How to Change a Bad Habit in 10 Simple Steps

Person looks down at mess in room with bucket of cleaning supplies, ready to clean upRemember those New Year’s resolutions you made over the holidays, the ones about changing bad habits?

How’s it going?

Getting in the habit of doing something differently can be incredibly hard, but it is possible. Here are 10 guiding principles to help make your changes successful.

1. Define what you want to do differently.

Is it quitting something? Beginning something? Be as detailed as you can. For example, you may wish to have a cleaner house. What, exactly, does a cleaner house mean? Is it keeping the counters clear and the dishes done? Does it mean mopping the floors every week? Every day? If you want to decrease the amount of alcohol you consume, what does that entail? Is it limiting yourself to two or fewer drinks a night? A week? A month? The more specific you can be the better. Clearly define your goal.

2. Specify why you do what you do.

If you find yourself watching too much Netflix, is it because you feel tired in the evenings? Do you use it as an emotional escape when you feel depressed? If you’re trying to quit smoking, do you light up because your friends do or automatically smoke when you get in the car? Knowing why you engage in behaviors is critical to knowing how to change them.

3. Understand why you don’t want to do it anymore.

Are your kids embarrassed to have their friends over because your house is a mess? Has your drinking become a problem because your spouse has noticed or because you have a DUI? Consider how changing your bad habit will affect your life for the better.

4. Make your plan.

Break the plan into small steps. For a cleaner home, this might mean starting with one activity at a time. The first week, you’ll be sure to make your bed. The next week, you might add vacuuming three times. For drinking less, it might mean getting rid of most or all of the alcohol in your home or ceasing to drink when you’re alone. Quitting “cold turkey” works for some but not all.

5. Be patient.

Think about change in terms of a journey—a long-term process that is sometimes more direct and quicker than at other times. You might have heard it takes only 21 days to form a positive or control a negative habit. That’s not quite accurate. According to a 2010 study, it can take as few as 18 and as many as 254 days to be successful. Value patience.

Don’t view setbacks as a reason to quit. See them as part of the process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back.

6. Anticipate setbacks.

Don’t view setbacks as a reason to quit. See them as part of the process. Sometimes it’s two steps forward, one step back. What might your setbacks be? Perhaps it’s holidays, after-work activities, or increased stress.

7. Don’t compare yourself to others.

Your brother may have stopped smoking in three days with no ill affects, but this does not mean it is possible (or healthy) for you. Each person has their own strengths, weaknesses, and ways of changing.

8. Consider what would make change easier.

For someone who wants to lose weight, not having junk food in the house may help. For someone trying to begin an exercise plan, it might help to make a verbal agreement with a friend to be accountable to each other. Another idea is to not frequent places where you engage in the behavior. Certain areas or people may be triggers.

9. Celebrate successes big and small.

Note and acknowledge changes you make along the way. Some people reward themselves at certain points. If you’ve been anticipating attending a special event or wanting to buy yourself something, this may be a good time to set an incentive.

10. Find support.

This might mean finding a therapist. It might be in the form of family, friends, or in-person or online support groups. A quick search of the web may yield online and local groups. Talk to friends and family about how it’s going and let them know if you need extra support.

Changes can be difficult but are by no means impossible. Comment below and let me know what has worked and not worked for you!


Lally, P., van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40: 998-1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Kelly

    June 28th, 2018 at 8:53 AM

    I think my problem is that all I do is anticipate setbacks. I don’t think I can quit smoking and that is the mind set change that I can’t seem to overcome.

  • Scott

    August 29th, 2019 at 11:22 PM

    Kelly, You have to remember that it is not you that is not able to quit. It’s the nicotine controlling your brain and making you think that way. It doesn’t want you to stop. It’s designed to keep you hooked on that mindset. Just be bold and stay strong and throw them out and never look back. The irritation and foul effects may not be as bad as you think. However sometimes they are horrible. But either way throw them out and never look back. You can only feel like crap for so long before the cravings give up. You got this Kelly. Never give up!

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