7 Steps: How To Break/Build Any Habit Using Psychology

Two of the meanest bugbears of habit-formation are — 1. we want to break a bad habit but find it too hard, 2. we want to build a good habit but find it even harder. Click To Tweet

Our daily life is full of habits, as research shows we perform almost 43% of our daily actions out of habit.

How do we form habits? When we pursue a goal day in and day out, we form habits. When we repeat a behavior often, our goals and intentions to do it become weaker and our force of habit to do it becomes stronger.

When we perform a sequence of activities repeatedly, we learn it so well that we no longer need any intention to carry it out. Rather, we almost automatically do it out of habit. It can be something as simple as brushing your teeth for 2 minutes, or more complex as a habit of daily exercise, like gymming for 30 minutes.

Behavioral psychology supports it. All habit theories recognize that this shift from goal-directed behavior to habitual behavior happens because of recurrent learning. Habitual behaviors become detached from conscious motivational processes.

In simple words. we don’t need any motivation to follow through on our habits.

habit-formation by repeat action
Same behavior repeated in same context ➠ Habit

What Is Habit Theory In Psychology?

Habit theory explores the psychology of habits making up human behavior. In psychology, habitual behaviors are automatically triggered actions that people perform while in situations that are the same as what they have encountered before and have learned to do the same action.

Repeating a behavior in the same situation or context reinforces mental associations between the context and the behavior.

Habits form when repeated exposure to the same setting triggers a preexisting mental association. This evokes an urge to act as learned in the past, unconsciously and with minimal conscious forethought.

Habit is a term often used interchangeably with automaticity. Habits can be best explained as learned automatic responses with specific features (Wood et al., 2014).

Like other automatic responses, habits get activated in memory autonomously without needing any executive control from the higher brain (Evans & Stanovich 2013).

What Is The Science Behind Building/Breaking Habits?

A habit is a sequence of tasks that we learn to perform unconsciously, automatically, in response to certain cues or triggers. There are 3 things to note in that definition:

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1. It’s not a single task, but a series of interrelated activities.

2. We do it automatically, mostly without any conscious intervention.

3. We perform habitual actions in reaction to triggers in our environment, much like Pavlov’s dogs.

Any new behavior begins with conscious deliberation and intention, under the control of our brain’s executive function or ‘System 2’ — the prefrontal cortex section of our brain. It is the part of the brain that handles our deep thinking, such as helping us solve math equations, learning a foreign language, or mapping our way to a new location.

However, as we repeat the behavior over time, our brain bypasses our executive function. Instead, it relies on basal ganglia, a more primitive area of the brain. After that, we are no longer conscious of the behavior and carry it out without thinking about starting or continuing it.

The habit creation cycle goes this way: 1. Cue (a trigger in our environment), 2. Continue (repeat behavior daily), 3. Carrot (give a reward).

Habit- cue-continue-carrot
The Cycle of A New Habit

Habit formation is not a standalone behavior change technique. The two primary strategies used in modifying behavior are:

  1. Reinforcement by Reward, and
  2. Prevention by Punishment.

In the first, used to instill good behavior, you get a reward. Second, used to stop any unacceptable behavior, gets you to you receive a punishment.

The punishment strategy is something we all know of. When we were kids, our parents or teachers have given many of us this in some form or another. It doesn’t work as well as the reward system, the researchers suggest. We set that aside today to focus only on the Reward System.

This reward-reinforcement method can work for establishing good habits as well as letting go of bad habits. The basic idea is to set up many goalposts on the way to finally reaching the point of your desired behavior change. And then reward yourself when you reach each of these goalposts.

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How Do Habits Become Problems?

The problem with habits is, we are incompetent and underperformer at forming new good habits as well as breaking old bad habits. People may therefore continue to perform a habitual action even when they lack the motivation to do it.

Similarly, people often fail to maintain behavior changes because they lose motivation.

The first problem is, most of us have nasty habits we want to get rid of forever, but find it too difficult. The second problem is, many of us successfully adopt new behaviors, but fail to maintain them over time.

But psychologists also offer a great solution! Even if it’s an ingrained habit, you could change it by modifying your behavior around it. And one of the most effective ways of modifying a set behavior (that is, making or breaking a habit) is through an incremental use of self-control and reward reinforcement.

So, increasing our self-control can change any of our habits. But how exactly? Let’s jump in.

It’s easy to go for the throat, but hard to pull back your hand after adjusting their tie. That's mostly what self-control is all about. Click To Tweet

How To Change (Build or Break) Any Habit Using Psychology?

This is a psychologist-tested method of changing any of your habits by increasing your self-control or self-discipline. It can help you start a good habit like daily exercising or stop a bad habit like overeating.

Psychology calls it behavior modification, a set of mental strategies using groundbreaking concepts from behavioral psychologists like Skinner (Operant Conditioning) and Pavlov (Classical Conditioning). Both scientists experimented with animals to change their behavior.

Nowadays, behavioral change experts use these techniques at hospitals, prisons, factories, and many businesses to change behaviors.


The entire process of building a new habit is about starting with noticing a habitual behavior, then making and committing to long-term goals, and planning out solutions to problems before they occur.

Let’s break it up into seven steps.

Step 1: Choose One Behavior That You Want To Change

This step is a game-changer. If you have to start your journey of changing your habits, start with one habit. Only one. And persist along the way until you have completely achieved what you wanted.

It can be a mental behavior change, like getting stressed up and behaving like a fish out of the water with the appearance of a certain situation, or a physical change, like starting a daily exercise habit.

Write down the date of starting the behavior change.

By the way, do you know the greatest productivity secret of highly successful people? It’s this: they keep a simple notepad to jot down their daily tasks.

Choose one habit.

Step 2: Gather A Lot of Workable Information

All it takes is strict note-taking about that behavior for two to three weeks. You do nothing other than notice each of your actions, feelings, and thoughts relating to the habit.

If you are good at this and come away with factual and accurate data, you are halfway to your habit change and self-control boost. If you aim to stop wasting hours surfing social media and watching short videos, then log the times you do it for, noting down how you were feeling and what you were doing just before, and what you did and what thoughts you had after putting down your phone.

Say, if you want to reduce your food intake, then note down the calories and food you took in at each meal, leaving out nothing. Falsifying or fudging data will only set up a wobbly platform to build your willpower on.

Log raw data., without falsifying or exaggerating.

Step 3: Identify The Trigger-Points Hidden In Your Past

Trigger points (also called cues) are situations that spawn undesired activities or prevent you from continuing your desired activity.

For example, if you shut down your laptop after working for four straight hours on an article, and you find out it was because of fatigue, then fatigue was your trigger-point.

If it irritates you that you eat your dinner with Netflix on, then the most common reason is that you were already watching some show on Netflix when the dinner came; so, Netflix was your trigger-point.

When you mark out the trigger-points of your behavior correctly, you easily spot the Pied Piper in the town luring you away from your behavior change strategy. It will make things easier for you to reduce your exposure to such events.

Recognize the cues that trigger habit performance.

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Step 4: Choose Rewards That Your Heart Wants

Rewards keep you pepped up to push forth on changing your behavior. If you do not get them, then you can be almost sure of dropping out before wrapping it up successfully. So, choose some rewards that you love and enjoy.

Your rewards could be as unique as you yourself are. For me, one reward is having a packet of a special type of roasted nuts while watching a sci-fi movie. For you, it could be to buy a certain brand of perfume, playing your favorite mobile game, catching up with a few old friends, going on a small weekend vacation.

These rewards, big or small, must be what you really like and love. It could even be booking a motel to sleep like a log for twenty-four hours.

At the brain level, these rewards reinforce the behavior via the midbrain dopamine system. Though dopamine signals promote habit learning as we initially repeat responses to a reward, these signals become less active with repetition, as the reward recurs.

Pick the rewards you are passionate about.

Step 5: Create Your Action Plan

This is the step we have been working on for till now. All those steps that came before this one were for its birthing.

The first component of this step is to set a goal—a specific, realistic, achievable target. The clearer the goalpost, the better your chances of scoring an ace. So go and craft the best goals of your life.

[Learn how to set the most effective goals, so that you have the best chance of achieving them.]

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Suppose you barely get 5 hours of sleep each night, even less on weekends. And you desperately want to improve your sleep. An attainable target would be 6 hours each night, with half an hour early to bed and half an hour late to wake up. Such a specific goal is reasonable and doable.

But if you aim straightaway for 8 hours a night, then it will be you tossing and turning for 3 hours in your bed. Failing to meet your goal for days at a time could make you feel discouraged and lose hope. Within a week, you might even give up the whole idea and go back to your old ways.

On the flip side, your goal should not be too easy; it needs to be a stretch goal so that it demands you work hard to achieve it.

The second decision you must make is when and how you will release the rewards. You can do this in a variety of ways. Some people want to be rewarded in small increments across the day since they get bored if they work for too long.

Suppose you have to spend five straight hours on a project with no distractions. You may use the Pomodoro technique to break your total span into 50-minute slabs, followed by 10-minute breaks. After each break, you dive deep into your work for 60 minutes. You may divide your time into workable chunks by using a timer.

Now, each of those 10-minute breaks could be an incentive in itself. They can also be used to treat yourself to a little meditation or a scoop of ice cream. These rewards should be enjoyable for you.

These small rewards help you stay on track throughout the day to meet your big goal. Some might choose to ignore these small rewards while focusing on the major, ultimate reward. You are the best judge of what will work for you.

You could also give yourself points for reaching each mini-milestone, and then use a set of points to collect a reward from a prefixed list of incentives.

Reading a paper book for one hour would earn you one point, which you might use to gain twenty minutes of screen time. Alternatively, you could save it, collect more, and then use ten points to watch a movie.

Tokens allow you to collect your rewards any which way you want while still granting you a sense of accomplishment for your stickiness to your ultimate goal.

Set a big goal. Break that big goal into mini-goals. Choose rewards at each milestone.

Step 6: Put The Plan Into Action

This is the step to putting your plan into action and tracking your progress.

As decided earlier, you must reward yourself for your small accomplishments as you reach for your last big goal. If you want to break a bad habit and start with lessening its frequency, then watch out and act to prevent the triggers of that unwanted habit.

For example, if watching a Netflix show around dinner time is the reason for your overeating, do not watch it in the evenings. Eliminate the triggers sparking bad habits.

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Record data of changes in your focus behavior daily to track your progress. Comparing your initial data to your daily stats can help you see whether or not your plan is working.

You might discover your course of action isn’t giving you the outcomes you intended, and it’s often a problem with your rewarding process. Habits develop through instrumental learning and build on the fundamental principle that rewarded responses are repeated (Thorndike 1898).

  • A typical cause of this is the lack of strong reinforcers; your chosen rewards are not good enough to propel you to put in the efforts to achieve your final goal. In such cases, tweak and rework the rewards to keep your plan of habit change on track.
  • There are two more common blunders people make while implementing behavior change techniques. They either give themselves rewards too frequently or reward themselves even when they did not reach their mini-targets. This is cheating, and it renders the entire system useless.
  • Another mistake is that they delay giving themselves the rewards. This prevents their brains from forming a link between the behavior and the reward. As a result, the behavior does not get reinforced.

One more thing: your intentions play a role in habit formation in the early stages. The researchers say actions performed regularly tended to become habitual and persisted with little guidance from intentions (Gardner et al., 2011).

However, as habit stickiness increases, the predictive power of intentions decreases, and people with the strongest habits simply repeat their behaviors without any input from intentions.

Act out your plan. Start with strong intentions. Give yourself timely rewards at each mini-milestone.

Step 7: Close The Habit-Change Process Loop

Repeat the action-reward loop for as long as it takes your brain to accept your acts as a habit. When you see a consistent pattern of the desired behavior repeating over a period, say a week, you can stop the process and continue with your recently acquired habit without needing any more rewards.

So, when your behavior becomes sticky, and you find yourself doing it every time, go ahead and take away the reward. If the behavior continues without you desiring any reward, then you have successfully changed your habit.

When a behavior modification process is successful, you will typically find yourself using rewards less and less often. And over time, you will simply forget to reward yourself because you no longer need to reinforce your focus behavior.

But if you feel you still crave the rewards, then satisfy the craving by rewarding yourself for a few more days until a full reinforcement of the new habit.

Once you establish a new habit, you can always respond to the trigger without having to make decisions.

Final Words

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In a study conducted in a local cinema, participants with stronger habits to eat popcorn at the movies consumed more than those with weak habits, even when they disliked the popcorn because it was stale and unpalatable (The Pull of The Past, Neal et al. 2011).

Self-control, or discipline, or willpower, is all about stopping yourself from doing things you would regret or making yourself do things you would be proud of later. Either way, it is hard. But you can make it easy using psychology and tools like habit trackers.

At those times we could not show our self-control, we often felt guilty and ashamed about them later. Of course, hindsight makes things easier to judge, but we frequently realize we are not living up to our self-control standards in real-time.

In some ways, this makes you further vulnerable to undoing your self-control. For one, you may not want to feel the same way about failing and may stop trying to be disciplined anymore. For another, you may not even want to maintain your control because it doesn’t matter anymore after your earlier failure.

But remember, a failure is not final. In fact, no failure is final. You can build your willpower, and you can change your habits using the lessons within that failure.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

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