zen habits : breathe

A Brief Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit

By Leo Babauta

There aren’t many of us who don’t have some bad habit we’d like to quit: smoking, sweets, shopping, nail-biting, porn, excessive checking of phones or social media, other distractions …

The problem is that we think we don’t have the willpower, faced with past evidence of failure after failure when we’ve tried to quit before.

We don’t think we can quit, so we don’t even try. Or if we do try, we give ourselves an “out,” and don’t fully commit ourselves.

Let me tell you this: quitting a bad habit takes everything you’ve got.

It’s hard, but doable — if you put your entire being into it. If you’re not good at changing habits, I actually suggest you start here, and just focus on creating a new, good habit.

But if you’re ready to finally quit something, here’s a short guide to doing just that.

10-Steps — Just as Good as the 12-Step Folk

You don’t actually need to follow every single one of these steps to quit a habit, but the more of them you do, the higher your chances. I recommend all of them if you want to be all in.

  1. Have a big motivation. Lots of times people quit things because it sounds nice: “It would be nice to quit caffeine.” But that’s a weak motivation. What you really want is strong motivation: I quit smoking because I knew it was killing me, and I knew my kids would smoke as adults if I didn’t quit. Know your Why, and connect with it throughout your quit. Write it down at the top of a document called your “Quit Plan.”
  2. Make a big commitment. Now that you know your motivation, be fully committed. A common mistake is say, “I’ll do this today,” but then letting yourself off the hook when the urges get strong. Instead, tell everyone about it. Ask for their help. Give them regular updates and be accountable. Have a support partner you can call on when you need help. Ask people not to let you off the hook. Be all in.
  3. Be aware of your triggers. What events trigger your bad habit? The habit doesn’t just happen, but is triggered by something else: you smoke when other people smoke, or you shop when you’re stressed out, or you eat junk food when you’re bored, or you watch porn when you’re lonely, or you check your social media when you feel the need to fill space in your day. Watch yourself for a few days and notice what triggers your habit, make a list of triggers on your Quit Plan, and then develop an awareness of when those triggers happen.
  4. Know what need the habit is meeting. We have bad habits for a reason — they meet some kind of need. For every trigger you wrote down, look at what need the habit might be meeting in that case. The habit might be helping you cope with stress. For some of the other triggers, it might help you to socialize, or cope with sadness, boredom, loneliness, feeling bad about yourself, being sick, dealing with a crisis, needing a break or treat or comfort. Write these needs down on your Quit Plan, and think of other ways you might cope with them.
  5. Have a replacement habit for each trigger. So what will you do when you face the trigger of stress? You can’t just not do your old bad habit — it will leave an unfilled need, a hole that you will fill with your old bad habit if you don’t meet the need somehow. So have a good habit to do when you get stressed, or when someone gets angry at you, etc. Make a list of all your triggers on your Quit Plan, with a new habit for each one (one new, good habit can serve multiple triggers if you like).
  6. Watch the urges, and delay. You will get urges to do your bad habit, when the triggers happen. These urges are dangerous if you just act on them without thinking. Learn to recognize them as they happen, and just sit there watch the urge rise and get stronger, and then and fall. Delay yourself, if you really want to act on the urge. Breathe. Drink some water. Call someone for help. Go for a walk. Get out of the situation. The urge will go away, if you just delay.
  7. Do the new habit each time the trigger happens. This will take a lot of conscious effort — be very aware of when the trigger happens, and very aware of doing the new habit instead of the old automatic one. If you mess up, forgive yourself, but you need to be very conscious of being consistent here, so the new habit will start to become automatic. This is one reason it’s difficult to start with bad habits — if there are multiple triggers that happen randomly throughout the day, it means you need to be conscious of your habit change all day, every day, for weeks or more.
  8. Be aware of your thinking. We justify bad habits with thinking. You have to watch your thoughts and realize when you’re making excuses for doing your old bad habit, or when you start feeling like giving up instead of sticking to your change. Don’t believe your rationalizations.
  9. Quit gradually. Until recently, I was a fan of the Quit Cold Turkey philosophy, but I now believe you can quit gradually. That means cut back from 20 cigarettes to 15, then 10, then 5, then zero. If you do this a week at a time, it won’t seem so difficult, and you might have a better chance of succeeding.
  10. Learn from mistakes. We all mess up sometimes — if you do, be forgiving, and don’t let one mistake derail you. See what happened, accept it, figure out a better plan for next time. Write this on your Quit Plan. Your plan will get better and better as you continually improve it. In this way, mistakes are helping you improve the method.

I’m not saying this is an easy method, but many people have failed because they ignored the ideas here. Don’t be one of them. Put yourself all into this effort, find your motivation, and replace your habit with a better habit for each trigger. You got this.

Help Quitting Your Habit

If you’d like help quitting your habit, join my Sea Change Program as we learn how to quit a habit in August. It’s free to try for a week, so sign up today and do your quit with us!

The program offers:

  1. Articles & videos to teach you about the concept of quitting.
  2. Daily reminder emails if you want them.
  3. A forum for discussion.
  4. A live video webinar with me where you can ask questions.

Sign up here to be a part of the Quit a Bad Habit module.


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