Breaking Bad Health Habits

Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on September 22, 2021
measuring tape and calendar

Quit smoking. Lay off the junk food. Stop being a couch potato. Don’t stay up too late. All of that sounds simple enough, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. You’ll need a good strategy to break some of those bad habits.

Think About It

Knowing you need to change something usually isn’t enough motivation to do it. You may even think there’s a good reason you do it.

For example, sometimes people who smoke feel like smoke breaks are the only times they can step away from their work during the day. And eating together is a way to bond with friends and family, so you may go along with the crowd instead of choosing healthier foods.

But are those really good reasons? You can take a break and go outside without smoking. You can enjoy a meal with friends and make better food choices.

A good way to get yourself going is to figure out what benefits you’ll get when you change your habits:

  • You’ll feel better when you take care of your health.
  • Your chances of certain diseases and conditions may go down.
  • More activity and better foods can help you lose a few pounds and feel more comfortable in your clothes.
  • Getting more sleep will give you more energy.
  • If you smoke, you’ll save money, and your clothes, breath, and home won’t smell like smoke when you quit.

Break It Down

If the change seems overwhelming, start with small steps and goals. One way to do that is a trick from the business world called SWOT:

Strengths: What are you already doing right? What skills do you have?

  • Are you a good cook who can make healthy, delicious meals?
  • Are you good at scheduling, so you can make time to exercise?
  • Who will support you in this? Friends, family, co-workers?

Weaknesses: What could get in your way?

  • Do you put things off so you don’t have time to make healthy meals or go to the gym?
  • Do you have a hard time sleeping because of stress?

Opportunities: What might help you break your bad habit?

  • Can you join a club or support group?
  • Does your workplace have a gym?
  • Are there apps to help you plan your activities or track your progress?

Threats: Could things you can’t control throw a wrench into your plans?

  • Does your work schedule constantly change?
  • Do people around you try to pressure you to stick to your bad habits?

Plan how you’ll respond to these challenges. Take a minute and write your responses down to help you sort through it all.

Set Small Goals

Going cold turkey can be hard, so start small:

  • Instead of not eating sweets, have one fewer snack each day.
  • If you want to be more active, take a short walk after dinner each night.
  • If you can’t sleep, set an alarm to remind you to turn off the TV, phone, or computer an hour before you want to go to bed.

Aim for things you’re pretty sure you can do. Small wins can keep you going.

Swap Bad for Good

It’s important to replace bad habits with good ones. Otherwise, you’re likely to fall back into your old routines.

For example, people who quit smoking sometimes replace it with snacking. Having healthy choices around, like fruit, can help keep that from becoming a problem.

If you turn off the computer in time to wind down and fall asleep, but replace it with your phone or the TV, that’s probably not going to help. (Light from a screen can keep you awake.) Instead, try meditating, writing in a journal, or reading a book.

A few other tips:

  • Pick a new healthy habit you enjoy. If you hate running on a treadmill, chances are you won’t stick with it. If you don’t like broccoli, there’s no point in loading your plate with it.
  • Change one habit at a time. Trying to do too much at once can make it so hard to know where to start that you don’t start at all. As you meet each goal, add another one.
  • Don’t rush it. Chances are, you didn’t develop the bad habit overnight, so give yourself the time to develop the new one. It can take 2 to 3 months for a new routine to take hold.

Track Your Progress

Keep a daily record of the changes you make. If you haven’t met your goals for the week, think about what went wrong, then see what you might do better next week.

If you’ve met your goals, give yourself a little reward. Seeing things add up, like your workouts or the days since you’ve had a cigarette, can motivate and encourage you.

Forgive Yourself

Setbacks are normal. Don’t beat yourself up when you have one. Think back to when you first started, look at your daily record, and remind yourself of how far you’ve come. One slip-up doesn’t wipe all that out. Then pick up where you left off.

Show Sources


Joseph McNamara, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and interim division chief of medical psychology, division of medical psychology, department of psychiatry, University of Florida College of Medicine, Gainesville.

Melanie C. Austin-McCain, assistant professor and admissions coordinator, department of occupational therapy, New York Institute of Technology, Old Westbury.

Inger E. Burnett-Zeigler, PhD, assistant professor, department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago.

American Heart Association: “How to Change Bad Habits and Live a Heart Healthy Lifestyle.”

American Psychological Association: “Making Lifestyle Changes That Last.”

West Virginia University: “Motivation to Change Your Health Habits.”

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