Break a Bad Habit in 5

Looking to crack your worst habit? Follow these quick and clever tips. 

Shutterstock (In-text illustrations by Giacomo Gambineri) 

From nail-biting (so gross!) to phone-checking (so rude!), your bad behaviors make a major statement. Here’s how to crush them for good. 

1. Make a public pledge

How it works: You told yourself that this is the year you’ll finally stop skipping breakfast, no matter how much you’ll miss those extra Zzz’s. Now tell someone else you’re trying to change, whether it’s your best friend or all 600 of your Instagram followers!

 Why it works: Failure stinks, which is why our brains will do anything to avoid it. Broadcasting your goal not only holds you accountable, but it also builds a support team behind you. Just think of the likes you could rack up with pics of your delish breakfasts!

2. Identify your triggers

How it works:  Like, why can’t you stop, like, saying, “like”? Before you can break a bad habit, you have to know when (and why!) you’re doing it. Keep a habit log for a week: Track every time you say “like,” plus where you are and how you’re feeling. 

Why it works: Once an action becomes a habit, your brain starts operating on autopilot—you have to get back into the driver’s seat in order to change course. If you can figure out when you say “like,” you can start looking for patterns (maybe it’s only when you’re nervous or excited), and that insight can help you concentrate on correcting your speech in those extra risky situations. 

3. Create obstacles

How it works:You know it’s a time-suck, but you can’t stop checking Snapchat while doing your homework. So set a barrier between you and your bad habit: Ask Mom to keep your phone on lockdown!

Why it works:  If given the choice between doing something easy (scrolling your phone) and something hard (digging into geometry), you’ll always take the easy route. With this trick, you make finding your phone a lot harder than tackling your math!

4. Replace with positives

How it works: You can’t stop biting your nails! But if you doodle or play air piano when you feel the urge, you’ll keep your brain and hands busy until the impulse passes.

Why it works:  Habits are actually memories that our lazy brains turn to when they can’t make a decision. By replacing the bad habit with a better one, you create a new memory that your brain can go to instead!


5. Tap your motivation

How it works:  Want to kick your daily soda habit? Use a motivator that reminds you why it pays to change. (For example, hang up a pic of the sneakers you’ll buy with the cash you save on pop!).

Why it works:  We’re bad at thinking about the future when faced with a decision that affects us right now. Having a reminder of your long-term goal will help you through the moments when “a little sip” seems like no big deal.


Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others.

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