Replace Bad Habits with Good Ones

by : Stephen Kraus

Few things are more difficult than kicking bad habits or developing more positive ones. But it is definitely worth the effort. Bad habits like smoking, overeating or self-criticism shorten lives and lead to underachievement, and unsuccessful attempts to change them lower self- esteem.

In contrast, good habits create a kind of “success auto-pilot," leading to greater accomplishment with less thought and less effort.

So how do you best eliminate bad habits and create good ones? Research from the new field of “positive psychology" – the scientific study of happy, successful people – points to at least four proven techniques for successful habit management.

1. Replace a bad habit with a good one. Completely eliminating a habit is much harder than replacing it with a more productive habit. Studies of people who compulsively bite their fingernails have shown that it is very difficult for them to completely give up their habit, and much easier for them to substitute biting with the more productive habit of grooming their nails.

Similarly, people who talk too much during meetings struggle to become silent, but find it much easier to replace their compulsive talking with highly attentive listening.

2. Exercise. A habit of regular exercise is obviously important for lasting weight loss. But you may not realize that exercise helps in accomplishing a variety of goals, and in eliminating a number of bad habits.

Frequent exercise helps break habits of overeating, and in kicking all kinds of addictions, particularly if exercise is substituted for an end-of-the-day cocktail or cigarette. Among smokers who become competitive runners, for example, over 80% give up smoking.

3. Reward success. The most fundamental law in all of psychology is the “law of effect." It simply states that actions followed by rewards are strengthened and likely to recur. Unfortunately, studies show that people rarely use this technique when trying to change personal habits. Dieters, for example, routinely overlook weeks of exercise and restrained eating, only to let a single lapse “snowball" into a total relapse and complete collapse.

Setting up formal or informal rewards for success greatly increases your chances of transforming bad habits into good ones, and is far more effective than punishing yourself for bad habits or setbacks.

4. Schedule your bad habits. If you are really struggling to kick a bad habit, try limiting the habit to a specific time and place. If you are struggling to quit cigarettes, allow yourself to smoke from 9-9:30pm, and only in an uncomfortable “smoking stool." When the urge to smoke strikes, tell yourself that you’ll have plenty of time to smoke during your pre-scheduled smoking period. Research and case studies confirm that this rather unconventional approach can be a useful first step in changing bad habits.

Copyright © 2004 Stephen Kraus, Ph.D.


The findings and recommendations in this article are based on scientific research published in peer-reviewed journals. For complete references, see Psychological Foundations of Success: A Harvard-Trained Scientist Separates the Science of Success from Self-Help Snake Oil by Stephen Kraus, Ph.D.