A habit cannot be tossed out the window; it must be coaxed down the stairs a step at a time.

 – Mark Twain


Most of us have at least one thing we’d like to change about our lives.

We all want better relationships. Better finances. And better health.

But why is it that so many of us, in spite of our all our knowledge and abilities, can’t seem to get out of the ruts we’re stuck in?

Throughout my life and public accounting career, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that it usually isn’t somebody else holding us back. All too often, we are the ones standing in our own way. How do we do this? By holding on to bad habits.

Let’s take a look at why harmful habits are hard to break, and how you can replace bad habits with good habits that will help you to Thrive and not Just Survive!

How Do Habits Form in the First Place?

A few years ago, neuroscientist Reza Habib had 22 people lie inside an MRI machine while they watched images of spinning slot machines. Half of the participants were problem gamblers and the other half were social gamblers who weren’t addicted.

And what did she see? When the non-addicts saw a “near miss” on the slot machine, they were able to recognize that they’d lost. But the gambling addicts interpreted the “near miss” as a win, which made them want to keep playing. In other words, a habit physically changes your brain!

Habit formation follows a very simple process:

  • Both good and bad habits alike are triggered by a cue, situation, or event.
  • They are learned over time by repetition.
  • They are performed automatically, with little conscious awareness.
  • They are persistent — that’s why changing bad habits is so hard once they’ve formed.

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, explains that habits are a normal part of life and that positive habits are actually beneficial, such as being able to drive familiar routes on “autopilot.” But sometimes our brains get rewarded for the wrong behaviors, which can lead to negative habits like overeating, addiction, or even excessive computer use.

How to Replace Bad Habits with Good Ones

Psychologist Roy Baumeister, who studies decision-making and will power, says that self-control is like a muscle. Resisting a temptation leaves you feeling drained the same way you get sore after a workout. That’s why it’s hard to change “cold turkey” — that initial resistance actually makes your craving stronger at first.

Here are four steps for breaking bad habits and replacing them with new healthy habits. These steps aren’t necessarily easy, but with persistence they are effective.

#1: Become Aware of Your Unhealthy Habits.

Breaking habits begins with recognizing the situations that trigger your cravings. What is it that makes you reach for that next cigarette? What makes your mouth water for that supersized heart attack in a sack?

Whenever possible, make an effort to avoid your triggers. If you’re always stopping to get donuts on the way home, take a different route that doesn’t go by the donut place!

This type of mindfulness helps you deal with the anxieties that make you crave those unhealthy habits.

#2: Visualize Yourself Creating Good Habits

We spend so much time focusing on the “shouldn’ts” in our lives. Now let’s start turning our attention to the “shoulds.”

If you could break a bad habit that’s holding you back, what new good habit would take its place?

Neuroscientist Sarah McKay tells us that old habits don’t really die, they get replaced by new ones. For example, starting an exercise program has been helpful for some patients recovering from drug or alcohol addictions.

Once you’ve decided what the new habit should be, don’t let yourself forget about it.

  • Write it down.
  • Repeat it to yourself.
  • Every time you fall into the old bad habit, remind yourself of the new habit you’d like to adopt.
  • Repeat this process over and over until the new habit is automatically wired into your brain just like the old one.

#3: Remember that Change Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Once you’ve decided to get rid of a bad habit and start learning good habits, it’s time to start putting your plan into action.

As you start on your journey to a better life, remember this: Our popular culture loves to push the ideal of instant gratification — Lose 50 pounds in a month! But while those extreme transformations make for great reality TV or silly infomercials, they are horrible advice for long-term change in the real world.

One study found that it took an average of 66 days for a new habit to feel “automatic,” and individual results ranged from as little as 18 days to as long as 254.

So don’t get down on yourself if your new habit doesn’t “take” overnight!

Whenever you fall off the wagon, take a deep breath, forgive yourself, and keep going. Way too many people give up on exercise altogether if they miss just one or two days. Many others will give up on healthy eating if they splurge on a single milkshake.

Instead, if you didn’t make it to the gym today, just go back tomorrow. If you ate too much junk food yesterday, load up on some extra veggies today!

Habit formation is a process, not an event.

#4: Get Support

Overcoming bad habits is tough, so don’t go it alone.

This is the time to tap into your relationships — they are the most valuable asset you’ll ever have.

Listen to and learn from other people who’ve faced similar struggles. Lean on family, friends, colleagues, and others who will listen to you and have your back as you work on making positive changes.

When necessary, visit a health professional with expertise on helping people in your situation.

I firmly believe that you have the talent and brilliance to achieve the life you want for yourself and the people you care about — at home, at work, and in your community.

With a little persistence, I hope these four steps will help you break your bad habits for good — and develop good habits that will help you to Thrive and not Just Survive!