The 7 Keys to Turning Bad Habits Into Good Habits

By Leo Babauta

Quitting smoking was one of the most difficult things to do — in fact, I failed the first six times I tried quitting.

Each time I failed in my quit attempt, I felt guilty and weak and unsure of my ability to overcome such difficult hurdles. But looking back on it, it was the failed attempts that taught me the most about what works and what doesn’t.

And on my seventh attempt to quit, I was prepared. I knew what got in the way of success, and I planned for it. I had researched habit changes, and had multiple strategies for success in my plan. And the things I learned from this successful habit change were keys to changing all the habits that have made me the person I am today.

Reader Tarra recently asked:

I was reading about how to be motivated and break bad habits and replace with positive ones. I also saw your suggestion on one at a time for 30 days. Unfortunately I am going to be forced to make several changes at once due to a medical diagnosis. Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with quitting smoking, cutting out alcohol, dealing with a medical problem, having three young kids and still try to be positive?

Unfortunately I’ve never had to do so many things at once, so I can’t give much advice on that. However, I have quit smoking and have changed other bad habits, and I think the same principles for changing one bad habit will apply here.

There are a few keys to changing bad habits … I highly recommend that you create a plan based on these keys, before you start to implement your habit change, so that you are well prepared and well positioned for success:

1. For each habit, identify your triggers. What situations trigger your smoking habit (waking in the morning, having coffee, drinking alcohol, stressful meetings, going out with friends, driving, etc.)? Identify all of them, for each habit.

2. For every single trigger, identify a positive habit you’re going to do instead. When you first wake in the morning, instead of smoking, what will you do? What about when you get stressed? When you go out with friends? Some positive habits could include: exercise, meditation, deep breathing, organizing, decluttering, and more.

3. For at least one month, focus entirely on being as consistent with your triggers as possible. That means, every single time those triggers come up, do the positive habit you identified instead of the negative one. The more consistent you are, the better the habit will form. If you sometimes do the new habit when the trigger occurs, and sometimes don’t, the new habit won’t form very well. Try to do it every single time. If for some reason you fail, extend the one-month period and try to be very consistent from that point onward.

4. Avoid some situations where you normally drink and smoke, at least for awhile, to make it a bit easier on yourself. If you normally drink when you go out with friends, consider not going out for a little while. If you normally go outside your office with co-workers to smoke, avoid going out with them. This applies to any bad habit — whether it be eating junk food or doing drugs, there are some situations you can avoid that are especially difficult for someone trying to change a bad habit. Realize, though, that when you go back to those situations, you will still get the old urges, and when that happens you should be prepared.

5. Realize that your urges will be strong, but they will go away after a few minutes. They come in waves, but just ride out the wave. Find strategies for getting through the urges — deep breathing, self massage, eating frozen grapes, walking around, exercising, calling a friend who will support you.

6. Ask for help. Get your family and friends and co-workers to support you. Find an AA group in your area. Join online forums where people are trying to quit. When you have really strong urges or a really difficult time, call on your support network for help. Don’t smoke a cigarette, for example, without posting to your online quit forum. Don’t have a drop of alcohol before calling your AA buddy.

7. Staying positive is key! You will have negative thoughts — the important thing is to realize when you’re having them, and push them out of your head. Squash them like a bug! Then replace them with a positive thought. “I can do this! If Leo can do it, so can I!” :)

Bonus tip: If you fail (and many of you will, at least once), don’t give up. As I said, it took me seven tries to successfully quit smoking. Figure out what went wrong, and plan strategies to overcome that obstacle the next time. Keep your positive attitude and keep trying. You’ll get it eventually.