Personal Transformation: How to Break Your Bad Habits

Dec 26th, 2014

Personal Transformation: How to Break Your Bad Habits

By Dr. Tjai M. Nielsen, Associate Professor of Management


Anyone who has tried to change her behavior and is honest understands how difficult it is. Whether it’s eating healthy, smoking less, or reducing stress, sustaining behavior change is very difficult. However, there are some time-tested techniques that will increase your probability of success. Here are a few critical techniques for breaking bad habits and creating the personal transformation you have always dreamed about.


Let’s begin with some examples of how difficult it is to change (Grenny et al., 2012) so we know we aren’t alone:

  • Marriage counseling works for fewer than one in five couples who use it.
  • 98 percent of us fail at keeping resolutions to change our bad habits.
  • 70 percent of Americans who take out a home equity loan or other type of loan to pay off credit cards end up with the same (if not a higher) debt load within two years.
  • Only one in 20 dieters with a history of obesity is able to lose weight and keep it off for one or more years.



Now let’s focus on breaking your bad habits in six steps:

  1. Own your bad habits. Recognizing our bad habits and being honest with ourselves about them, is the first step in changing our behavior. This involves acknowledging our negative behaviors.
  2. Don’t rationalize your behavior. “Owning” your bad habits also involves not rationalizing their existence. We have all become very good at “explaining” (i.e., rationalizing) why we engage in our bad habits but this prevents ownership and facing reality.
  3. Identify what supports your bad habits. There are a variety of “triggers” or parts of our lives that support our bad habits. There is a large amount of psychological research identifying our everyday behavior as caused by our current circumstances or context. We might eat, drink or smoke too much when spending time with certain friends. We might avoid exercise, lose our temper, or lack patience when we experience stress at work. These examples highlight elements of our environment that could contribute to our bad habits and must be identified before we can change our behavior.
  4. Understand that it takes more than just will power to change. Very often we focus on will power as the single source for changing our behavior. In fact, many of us beat ourselves up for not having enough will power when we fail to change a bad habit. However, it’s not just a matter of will power; bad habits are “encouraged” by a number of factors. These can often be categorized as personal (e.g., our personality, our desires); social (e.g., our relationships), and structural (e.g., elements of our environment).
  5. Recognize that it will take longer and be harder than we think. Changing habits that have been established over many years takes time and is tough. Preparing ourselves by acknowledging these realities is essential for the next step in breaking our bad habits.
  6. Fully commit to changing our habits. Based on what we have learned in steps 1-4, especially steps 3 and 4, we fully commit to making a change. This could involve fundamentally changing our desires, relationships, and environment, so this commitment should not be taken lightly. We must fully commit or change will never happen. Moreover, you will never be able to change someone else’s bad habits until they are fully committed to do so.