The Quickstart Guide to Quitting a Bad Habit

By Leo Babauta

It seems like it was only last year when I was quitting smoking while stuck in debt, bad eating habits, a procrastinator and sedentary … but in reality that was me 9 years ago.

I still remember how hard it was to quit, how I justified those bad habits to myself for years, and how I didn’t think I could do it.

Nine years later, I’m living proof that anyone can change their bad habits. If I can do it, you can. I’m not special.

What worked is a series of small, doable steps that added up to monumental change in mindset and environment.

I’m going to list those steps here, but know this: you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) do these all at once, and each step is not that hard.

Why Make a Change

Why quit cigarettes or all those sweets you’ve been eating? Isn’t life short and meant to be enjoyed? Don’t you deserve a treat?

Yes, these are the justifications I gave myself too. And they’re full of crap.

Life is short, so why waste it on pure junk? Those things don’t make you happy – if anything, they made me unhappier and unhappier about myself. I’ve been happier once I gave up those habits, and learned to be healthy and trustworthy to myself.

Eating healthy food is a treat. Living smoke-free is pure bliss.

But the biggest reason to change is that you love yourself. You don’t need to harm yourself to find happiness and contentment. Taking care of yourself is a form of self-compassion, and the sooner you start, the sooner you’ll feel good about how you’re loving yourself.

The Steps to Quitting a Bad Habit

So let’s say you’re ready to quit … what do you do?

What you don’t do is just think quitting will be easy, and start without preparing yourself.

What you also don’t do is think quitting will be too hard, and you should do it later because you don’t really think you can do it.

Instead, try these steps:

  1. Have a deeper Why. When things get tough, you’ll ask yourself, “Why am I putting myself through this?” And you should have a good answer. Be ready with answers for all your mind’s weaseling. For me, quitting smoking was for my kids – if I didn’t quit, they’d probably smoke as grown ups. So I didn’t want them to be plagued with bad health. That was a powerful motivator for me. For others, you might do it to support the health of other people you love, or yourself.
  2. Make a commitment. If you’re ready to quit, commit to starting your quit 3-7 days from now. Mark it on your calendar and tell everyone about it. Make this a big deal in your head, so that you’re fully committed. One of the biggest mistakes I used to make was thinking it would be easy, so I didn’t fully commit. Tell the world, and count down to the days.
  3. Get some accountability and support. Tell all your friends to hold you accountable, and to ask daily for updates. Create a blog just for this change, and share it with everyone you know on social media and elsewhere. Join an online forum about quitting this kind of habit, and ask for their support. Get an accountability partner who you give regular updates to, and who you have to call if you are getting a really strong urge (no smoking until after you call them). The accountability will cause you to pause before you give in to an urge, and the support is there for when things get tough.
  4. Understand your triggers. Every habit is triggered by some event. For me, I would smoke after stress, eating, drinking coffee, a meeting, drinking alcohol, or being around other smokers. I found this out by carrying around a notebook and pencil and making a tally mark in the notebook each time I smoked, for a couple of days. Then I wrote down the triggers in the notebook for a day or two — if I smoked, I’d look at what happened just before the urge to smoke. This helped me to be more aware of the triggers, some of which you don’t realize you have. The same applies to eating junk, shopping, chewing your nails, playing video games, watching videos or TV, etc. … each of these habits is triggered by something else. Write those down in a document titled, “Quit Plan”. Put the date of your quit, your accountability system, your Why, and the triggers on this document.
  5. 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. For stress, obviously the habit is helping you cope with stress. Same thing for smoking after a meeting. For some of the others, it was helping me socialize. But a bad habit can help you cope with bad feelings, such as: sadness, 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.
  6. Find replacements. For each trigger, find a replacement habit. For me, I had: meditating and doing pushups for stress, taking notes after a meeting, reading with my coffee, talking with my wife as I drank wine (or friends if I was having beer), journaling after I ate. These replacements should meet whatever need the bad habit was meeting, ideally, for that trigger. Write these on your Quit Plan.
  7. Have reminders. What will you do to remember to do your new habits? Put up visual reminders everywhere, especially around where the trigger happens.
  8. Don’t give yourself exceptions. For smoking, I had an acronym, N.O.P.E. (Not One Puff Ever) that I learned from an online smoking cessation forum. It meant that I should never give in to the rationalization that one puff wouldn’t hurt. It does hurt, because it leads to a second, then a third. Don’t give in to this rationalization. Be vigilant. You’re worth it. Write the No Exceptions rule on your Quit Plan.
  9. Learn from mistakes. That said, if you do mess up (and we all 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.
  10. Watch the urges, and delay. You will get urges to do your bad habit. These are dangerous if you just act on them without thinking. Learn to recognize them as they happen, and just watch them rise and fall, without acting. 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.
  11. Be positive. The right mindset is everything, because if you allow yourself to listen to negative self-talk (“I can’t do this”), you’ll fail. See the negative self-talk, don’t believe it. Have a positive answer for it. An overly optimistic mindset isn’t necessarily helpful, because if things don’t go well that could make you feel horrible that you were wrong … instead, just tell yourself you can do this, you’re strong, you got this. And be realistic in that things won’t go as planned, but those are learning opportunities. In the long run, you’re going to make it, because you’re worth it.