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How to Break a Bad Habit for Good

How to Break a Bad Habit for Good

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Even as you focus on the new habit, the new you, you still must face the reality of giving up the old habit. Once you’ve made the decision, it’s time to take the first steps on your journey of change. Bad habits can sometimes be hard to break, but in this guide we will give you the tools to be successful!

There are several ways to break with your old habit. The most common is going cold turkey, but that might not work for everyone. Here are the best ways to handle quitting your bad habit—see which one works best for you.

Going Cold Turkey

For some bad habits, abstinence is the goal—no further relationship whatsoever with the habit. Conventional wisdom holds that abstinence is essential for habits that cause physical harm to your health and well-being, such as smoking and drug abuse. Many addiction programs, like the 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous emphasize abstinence as the only way to change an addictive habit that involves a chemical substance.

When you quit your bad habit cold-turkey, you just up and turn your back on it. You might think of cold turkey as quick and clean, and it can be. But it also can be challenging, even harsh. Remember, those habits have taken years, maybe decades, to entrench themselves into your brain, and now they alter the chemistry and function of your brain. Cutting them off cold may set off a backlash sort of reaction that intensifies your cravings—for the short term. Once your brain recovers from the shock, things will go back to normal. But be prepared for that bump in the middle.

The advantage of quitting cold turkey is that it’s a swift kick in the keister to your bad habit. The risk of quitting cold turkey is that the shock might be so much for your body, thoughts, and emotions that you can’t get back to your old habit fast enough. With chemical substances—alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, other drugs—you might experience physical withdrawal symptoms. If this happens, you need to talk with your doctor.

Many people find cold turkey the most effective approach with environment-associated addictive behaviors such as gambling. It’s more difficult to apply the approach to habits such as procrastination.

Replacing Your Habit

Many addiction specialists now accept that for most of us, abstinence alone isn’t enough to hold us when it comes to dropping an old habit. We need to find a new focus that’s more enticing, more compelling than the old habit, to shift interest and energy to a new way of living.

Replacement is an approach of substituting the undesirable habit with a healthier action. If you’re breaking the smoking habit, you might chew gum or suck on hard candies. People working to distance themselves from alcohol may opt for a fruit-flavored soda or soda water instead of a drink. Those who are changing their eating habits might fill the fridge with snack-ready sliced fruits and veggies to replace stores of ice cream and candy. These substitutions give your brain a way to accommodate existing cues without falling into the rut of the old habit.

This is not the same as finding a new habit (a collection of behaviors) to pull your focus away from the old habit, though your replacements can be things you want as part of your new lifestyle. But in this narrow context, replacement is a single, new behavior in response to an old trigger. Replacement is most effective when you’re first quitting the old habit. You might choose to recall it to duty as part of your relapse prevention plan, too, to help keep you centered and on track through a particularly challenging time.

The benefit of replacement is that it lets you respond to cues and cravings, relieving anxiety and giving you a sense of being in control. You make a conscious and aware choice to answer the call of your old habit with a different behavior.

The risk of replacement is that you may find yourself exchanging one bad habit for another. Replacement often works well in combination with the cold turkey approach, letting you shift your focus to something else while your brain and body adjust to the absence of your “fix.”

Choose your substitutes with care, though, keeping in mind your overall plan for change. Replacements work only when they are as easy as, or easier than, the old habit. If you’re going to chew gum instead of smoke, put packs of gum everywhere you used to have packs of cigarettes. If you’re changing your eating habits, make it as easy to grab some dried fruit as it was to have a handful of M&Ms.

Tapering Off

If what you’re doing is bad for you, then doing less of it is at least better (harm reduction). This is the premise of tapering—gradually cutting back on a bad habit. Some people feel that tapering is like undoing the habit, rolling back its entrenchment until it finally disappears.

The advantage of the taper approach is that it lets you wean yourself from your habit, which may be less stressful than going cold turkey. The risk of tapering is that you may prolong your relationship with your old habit, teasing every last bit from it before finally letting it slip from your fingertips.

The taper approach is most effective when you establish a measurable decline over a set period of time. For example, if you’re quitting smoking, first determine how frequently and how many cigarettes you currently smoke. At what rate would you have to cut your smoking to be smoke-free in four weeks? Three weeks? Two weeks? Then stick to your plan, without exception. You might find it helpful to make up a chart so you can keep track or count out each day’s cigarettes and put them in a container. Some people combine tapering and substitution.


Aversion is creating a negative association or sense of unpleasantness around your old habit, like wearing a rubber band around your wrist and snapping it when you feel yourself on the edge of indulging the habit. The idea is that the pain you then experience is unpleasant enough to turn your attention away from the craving.

The downside of aversion is that it’s a form of negative reinforcement, which runs counter to the framework of creating positive replacements for your bad habit. It’s human nature to avoid that which is uncomfortable or unpleasant. The risk of the aversion method is that we may decide we’re stuck choosing the lesser of two evils and the bad habit looks better. If aversion appeals to you, combine it with ways to reward yourself for staying on track.


Avoidance is removing the temptations of your old habit from your environment or removing yourself from the temptations. Donate the coffeemaker to Goodwill, or find a new route home after work that bypasses the tavern where you used to stop for happy hour.

Many addiction specialists recommend adding avoidance to all methods of quitting a bad habit. Change is tough enough without constantly challenging yourself with the same cues and triggers. To move on in your habits, you must move on in your life. And that means distancing yourself from the old in physical and tangible ways.

Maybe the others in your household or work group are ready to change their bad habits, too! The more changes you can make in the patterns of your daily life to support quitting your bad habit and instilling good habits, the more successful you will be. Good luck!

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Changing Old Habits for Good by G. Alan Marlatt, Ph.D., and Deborah S. Romaine