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Breaking bad habits – 6 simple ways to reducing negative habits

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” – Aristotle

Habits can be our best friends and they can be our worst enemies. In fact, life is pretty much a series of habits played out on a day to day basis; like Aristotle presciently pointed out, we are what we repeatedly do. We have all got some bad and good habits, it part of being human. But what if you’re able to eradicate 90%, 50% or even just 10% of your bad habits? How much healthier, productive and happier would you be?

I have listed 6 simple ways for you to tackle and hopefully remove bad habits in your life.

  1. Be aware of them! Habits are that because they are routinized and we do them unwittingly. But because they are so ‘natural’, we tend not to think too much of it. The very first step is to list down some of the bad habits that you perform. It doesn’t matter how ‘big’ or how ‘small’ it may seem but first, be conscious of it.
  2. Start small. Changing habits is, admittedly, a difficult task. But the benefits you could potentially derive from changing just a single bad habit is immense. For instance, if you drink 3 cans of soda a day, start small by switching to 2 cans a day for a month and then gradually reduce it instead of going cold turkey immediately. At the end of the day, even if you do not kick the soda-drinking habit but manage to reduce your intake from 3 to 2 – that is not such a bad outcome (relatively speaking)!
  3. Commit it to writing. It is no use doing mental accounting saying ‘I will do this and I will do that’. You need a proper system external of your mind to keep track. Write it down! Seriously, there is no excuse not to put pen to paper. It helps you commit to breaking your habit as well.
  4. Figure out your ‘why’. It is little use wanting to get rid of bad habits if you do not feel strongly enough about getting rid of it. You must change your ‘want’ to ‘need’. One way of doing this is to keep your motivation strong. Why do you want to kick soda-drinking? Why do you want to quit smoking? Why do you want to stop chewing your fingernails? Why do you want to stop playing games on your phone before going to bed? Write down a list of ‘benefits’ (to use the last example). ie. (1) I want to have a better rest (2) so I can sleep longer (3) So I can feel more refreshed the next morning. You don’t have to read them aloud twice a day – in fact you can tuck them away. But whenever you’re losing motivation, bring out this list and revisit your reasons and motivation for wanting to get rid of the habit.
  5. Speak to someone. It can be difficult getting rid of a habit alone. Speak to a good friend or your partner – telling them your plan to get rid of a particular habit. Make it clear upfront that you may not achieve it and ask not to be judged! They are there for support and they are not adjudicating and scoring you. I find that this helps because when you ask for aid there is a tendency for that someone to be judgmental (because they think that’s what you want!) instead of being supportive so make it clear from the get-go. When you make progress, speak to them and let them know. When you fail to reduce your bad habit on a particular day, let them know as well.
  6. Watch your thoughts. Whenever you’re tempted to reach for that 3rd can of soda, watch what your mind tells you. ‘Oh, its just another can’ or ‘Oh, I can reduce my intake tomorrow’. Be careful of such mental thoughts and be disciplined about it. Whenever some talk comes up, do not ignore it but be aware and consciously create a positive reinforcing thought – ‘Yes but it is better not to do so because XYZ…’ Similarly if you find yourself saying ‘damn, I can’t do this anymore’ follow up by consciously thinking aloud ‘but it was never easy to begin with and I will see results soon!’

Remember to start small and watch your auto-suggestions. For a more comprehensive ‘cheat sheet’ on breaking habits check out this blog post. Also, this book by Charles Duhigg – on the power of habits – is an excellent read and might be something you want to see further.

About the author


Dylan Loh

Dylan is an academic and political scientist. He has also written over 5 books on motivation, focus and personal development. He tweets at

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