something away, sometimes you need to replace it with something else that will make you feel as good or better,” Lostutter says. “It should be something as positive or rewarding as the old thing was.”

The idea is that in moments when you are craving the old habit you will already have an alternative in place that you can enjoy instead. 

In the case of quitting unhealthy snacks, you could replace the processed stuff with nutritious options like apple slices and peanut butter, baby carrots and hummus or jicama sticks and cinnamon — whatever sounds exciting and snackable to you that will curb your desire to turn back to that old routine.

Pay attention to your mindset

“Thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected to each other through neural connections,” Lostutter says. “If you change your thoughts it will help change your behaviors.” 

In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), this process occurs through cognitive restructuring, or identifying and then disputing harmful thoughts.

Say you are trying to exercise more. You’re doing pretty well overall, but then on days when you skip that yoga class, you immediately have thoughts that you are a failure or that you can’t meet your goals. 

Repeating these hurtful ideas can create a thought pattern that makes it even harder to change your behaviors.

With cognitive restructuring, you can look at the event that happened (you skipped yoga), the belief you have about it (you can’t reach your goals) and the emotional consequence of that belief (you feel badly about yourself and lose motivation). 

From there, you can determine if your current thought pattern is helpful or if there are healthier and more truthful ways of thinking about yourself, like the fact that you are a work in progress and that you’ve successfully achieved goals in the past. 

If you take the time to notice negative ideas, you can start to debunk them and replace them with kinder, truer and more useful thoughts. 

Be compassionate with yourself

Changing your habits isn’t always a fast or linear process, and that’s OK.

It takes three to six months to change a habit, Lostutter notes, so give yourself time to incrementally make change.

It’s also completely normal to have moments where you slip back into previous routines. If and when this happens, be gentle with yourself. By giving yourself some grace, the process of changing your habits can actually become more positive and exciting. 

“Reward yourself for meeting goals and find ways to make it fun,” Lostutter says.

Take it one step at a time. Whether you’re striving for a morning jog, more veggies or less screen time, you just might find you enjoy the change.