How to break a bad habit

Identify your triggers, and give yourself rewards.
By Dawn Wotapka

Becca Shane, CPA, CGMA, director of finance at Hamilton Place Strategies in Washington, D.C., had a problem: She wasn’t sleeping well, which led her to have “a shorter fuse,” affecting the way she communicated and interacted with friends, family members, and colleagues. She realized that taking her smartphone to bed with her was the culprit and vowed to change. But how?

Bad habits can be more serious than biting your nails or forgetting to take out the trash. They’re “something that you do consistently that blocks you from reaching your goals or from reaching your potential,” said Brian Kush, CPA, an executive leadership coach and co-founder of Intend2Lead. You might talk too much at meetings or arrive late to appointments, harming your career.

The Power of Habit method

One way to kick a bad habit is to study a process popularized by the publication of The Power of Habit. In the 2012 best-seller, author Charles Duhigg explained why habits exist, how they function, and what to do about them. Kush and Sarah Elliott, CPA, drew upon his work when they presented on the topic of breaking bad habits at the 2017 EDGE Experience in New Orleans. To try Duhigg’s method of breaking habits, follow these steps:

Identify the problem. “Becoming aware of the habit and committing to doing something different gives you the power to change it,” said Elliott, co-founder of Intend2Lead, a company focused on innovating leadership development for CPAs.

Examine the trigger and reward. Figure out what leads you to perform the bad habit, Duhigg wrote in his book. Is there a cue that tells your brain to do it? Or is there a certain time of day when it occurs? Then, think about what makes the habit rewarding for you.

You may not be able to change the cue, but you can work on how you react. Identifying the cue and the reward, Elliott said, “will give you more power to change the routine.”

Replace the habit. The next step is to replace the bad habit with a better action. If you find yourself frequently checking social media at work, for example, figure out why: Do you want to feel connected to the outside world? Then, substitute something else for the habit, such as browsing an industry website, suggested Kush.

Pick a reward. Offering yourself a reward can help you properly respond to triggers, Duhigg explained. Both Kush and Elliott suggested picking something small that can be experienced immediately — such as a piece of chocolate — instead of a bigger prize that takes longer to earn.

The ‘if-then’ method

Another approach to breaking bad habits is to pre-program an alternative response to the behavior you want to change. Simply planning in advance how you want to react to the situation that usually triggers your bad habit might be enough to create a change, said Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D., a New York University psychology professor conducting research on the relationship between plans and behavior.

Setting an open-ended goal typically isn’t enough to break a habit. According to Gollwitzer’s research, it’s more effective to use “if-then” statements — ones that contain a specific situation and a specific response. For instance, if you want to break the habit of talking too much at meetings, instead of thinking, “I will talk less at meetings,” you might think, “As soon as I hear myself talking at a meeting, then I will tell myself: ‘Keep things short.’”

“In this way,” Gollwitzer said, “the old habitual response becomes replaced by an automatically triggered planned new response.”

Other tips

Even when you have a strategy for breaking a bad habit, carrying it out can be difficult. Experts suggested the following tips:

Start small. According to Saliha Afridi, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, changing habits requires rewriting brain pathways, so it helps to start small. “Tiny steps towards your goal will help you build momentum,” she said.

Stay positive. Afridi recommended framing the habit you’re trying to create in positive terms. For example, tell yourself, “I will be on time to meetings,” rather than “I won’t screw up and be late.”

Change your environment. Rick Lozano, a keynote speaker who uses music to inspire talent development, suggested changing anything in your surroundings that’s related to the bad habit.

“Fill your surroundings with things that help enable the new behavior and make the unwanted one harder or impossible to engage in. Manipulating your environment is easier than changing your mind,” said Lozano, who is based in San Antonio.

Another tip he offers is to use apps and smart-home technology as a secret weapon for behavior change. For example, if you want to stop sleeping late, programming your devices to bring the lights up and turn the music on can make it a little easier.  

The good news is that habits can be broken. Shane, for instance, was able to break her bad phone habit quickly, leaving her rewarded with feeling more rested and refreshed.

“One night I left my phone in a different room and started seeing results within the first week,” she noted. “The immediate benefit made it easy to continue the good habit. I need time away from my devices.”

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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