How to break bad habits

Want to stop checking your phone constantly, procrastinating or being late? Here are ways to retrain your brain.

by Rebecca Alexander
Last Updated: 08 Jun 2016

We need to talk about habits. Those irritating behaviours that persist despite your best efforts. We all know the ‘break the bad habits’ drill. Choose one to break, list how you’ll do it, replace it with a ‘good’ habit for added potency, keep it going for six weeks, and hey presto – habit killed off. So, how are you doing with that?

If you’re like most of us, you may have had some success, but it’s not exactly fail-safe. And so those niggly things you do – procrastinate, compulsively check emails, fail to delegate, forget to give positive feedback to your staff, arrive late – continue uncorrected.

Fortunately, bad habits can be jettisoned. Even better, neuroscience is on your side. The brain is far more malleable than previously believed. Habits are formed when we repeat certain actions or thoughts. This strengthens the neural pathways involved in those actions, so our brain is more likely to travel those routes in future. But by consciously choosing a different action, you create new neural connections, which themselves strengthen over time. So eventually, a new habit becomes as ingrained as the old. The old one is not eliminated altogether, but you’re on your way to success.

You’ll have spotted that this still involves ditching an old habit and replacing it with a new one. Sorry about that. There is no magic wand (although research on the brain’s infralimbic cortex might provide clues in future). Meanwhile, the following can help in retraining your brain:

Identify why you want to break a bad habit. Make it personal, don’t just spout received wisdom. Jot down thoughts until you have a cache of evidence. 

List your habit triggers. Time, place, activity, who you’re with, feelings such as boredom or anxiety. How can you avoid or eliminate these triggers?

Get mindful. Once you sense a trigger, find ways to distract yourself – often just noticing and redirecting your thoughts can break the trigger-habit connection.

Make mental shortcuts. If you know you put off boring work, make a new rule that says you always work on report writing for half an hour every morning (or whatever works for you). The point is that you’re making it easier for your brain to stick to your plan when the time comes.

Adopt the 20-second rule. Make bad habits harder to achieve, for example, if you’re consistently distracted by your inbox, try turning your email off so it takes longer to check it. The inverse works for good habits – have your gym kit always packed, keep important reading in sight – so it’s easier to get started on the things you need to do.

Or use the six feet rule. In his book Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink explains that if food is more than six feet away from you (I’m looking at you, office treats stash), you’re less likely to eat it. It works for other distractions too, such as your smartphone.

Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to or tweet @_coachingstudio

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