5 Secrets to Breaking Bad Habits

5 Secrets to Breaking Bad Habits5 min read

My mom taught me about gardening at a young age. She told me that I’d grow potatoes behind my ears if I didn’t wash away the dirt that collected there.

Sometimes the absence of a good habit defaults to a bad habit. So, you could say I had a bad habit of not scrubbing behind my ears. That habit needed to be broken–not because of the risk of growing potatoes, but for good hygiene.

It helps to have a mental picture of a bad outcome to get us motivated. It’s not the best motivation, but it works.

This is just one of 5 secrets to breaking bad habits that you can use to develop good habits.

Breaking bad habits and forming new habits is difficult work. But we make it more difficult than we need to when we don’t use effective tools.

Here are 5 secrets to breaking bad habits that you can use as tools to cultivate good habits:

1. Distance yourself from bad habits

When I counseled Dave (not his real name) on overcoming alcohol addiction, I went with him to his home. Our mission was for him to remove everything from his home connected with his addiction.

To break a bad habit, you need to put as much distance as possible between yourself and whatever might lure you into that habit.

First, Dave took the beer cans out of his fridge, popped the tabs and poured the contents down the drain of his kitchen sink. Next, Dave needed to get rid of beer mugs, beer t-shirts and his beer calendar. And he needed to distance himself from his drinking buddies.

Make it harder to do the things you want to stop. Add steps and put up fences between you and your bad habits.

  • If you eat too much ice cream, don’t stock it in your freezer. Avoid the ice cream freezer at the market.
  • If your weakness is spending, delete the shopping apps from your phone. Make the passwords hard to remember. Write the passwords on paper and put them with your credit cards in a Zip-Loc bag. Put the bag in a small container filled with water and freeze it. It’ll be there for an emergency. Use cash for gas and groceries.
  • If pornography sucks you in, use a pornography blocker on your internet devices. Cancel access to movies and TV that display sex acts.
  • If anger flares up and you lose your temper, distance yourself from thinking that focuses on you (see Step 2 to learn how to adjust your focus).

Stay away from the slippery slope. Take a different route, when possible.

What a different world we’d live in today if Eve would’ve avoided the path that took her near the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3).

You get the point.

2. Get closer to good habits.

I recently reorganized the apps on my iPhone and iPad. I want to read more books this year than I did last year. I want to read the Bible more. I want to keep up with the stuff on my task list.iphone home screen

I moved my book apps, Bible app, and Wunderlist app to a place on the home screen where I could easily reach them with my thumb. I put all my important apps on the home screen, putting the most important near the bottom where I could easily reach them.

I also turned off lock-screen app notifications for apps like Facebook and Twitter.

Reduce the effort or steps needed to do the things you want to do. Shorten the path and remove barriers between you and your good habits.

Following my advice in Step 1, apps that drain my productivity got moved to other screens, where I have to put more effort to get to them.

  • Want to exercise more. Do it first thing in the morning. Go to bed with your workout clothes on. Put your running shoes at your bedside.
  • Want to have more joy. Put your gratitude journal where you sit to eat breakfast and write in it while you eat.

3. Practice each new habit for at least 2 months.

Most people abandon attempts at a new habit within a couple of weeks. When I decided to change my lifestyle to avoid progressing from stage 4 pre-diabetes to diabetes, it took a couple of months for those changes to become habits. Habit expert James Clear says that it takes 66 days on average to form a new habit–sometimes less, sometimes more.

Learning a new habit requires creating new pathways in your brain. This takes time and persistent effort.

Habit is a cable; we weave a thread each day, and at last we cannot break it. ~Horace Mann

4. Picture the person your habits will help you become.

When faced with temptation to break your commitment to learn a new habit, picture the kind of person you’ll become by giving into that temptation. Then picture the kind of person you want to be.

If you’ve ever been tempted to cheat on your spouse, what motivated you to remain faithful? It’s likely you pictured yourself divorced and alone, or arriving at some other bad outcome.

If your goal is to improve your physical fitness, picture a physically fit you in the future if you choose to eat lentil soup instead of a cheese pizza. Picture the sick and fat person you could become if you choose junk food.

In his book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control (affiliate link) Walter Mischel gives scientific support to this way of thinking as a way to improve self-control.

5. Ask God for strength.

When we rely on our own willpower, we limit what we can accomplish. Plug into God’s power and the opportunities for you to enjoy a thriving life are limitless. Even if death temporarily halts your growth, an eternity awaits you.

“He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.” Isaiah‬ ‭40:29‬ ‭

What additional tips can you offer for breaking bad habits? What’s worked for you? Leave a comment below.


Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Jon Beaty

I'm a counselor, writer and believer in the power of God to help you thrive in your marriage and family. I live with my family, a small herd of Boer goats, and thousands of honeybees near Portland, Oregon.

  • Jon says:

    Hey Jon,

    What a great list. These are the main strategies I use as well. To break a bad habit, I’ve found that the easiest thing is to replace it with a better habit. As a morning person, I’ve found it easiest for me to dive into that new habit, right away. Things that I put off until later in the day, often don’t get done.

    With a growing family, and a lot of personal goals, it’s easy to fill up my to-do list with more than I have time for. Since I rarely accomplish all that I would like to get done, I’m working hard to take care of the most important things first–which is why I’m reading and commenting, first thing this morning 🙂

    My focus for 2016, is on teaming up with other writers and bloggers. Staying connected to you, and a core group of writers is high on my list of things that matter. Last year, I realized that I’ve been too disconnected, so this year, I’m working hard to form new and better habits.

    Thanks for the great insights into forming better habits, and for all of the teamwork, collaboration and value that you add into my life!

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