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What You Need to Know about Unhealthy Habits (and How to Change Them)

Addiction doesn’t start as addiction; it starts as a habit. Addiction recovery, then, must involve the process of habit-breaking. That process can be made easier by knowing how to break it down into manageable steps.

Why We Make Habits in the First Place

Habits are patterns of behavior that have become automatic by repetition. They are actions you take without thinking about them in response to triggers you only subconsciously recognize. Because habits make some choices default (i.e. you don’t have to actively identify your options and weigh the pros and cons for each), they free up mental space to think about other things.

When Habits Become Unhealthy

There is no habit that is inherently good or bad. They all start out serving a purpose, like dealing with stress or another negative emotion. However, when habits lock you into patterns of behavior that negatively affect your health and/or relationships, they become unhealthy and need to be dealt with head-on.

How to Break Unhealthy Habits: An Overview

Habits are sub-/unconscious patterns of behavior. In order to break them, you must first become conscious of them. Researchers have identified three main components of habits:

  1. The routine or habit itself—the specific behavior
  2. The reward—what you get from it
  3. The cue—the conditions that trigger you to engage in the specific behavior

Just making yourself aware of what you are doing when you go on “autopilot” (and why) takes work. But knowing is not enough to break an unhealthy habit. You also need to develop alternative behaviors and choices to substitute for the unhealthy ones so you are not just left wanting, unsatisfied or anxious when you encounter your emotional and/or environmental triggers.

Strategies to Help You Break Unhealthy Habits

Breaking an unhealthy habit, especially long-standing ones, is difficult. The process of change can feel overwhelming. But any big task can be made more manageable by breaking it down into smaller steps. In the case of breaking an unhealthy habit, try these actionable strategies:

  1. Identify what you want to change in specific, concrete terms

If you make a goal like “I want to stop smoking” or “I want to lose weight,” the amount of change you need to make can feel overwhelming, and there is no way to gauge your progress. Any slip-up or relapse will just look like failure.

Using the SMART goal-setting approach may better direct your habit-breaking process.






Vaguely stated goal SMART goal
Stop smoking Reduce my cigarette smoking from a full pack to a half-pack per day in the next 3 months
Exercise more Walk outside or at the indoor track for 30 minutes at least three times per week
Lose weight Lose 5 pounds in the next 4 weeks


  1. Identify what actions or choices you need to make to achieve your goals

You can’t just wish your goals met; you have to do the work. And part of that work is determining what choices or actions you need to execute.

Just as with goal-setting, when identifying actions and choices that will make forward progress, be specific. For instance, if you want to lose 5 pounds in the next 4 weeks, specific actions that could help include:

  • Waiting 5 minutes after taking a sweet treat before eating it so that you give yourself time to determine if you really want it
  • Substituting one nutrient-poor carb-y side dish (like French fries) with one green vegetable for one meal each day
  1. Keep a journal to help you identify your emotional and environmental triggers

If you try to break an unhealthy habit without examining what conditions put you in “autopilot,” you’re setting yourself up for failure. But because you are responding automatically when operating from habit, identifying triggers often requires backtracking—noticing after you’ve done the habitual behavior what was going on in and around you.

As soon as you catch yourself in habit mode, take some time to think and write about the situation. Kaye Lean Ramos of The Mission Podcasts suggests answering these questions:

  • Is it there a certain time of the day you do it?
  • Are there people involved when you do it?
  • What feelings do you experience that prompt you to…?
  • What did you do just before? What action triggered you?
  • Is there a place where you always do it?[1]
  1. Identify what reward you get from the habit you’re trying to break

You formed a habit because it did something for you—relieved stress, helped you feel more confident or increased your sense of control over your world, for example. You need to know what reward you experienced from the behavior you want to change so that you can find healthier ways to get that same reward or change your circumstances so you no longer need the reward.

  1. Create a list of other actions you could take that may provide similar relief or reward

If your unhealthy habit helped you achieve a sense of control or calm, what else can create that same experience? List anything and everything that might work. This is the time to be creative, not practical or pessimistic. So, even if you’re skeptical that deep breathing for two minutes could help you get over a “nic fit” or craving for a donut, put it on the list and give it a fair try.

  1. Use visible prompts to help you stay aware of your triggers and better alternatives

The process of habit-breaking requires making yourself aware of automatic behaviors and choices. Visual cues can help you shift into a more conscious mode of thinking. They can also remind you of the actions and choices you know you need to execute to reach your goals.

Examples of ways to visually remind you of your goals and goal-reaching strategies include:

  • Putting your walking shoes next to your lunch bag or briefcase to remind yourself to take a walk during your lunch break or right after work
  • Placing a digital timer pre-set for 5 minutes on top of the cookie jar
  • Setting your journal next to a row of cigarettes you will allow yourself for one day so that every time you grab one to light up, you are prompted to at least think about what’s prompting the cigarette craving

Where to Find More Habit-Breaking Tools and Resources

Even equipped with these tools and techniques, it is hard to break an unhealthy habit. There is no prize for doing hard work alone, so seek help when you need or want it. Help is available in many forms at Duke City Recovery Toolbox.

Our clinical team offers a wide range of therapeutic services to help you make the unseen triggers and automatic responses more visible so that you can exercise more conscious choice about them. When unhealthy habits have turned into chemical dependencies, we offer medication to help you safely wean off opioids and alcohol.

We have the resources to develop a customized treatment program for you. All you need to do is contact or visit us to schedule an intake appointment.

[1] Ramos, K.L. (9 Oct. 2017). Your bad habits are hurting your progress: Here’s what science says on how to break them. The Mission Podcasts. https://bit.ly/2y6YCCp