Breaking Bad: How to get out of Destructive Routines and Habits

In my previous post about habits, I promised to offer solutions for defeating bad ones…

Ha! What was I thinking? I’m no psychologist and this is a pretty technical subject when you really get into it. But as with most of what I write here, I’ll offer my non-expert advice based on my own experiences, things I’ve read, what has worked for me, and what I am trying now (since I’m definitely not beyond bad habits myself).

The Tips:

Figure out what you WANT to be doing instead

This sounds pretty obvious, but it’s a simple step that is often taken for granted. It’s easy to say, “this habit I’ve developed is unhealthy or destructive; I should stop.” But you can’t just chastise bad behavior–you have to present an alternative to replace it.

Since we moved, I still have some sense of being disembodied and we haven’t developed normal routines. But we humans are remarkably adaptable and can settle even into routines that are uncomfortable. In the absence of a healthy routine, whatever is easiest slides right into the opening (like spending the evening on the couch watching TV).

We need to ask the question, “what should I be doing instead of this bad behavior?” because it will be much easier to break a habit if you replace it with a new one.

Cooking, gardening, reading, writing, doing yoga, travelling... the list of things I'd rather fill my time with is endless! No time for lazy!

– Identify current roadblocks and figure out if there are ways you can deal with them

The other night, after confessing in my post that I’ve become a lazy slob, the universe sent a reminder that it’s not all my fault — in the form of our crazy downstairs neighbours who, as usual, were up yelling and laughing at 2am, and then again from 4-6 am. So despite my intention to get up and do yoga first thing in the morning, I reset my alarm somewhere around 3:30am to give myself an extra hour of sleep.

We are trying to deal with this neighbour situation. But until it’s resolved, there are some mornings when I legitimately can’t keep up my ideal routine. Perhaps part of the solution then is to try to build a workout into a different part of the day. You have to be open to the idea that your ideal scenario just might not be possible, and flexible enough to adopt alternatives.

It's no wonder I can't get up for my early routine when we're kept up for hours at night.

– Tap into your strong motivations and/or find a way to build in accountability

Sometimes just knowing that something is good for us is not enough to make us do it. In these instances, I’m not above resorting to bribery or coercion. For example, I am cheap. I don’t have a lot of money, so I am careful not to waste it. So with that, if I’ve paid for something like a gym membership, not wanting to waste the money is a strong enough motivator to make me go.

Similarly, if I’ve joined a team, the idea that other people are counting on me keeps me going consistently. That’s the built-in accountability. It can be as simple as setting clear goals or targets. “I will write 3 posts/week.” Put it into your schedule. It’s much more tangible than just saying, “I want to write more.”

– Go for a change of scenery

Habits are often triggered by cues in our environment that recall that behavior, like smokers wanting a cigarette after a meal or with drinks. Removing yourself from these cues (or removing the cue) is a good way to avoid the bad habit and replace it with a good one. At the moment, my new apartment is basically one big cue for me to be lazy. I’m working on ways to change that, but in the meantime I’ve decided that when I want to get work done (like writing), it’s out the door for me! This week, I went to the new coffee shop in our neighbourhood and have decided it will be My Spot (which in itself is motivating because I’ve always wanted a Spot!). We’re in the city now–might as well take advantage of what it has to offer!

Apparently, vacation is the best time to break a bad habit and replace it with a good one.


If you’d like to read a more studied and scientific take on habits, check out this episode of NPR’s Fresh Air. It confirms some of what I said, debunks some other impressions, and gives you a greater sense of what’s going on in your brain! Most importantly, it will verify that there is indeed hope for breaking bad habits!

What approaches do you use to break bad habits or form good ones?

9 responses to “Breaking Bad: How to get out of Destructive Routines and Habits

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  5. This was a much needed read for me. I’m in a point in my life where I want to make positive changes, but not like I always do – I start and never go through with them.

    One of my biggest issues is flexibility. I always feel if I said I was going to do something at a certain time, but don’t, I’m a failure, and I just can’t do it. Instead, I should figure out why I wasn’t sticking to said time and try to readjust.

    Also, I looove the change of scenery suggestion. If we are stuck in a routine, and in that routine we always do certain things (the same things we are trying to change), then it’s necessary to change parts of that routine, including finding a new place to do something.

    Again, thanks for this great post and I’ll be checking out that episode 🙂

  6. I LOVE the fact that you now have a spot.
    When you mention flexibility- you’ve hit on something. In an interview with many octogenarians, the common answer in their success in life was the ability to be flexible.

    Keep up this fantastic self-work you’re doing. I’m grateful to benefit from your findings.

    • Yes, having a spot makes me feel super cool 😉

      Thanks for commenting! Yeah, the flexibility thing is a big one… A related post on that point is in the works!

  7. Hi Caitlin!

    Thanks so much for your comments. I’m so happy to see you’re still enjoying my blog and that it’s been thought-provoking for you. I’m also really excited to see that you’re feeling successful in making some positive changes in your life.

    You bring up some awesome points. l love the comment about prioritizing commitments. I think as we get older, it’s easy to forget that our tastes and interests change. But it’s so true that sometimes something that we used to love is no longer that exciting for us. It can be hard to let go of those things for whatever reason–nostalgia, habit, some idealized version of ourself… But it’s important to be really honest and discerning.

    I also love your take on your work attitude. My friend Erin has made some similar comments about learning to love her job and appreciate it more. I totally agree that sometimes approaching the situation from a different angle can be really valuable. And your point about just being happier overall with this attitude change is spot on! It’s amazing how sometimes we just assume something is crappy without realizing that it’s actually our own attitude sabotaging the whole thing…

    Thanks for the book recommendation. It looks very interesting so I’ll definitely be checking it out!

    Keep up the dancing 😉


  8. Hi Jean!

    I really appreciate this post and the preceding one. Since we moved into our new place in Ottawa in September 2010, I’ve had trouble getting into any kind of a routine. I can’t get up in the morning, I find it difficult to leave the house before 8:45, I rarely eat breakfast at home anymore and I can’t seem to fall asleep before midnight.

    Although it can be a drag sometimes, I’ve learned the best way for me to get into a routine is to commit to doing activities (like you said, there might be a commitment because it’s a team sport or because I paid money in advance, or whatever). In addition to soccer, I’ve started highland dancing again and playing volleyball. I’m also on the condo board, which requires monthly meetings and some occasional work via email every month. Having all these things to dedicate myself to has helped me focus my mind. I realized that part of the reason for my bad routine of sitting in front of the TV and staying up late was that I wanted to do so much that I had no idea where to start. So, I decided to start with what I already knew how to do and what made me happy…dancing! Broadening my activities also made me realize that some activities weren’t making me happy anymore. Once I realized this, I was able to make some decisions about my commitments to ensure that I want to keep the commitments I make and stay in a good routine.

    The increased exercise has helped a bit in getting to bed earlier. This past week was actually one of the best weeks as far as going to bed early. Best of all though, I feel like I have personal goals again and that just helps me enjoy life. It was difficult getting back into dancing because I used to be quite good but my muscles had softened, my technique was imprecise and I couldn’t remember most of the dances. I started off slow by joining an adult beginner’s class and refused when the teacher wanted to boost me up a level. I didn’t want to overwhelm myself. I tried to get back into dancing a few years ago but was put in an advanced class where there was no time to teach me the steps again and I quickly lost interest (I was also in a completely different place in my life but I think the point still stands). After a few months, I still need a lot of work, but I feel like I’m getting back to where I left off. I also feel healthier – physically and mentally.

    Something else that I’ve been thinking about while reading your posts these past few months is young people and jobs. I used to not like my job at all. The only thing that would get me out the door in the morning was the idea that I would get paid every two weeks and be able to do the things I like. But I was so drained from not liking my job during the day that I didn’t do anything when I got home. Finally, something changed around September of 2010. I’m not sure if it was something at work, something with me or a combination. But I do know that I made a decision to do the best I could at my job and commit myself to it. I think the commitment part was key. Once you commit to something, it makes it difficult to detach yourself from it. I started taking on more tasks at work, participating more in meetings, asking more questions (which I was always hesitant to do because the people who answered them always seemed annoyed or patronizing but I put up with it until the point where I answer many of the questions now and when I ask questions, people find it difficult to answer them), doing more in-depth research about the various files we worked on and after one particularly trying budget exercise, managed to map out and contextualize, in a basic way, the future of the program to which my work was contributing but no one had been able to communicate. Although there are some days when my job drags and there are projects I inevitably procrastinate on, I generally like my job and find it less draining to be there. And, because it’s less draining to be at work, I participate in more post-work activities. All this is to say that I learned that even if you think you’re doing something you don’t like, try approaching it from a different angle. This won’t always work because sometimes what you’re doing just plain sucks. But sometimes you might be surprised. I never thought I had a fear of commitment until I realized I had made a choice to not commit to my job and the activities that make me happy!

    So basically, in the past few months, although I always knew it, I finally understood to what extent focus and commitment are actually choices. Of course, there has to be some personal gain and interest to make someone want to focus on and commit to something. If there was nothing at my job that piqued my interest, I probably never would have been able to commit to focusing on my work. Likewise, if I didn’t actually like dancing, there would be no reason to put up with all the pain. And there’s nothing better than focus and commitment on something you like to get you out of a bad routine! (I’m still working on getting up on time…that one is going to be more difficult to crack.)

    To conclude this lengthy comment (my apologies but I found your post very inspiring!), I recommend The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. Among numerous topics, Doidge looks at the physiological side of how people fall into bad habits and routines and offers some tips about breaking them and even overcoming or coping with disorders, such as OCD. Many of them are the ones you discuss above.

    I continue to love your posts!



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