Breaking Bad - How to Identify and Break Bad Habits

by Jason Baluja, FAU Senior | Thursday, Jul 25, 2019
This is a sign

We have all thought at one point or another: “I really need to stop doing this.” Bad habits are common and most people have at least one while many have multiple. A bad habit is any repeated behavior that results in a negative or unwanted outcome. There are many kinds of bad habits and they vary in severity. Common ones for college students include procrastination and not sleeping enough. One study shows that many students are aware of their most serious bad habits but few understand the relationships between them.1 For example, many understand that going to bed late and spending too much time on social media can lead to negative performance on class work, but not many understand how these bad habits exacerbate each other. A student may be going to bed late because they spend too much time on social media. 

Getting rid of or replacing bad habits is not always an easy task. On average, it takes  66 days to form a new habit .2  The time it takes to form a new habit may vary depending on the severity of the old bad habit and how long you’ve had it. You shouldn’t get discouraged by the time it takes to form a new habit, though. Any improvement in your lifestyle leads to an improvement in your quality of life, which is definitely worth the effort, especially if it helps you thrive in your college years. Here are several tips in identifying and breaking bad habits:

1. Don't try to break the bad habit right away.

Although you may be eager to break free of your bad habit, you shouldn't go after it right away. Instead, you should take 2 to 4 weeks to gather all the information you can about your bad habit such as: What triggers it? When does it happen the most? Does it happen in some places more than in others? It is important that you get a deep understanding of your bad habit and what brings you to do it that way you can fully address it. Having unknown triggers may hinder or completely stop you from kicking your bad habit without you even realizing. 

2. Make many small changes, not one big one.

The best way to go about breaking bad habits to tackle it a little bit at a time. If your bad habit is spending too much time on your phone before going to sleep, don't try to reduce your phone usage to zero from one day to the next. Doing so will make it harder to break the habit and increases your chances of slipping back into it. Instead, try reducing the amount of time you allow yourself to spend on your phone every night or every couple of nights. Setting many attainable small goals will improve the chances of success.

3. Replace your bad habit by making a plan.

One of the most important steps to breaking bad habits is creating a plan ahead of time of what it is you are going to do when getting the urge to carry out the undesired behavior. Replacing the negative behavior with a positive one makes it easier to kick the bad habit than just doing nothing. Consider the bad habit of eating junk snacks. Every time you get the urge to eat junk food because you are hungry, grab a healthy snack instead of just going hungry. Simply not eating junk food will not change the fact that you are hungry, by replacing the type of food you eat you eliminate the negative aspect of the behavior while still satisfying your body’s craving. Your positive substitute may not fully satisfy you, but having one decrease the chances of you slipping back into your bad habit.

4. Change your environment

When taking the 2 to 4 weeks to learn about your bad habit and what triggers it, you should get an understanding of environmental factors that contribute to it as well. Maybe you procrastinate only when in your room. Maybe you go out to social events more than you should when around certain people. Once these environmental triggers are identified, you should make any lifestyle modifications necessary to reduce your exposure to them. Spend more time in the library or spend less time with certain people until your exams have passed. It may be difficult at first but you will find it easier to kick bad habits when you have less urges. 

5. Partner up

When embarking on any self-improvement journey, it is always best to have some company. Most people have bad habits and tendencies they want to change. You should partner up with one of your friends in getting rid of your bad habits. That way you can help each other achieve your goals by supporting and keeping each other in check. Besides being an extra pair of eyes making sure you keep in line, having someone put their faith you that you will help them better themselves can be a strong motivator. You will also get the bonus of strengthening your friendship with that person.

6. Plan for missteps 

Bad habits are not always easy to get rid of or replace so you should understand beforehand that you may have slip-ups. If they occur, it is important to not feel defeated or lose hope. Just remember that there was a time in your life when you did not have the bad habit. You are not changing into a new person, you are changing back to who you used to be so you know it is possible. If there is a slip-up, learn from it. Ask questions such as: What triggered it? How could you have avoided the trigger? Use that information to help you in the future.

1 Alaraj, M. M., Kayal, H. W., & Banoqitah, E. (2018). An analysis into university students’ bad lifestyle habits and their effect on academic achievement. Journal of Advances in Social Science and Humanities, 4 (12), 430-441.


2 Phillippa Lally Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld Henry W. W. Potts Jane Wardle. (2009). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 4 (6), 998-1009.