Habits are a very precious asset. They allow us to drive cars or ride a bike, to speak new languages or to predictably behave in society. But they can also become a burden. Or, even worse, an addiction. Think about smoking and you’ll understand what I mean. Knowing how to break a bad habit will free precious time and resources.

Here’s a list of 7 proven methods for breaking habits. Feel free to add your own in the comments.

1. Cold Turkey

That’s my preferred method, but it doesn’t always work as expected. Breaking a habit cold turkey requires a lot of raw energy. Usually, I start breaking a habit cold turkey after a painful event generated by that habit. For example, I quit smoking after a huge party which of course generated an awful hangover. I felt so bad the next day that I instantly decided to quit smoking for good. And I did it without any effort. Or so I felt, like I didn’t make any effort. Fact is I never had another cigarette after this event.

Breaking a bad habit cold turkey is one of the most empowering ways to handle habits. Because you don’t use any external support you gain enormous power over it. You’re actually become the master of that habit, commanding it to stop. And if you manage to create a successful history of abruptly breaking other habits, you’ll find it easier to do it again. It builds confidence and experience. But it’s also one of the most unreliable ways to break a habit. You may not have enough energy for it or you’ll lack the external support for that. Use with caution.

2. Find A Higher Stake

Sometimes, you do something because you’re simply setting for less. And you don’t event know that. When I was younger I had a gambling problem. I used to practice my risk taking capacities against randomness. Beating a slot machine seemed a worthy enough experience for me. That gambling problem ended the moment I found a bigger challenge: creating my own company. My risk taking capacities found a higher stake. Now I was risking my money, my employees money and a lot of other things on the side. All of a sudden, gambling was nothing.

Replacing the current stake of your habit with a bigger one always works. We’re designed to grow and evolve. And our habit management system knows that. So every time you’re able to offer a new target to this habit management system, it will adapt very fast. If you smoke because you’re bored try crosswords or learn a new language. If you’re constantly late at work, try joining the Marines. And if you’re spending too much money, train to become a stock market broker.

3. Start A Parallel Habit

This method works by pressuring your focus span with more and more habits. It’s like squeezing too many groceries into one bag: at some point, the bag will crash. For instance, if you have the habit of watching television at night, try getting your laptop closer and start checking email. It seems like instead to break one habit, you’re creating another one. That’s an illusion, because you’re not creating a habit, you’re pressuring your focus system with more stimulus.

At some point, your focus will break. You won’t be able to enjoy tv, nor to understand something from your email. And, surprisingly enough, you’ll ditch both activities and settle for something new. Perhaps a walk in the park or some small gardening. Crowding your habit horizon with new and demanding activities will weaken you sooner or later and you’ll end up getting rid of all the habits involved. It’s a little bit awkward, I agree, but it works.

4. Delegate It To Someone Else

If you don’t have enough power to break up with your habit maybe it’s time to bring somebody else in to help you with that. Find somebody who’s willing to help and give him power over your habit. You can do this in many ways. For instance, you can empower that person to perform some sort of physical action upon you every time you’re caught in that nasty habit. Every time you see me smoking, you can pinch me. Or kick my ass. Or just make fun of me.

It requires some extra work and an extra person but it’s effective. I know a case of somebody who just couldn’t quit smoking. He was quite a visible person in his town so after he tried many commercial products and attended many self help workshops, to no result, he decided to put a huge billboard with his picture on it and a very clear message: “If you see me smoking, I’ll pay you 100.000 dollars”. Last time I heard he never had a cigarette since then. 100.000 dollars is a pretty big sum.

5. Pay Yourself Out Of It

Give yourself small rewards. Every time you’re avoiding that habit, mark the moment with a positive action. Yes, it’s a bribe, but desperate situations needs desperate solutions. And you don’t have to give a huge bribe, small amounts, but enough to remember them. In time, you’ll create a new brain connection, based on pleasure, which will replace the old connection. There is a danger however, and as you may imagine, that would be replacing the old bad habit with a new bad habit.

But you can avoid that situation with elegance, by choosing the appropriate reward. The trick is, in the beginning, you can control the reward. Don’t settle for something you know you will create an addiction, focus on something constructive and useful. For instance, instead of having a drink every time you need a cigarette, you could just read two pages from a book. Yes, that could lead to a reading addiction. Being addicted to books is far more rewarding than smoking or drinking, anyway.

6. Isolate From People With Similar Habits

You have no idea how much the environment is influencing you. Sometimes, all you need in order to get rid of a nasty habit is to change the environment. The need for social acceptance – or should I say complacency – is so strong that we’re sometimes doing things we wouldn’t even imagine doing in difference circumstances. So, isolating yourself from people with identical habits will definitely help. And you don’t have to be very vocal about it, start by ignoring.

Don’t go out “for a few drinks” with the same gang. Don’t smoke your 10 minutes break with the same smokers you use to. This is one of the most difficult ways to break a habit because it actually touches your social network. But before making any assumptions, rest assured that your bad habits are pressuring your social life in a far more unpleasant way. Losing a few friends will not kill you, but drinking your life day after day will surely do. If you have the power to realize that what keeps you together is just sharing the same bad habit and nothing more, then half of the journey is done.

7. Keep A Time Log

Write down everything you do during a day. If you can do it every hour that would be awesome. Be sure you’re properly equipped so you can do this even when you’re on the road. Have pen and paper with you. Put hourly phone alarms. And then do this for a whole week. And then, after the first week, do it for a full month. This habit in itself is a pretty difficult one, I admit, but it’s really, really beneficial. Most of the time you won’t need a full month to spot your time holes. It will be obvious in the first week.

Now, after keeping this time log, do the math. How much time are you really living and how much time are you on auto-pilot? If you spend more time on auto-pilot than on actual living, then you have a problem. Now, write the results down, with the total of your time holes really standing out and stick it in very visible places: on the fridge, on the door, on the ceiling of your bedroom. At some point, seeing day after day how much time are you really losing, you’ll end up that habit.


Do you have any preferred way to get rid of bad habits? Would love to see it in the comments.

Translations of this article: Italian.