This 5-Step Approach Can Break Any Bad Habit

Squash unhealthy behaviors with this proven strategy.

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If only there were a quick one-size-fits-all bad-habit squashing fix, we’d all probably be fitter, richer, and healthier. Unfortunately, there isn’t one magic formula that works for everyone—that’s because we’re all unique, and our habits, good or bad, are too.

But studies show that certain bad habits follow a predictable pattern. Learn the pattern, and you can start to disrupt your yucky habits and replace them with healthier behaviors you’re proud of.

Step 1: Understand your habit cycle. For example, every afternoon, around 2 pm, you might get a hankering for a sweet snack. You indulge in the office M&M dish, smile inside (mmm), and then you’re hit with a wall of guilt. You feel bummed out that you derailed your diet, but come tomorrow, you do the same thing again. Curses! That’s your habit cycle.

Step 2: Identify what triggers that cycle and the action that follows. You know that you step out of the office every afternoon to grab a pastry. That’s the action. Now think about what may be triggering that action. Does that 2 pm time set off an imaginary alarm in your brain? Do you need a pick-me-up before a boring 3 pm meeting? For the next couple of days, pay attention and write down how you’re feeling when you get that hankering to snack. That’s the trigger.

Step 3: Identify the reward. Think about what you’re getting out of this daily habit. Is it the midday energy boost? Is it the break from the office? Whatever it is, that’s the reward (the reason the habit is sticking around). In this case, we’ll say you like the boost in energy, because it helps you stay productive the rest of the day.

Step 4: Think about to reap the benefits of your reward, but in a healthier way. If you crave that energy boost, instead of grabbing a pastry, go for a walk to get your blood pumping, or opt for a non-fat latte instead. To help you stick with this new routine (and not be tempted by pastries), recruit a friend to go with you each day.

Step 5: Practice (it makes perfect). Now that you have a plan, put it into practice. You checked Day 1 off the list, now focus on Day 2. Challenge yourself to go a whole week without your sweet treat. Then a month. Before you know it, you’ll have made one small step for a healthier midday energy boost, and one large step for your overall health.