4 Steps to Fix Your Worst Habits

Are bad habits getting in the way of your good health intentions? Here's how to turn them around.
Published July 23, 2019

Loraine, a high school receptionist from Austin, Texas, knows her vice: "'JOBs', she says. "'Just one bites.'" She eats sensibly at mealtimes, but is "always grabbing just half a slice of bread or just a taste more of the leftovers."

Loraine's story is typical, says Raeleen D'Agostino Mautner, PhD, despite great intentions during "good" moments, bad habits are hard to break.

Why? Two reasons. First, "all routines, habits and rituals make us feel secure," says Mautner. "Even unhealthy routines are easier to maintain than to change."

Second, we are a culture of now. When we want a habit changed, we want it changed yesterday. Unfortunately, human nature doesn't always work that way: "It takes six to eight weeks for a new habit to become second nature," says Mautner. But often, especially when we're stressed, we revert to the old, "bad" behaviors. Then we think we've failed and give up trying to change altogether.

And so starts the cycle all over again — but it doesn't have to. Keep in mind that changing habits takes time and perseverance, and you're halfway there. Follow Mautner's four steps below to finish the course:


Step 1: Keep a notebook

Whatever behavior you're trying to change, write down your plan and track your progress every day.


Step 2: Create a concrete plan of attack


"I will never overeat again!" is not a plan, it's a desire. Turn that desire into a plan by saying instead: "I will work on eating healthy portion sizes by…" (Keep reading for more on making a plan of attack.)


Step 3: Be flexible

When you run into obstacles, don't resign yourself to failure and decide your bad habits are your destiny. Mautner suggests trying this: "Say to yourself, 'All right, I flubbed up, everybody does it.' But remember, the difference between those who succeed and those who don't is persistence."


Step 4: Acknowledge your success

"It's easy to lose your motivation when you don't see results as fast as you'd like them, so give yourself a pat on the back for every small success."


A Plan of Attack

The trick to breaking bad habits is deciding what you're going to do instead.

Picture yourself in the middle of your bad habit. How does it make you feel when you do it? Is there something you can do instead that will give you that same feeling? Planning to do the "instead" action is your plan of attack.

Look at our list of examples for inspiration, and then write down your own plan of attack:

Bad habit: Mindlessly eating after dinner. 
How to break it: Busy your hands with a craft project. Better yet, go for a walk!

Bad habit: Eating huge portions. 
How to break it: Relieve some of that super-hunger by eating smaller amounts of food throughout the day.

Bad habit: Taking an all-or-nothing approach to exercise. 
How to break it: Set smart, slow goals. If you start an exercise program with goals that would scare an Olympian, you're setting yourself up for failure.

Bad habit: Skipping exercise sessions. 
How to break it: Schedule exercise, and treat it like you would any important appointment.

Bad habit: Counting on junk food. 
How to break it: Plan ahead by always having healthy snacks available.

Bad habit: Not eating breakfast. 
How to break it: Always have delicious, healthy, filling, fast breakfast choices available.

Bad habit: Skipping doctor's appointments. 
How to break it: Find a doctor you really like, so the appointment isn't such a drag.

Bad habit: Avoiding the scale. 
How to break it: Consider the scale a friend instead. It gives you feedback on how you're doing in your efforts to be healthy.

Bad habit: Not eating fruits and veggies. 
How to break it: Try two or three new fruit and veggie dishes per week, so you can find a few you like.

Bad habit: Drinking only carbonated and caffeinated beverages. 
How to break it: Start by making a deal with yourself: One glass of water for every soft drink or cup of coffee.

Bad habit: Not getting enough sleep. 
How to break it: Go to bed at a decent hour every night, even if you're not tired. No TV, no books, no lights.


Control your habits

Behaviors can be changed — even yours. It's just a matter of starting and sticking with the steps necessary to change them. To tackle her mindless "JOBs" habit, for instance, Loraine started small. But already she can see a difference.

Her attack plan? "I've started making an effort to throw away leftovers immediately after a meal is over," she says. "My family usually doesn't eat them anyway, and if I let things sit on the stove (or even in the refrigerator), I know I'll be tempted to snack later on!"