Breaking Bad Habits – Be a detective:

It is tough to dump bad habits. The process starts with understanding:

Habits have three inter-locking steps:
• First, there is a cue, or a trigger (for example, the feeling of hunger);
• Second, a routine or behavior (in this case above it means eating); and
• Third, we get a reward (we are satiated).

Habits are self-reinforcing loops.  The cue stimulates behavior, which generates a reward. That reinforces the behavior. Moreover, we develop craving for the reward, over time. About 40% of our activity is habitual. So, habits are integral to our psyches. As Will Durant said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act, but a habit”.

True, you can break bad habits with self-control. Still, people respond better to rewards, than to control. In fact, that’s how humans evolved over 3 million years. We want food, companionship, security, power, meaning, and so forth.  Humans move towards rewards.

Hence, changing habits starts with mindfulness.  You need to understand the cues that trigger behavior, leading to rewards. Here is the three-step process:

Map out habit loops:

Figure out your cues. For example, if you over-eat, do you eat snacks whilst watching TV?  Do you drink while eating?  Do you snack between meals? Does stress make you eat?

Cues are important because the brain connects the cue to behavior, and to rewards.  Craving comes from a neurological connection to the reward. The smell of a cinnamon may trigger a craving for a cinnamon bun. There are five common cues:

  • location;
  • time;
  • emotion;
  • others; or
  • some previous activity.

Keeping notes helps:  When, where, and how do you perform the habits?  How do you feel when you indulge in bad habits?  Do others play a role?  Is the habit part of a bigger activity?

Be Curious:

You need to be a detective, studying your behavior and recognizing the patterns. Treat yourself as a patient. The solution could mean changing behavior, whilst maintaining the reward.  Or, you may find healthier, more productive ways of satisfying the craving.  Each habit is unique.

Once you know your cue, the behavior, and the reward, you can restructure the habit.  Then, you will need self-discipline to change your habits. Understanding starts with objective curiosity.

Formulate a plan:

Now, that you understand the process, you can devise a plan. When you feel the cue, you adopt a new behavior, but still get the reward. For example, you crave an energy boost in the afternoon. Rather than eating jelly babies, you drink green tea, or take a short brisk walk, or eat some fruit.

Changing habits means experimentation.  It is tricky, too.  Why? Because you are outsmarting your brain, by rewriting your neuropsychological programing. Remember all living organism look for stability – for homeostasis.  So, changing habits is easier when new behavior has some similarity to what you are replacing.  It’s easier to restructure bad habits than to eradicate them.

Try different combinations.  You want to fulfill the craving without the bad behavior.  Be tolerant.  It could take some time.

Final Comments:

Self-discipline is important. But the cornerstones of changing habits are curiosity and the desire to change.

Full understanding of our bad habits leads to roadmaps for self-improvement.  You are the vehicle of your own positive transformation.

Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself.  If you are on the road to improvement, you may stumble, as you move towards your goal.  Keep at it.

Peter Labrie


Brewer, J. (2019). How to Break Up with Your Bad Habits: HBR Webinar.  Retrieved from

Duhigg, C. (2014). The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business.  New York, NY: Random House

Frank, T. (2015). 5 Lessons from “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.

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