Mindpath Health’s Taish Malone, LPC, Ph.D. discusses why habits are important, types of habits, and how to break bad habits.
Any behavior or action you engage in regularly counts as a habit — from having coffee as soon as you get to the office to brushing your teeth just before going to bed.
Some habits can promote physical and mental wellness, while others might have more of an unwanted impact on your everyday life. With a little effort, though, it’s possible to change habits that no longer serve you and create new ones that do.
Read on to learn how habits can benefit you, plus get tips on breaking unhelpful habits and replacing them with ones that better support your well-being.
Habits vs. Routines
Habits differ from routines because habits typically involve little to no conscious thought, while routines typically require some intention and discipline.
For example, checking social media whenever you end up waiting in line somewhere would be a habit. Consciously deciding to do a warmup before each workout and a cooldown afterward would be more of a routine.
Are there different types of habits?
On a daily basis, you might engage in a range of different habits, from financial and spending habits to healthy living habits. You might not even realize certain behaviors do, in fact, count as habits.
Examples of habits include:
- Preventative habits
- Certain habits may promote a longer life by helping ward off unwanted health issues:
- taking daily vitamins, which can prevent nutrient deficiencies that lead to issues like anemia and bone loss
- brushing your teeth twice a day, which can prevent cavities
- washing your hands after using the bathroom, which can protect you from illness
- applying sunscreen every day and again before going outside, which can reduce your risk of skin cancer
The types of foods you eat, as well as how often and how much you eat, can also have an impact on your physical and mental health. Some examples of healthful eating-related habits include:
- filling half your plate with vegetables and fruit
- packing nourishing snacks for work or school
- opting for whole grains instead of refined grains
Habits of mind
Your thought patterns can be habits, too. Helpful mental habits to aim for might include:
- finding the humor in challenging everyday situations
- engaging in positive self-talk when you feel insecure, anxious, or afraid about something
- having a daily gratitude journal or practice
- Social and communication habits
- Habits that can improve your relationships with significant others, friends, family members, and co-workers include:
- actively listening and empathizing when others talk
- making eye contact
- repeating someone’s name out loud when you meet them so you remember it
- offering verbal validation when someone shares their feelings
Some habits may help you better manage your time and accomplish your goals, such as:
- making a to-do list
- tackling your most challenging tasks first
- eliminating distractions while working
“A lot of potentially negative habits provide relief or comfort in the moment but can create more problems over the long term,” says Paige Rechtman, LMHC, a licensed psychotherapist in Brooklyn, New York
Some examples of unwanted habits include:
- interrupting others during conversation
- dwelling on past events
- biting your nails
- skipping meals when busy or in a rush
- consuming too much sugar
- slouching at your desk
- getting defensive when someone offers constructive criticism
How can habits benefit you?
Doing something repeatedly makes you more likely to stick with it, since behaviors eventually becomes automatic and effortless. When a habit benefits your life, the rewards you reap can also motivate you to stick with that behavior.
“Creating a new habit can be a source of pride because you realize you have the power to improve your life, which can help bring you closer to being who you want to be,” explains Stephani Jahn, a Florida-based licensed mental health counselor.
Additionally, Jahn notes that habits can be empowering and give you a greater sense of achievement.
Say, for instance, you’re writing a novel. Making a habit of writing a few pages each day or designating a set time to write daily can make your final goal feel less overwhelming. As you continue to make progress, you’ll likely feel more motivated to stick with your new habit and keep working toward your goal.
“Positive habits don’t just boost your self-esteem, either. They can also reduce stress and anxiety by offering a degree of structure and predictability to your everyday life,” explains Elizabeth Barlow, a licensed independent clinical social worker in Massachusetts, West Virginia, and founder of Barlow Counseling Group.
For example, meal prepping every Sunday can make packing nutritious lunches during the work week a lot easier.
“Our brains love stories and patterns,” Barlow says. “When you engage in healthy habits, your brain has an expectation of what will happen and when it will happen. This can be useful for developing and managing a daily routine you feel in control of.”
A few examples
Some generally helpful habits to consider, according to Taish Malone, LPC, PhD, a Texas-based licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health:
- sleeping 7 to 8 hours per night
- going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time every day
- doing at least 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week
- devising and maintaining a budget for spending
- journaling or meditating daily
- drinking enough water every day: 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) for women and 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) for men
Can you teach yourself new habits?
You can absolutely teach yourself new habits. The key often lies in “stacking” a new habit on top of an existing one. This helps you remember the new behavior until it becomes automatic.
If you want to start a practice of daily positive affirmations, you might put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror to remind you to repeat them when you wash your face or brush your teeth. Eventually, you won’t need the sticky note to remind you — simply going into the bathroom may become the cue that triggers your affirmations.
As you try to establish a new habit, it always helps to have patience with yourself: It takes about 66 days of daily practice for an action to become a habit.
A few more expert-backed tips for reinforcing new habits:
Make it realistic: When a habit is more feasible for you, Rechtman says you’re more likely to engage in it regularly — and consistency can help make it stick. So, if you know deep down you don’t have the time for an hour-long workout every day, try making it a habit to exercise for 20 minutes instead.
Make it as convenient as possible: “The easier you can make your new habit, the greater the chances you’ll stick with it,” says Dr. Harold Hong, a board certified psychiatrist at New Waters Recovery in Raleigh, North Carolina. If you want to drink more water throughout the day, you might try filling up your water bottle the night before and leaving it in your work bag.
Practice your habit at the same time every day: “You’ll often find it much easier to get into a habit when you do it at the same time because certain external cues can serve as reminders,” says Barlow. If you want to journal daily right before bed, seeing your journal on your nightstand each night can offer a reminder.
Cheer yourself on: According to a 2017 study, people who feel good about their progress in developing new habits are more likely to stick with them. That’s why Malone advises coming up with ways to celebrate small wins to keep yourself motivated — like posting encouraging messages on your wall or fridge about how far you’ve come.
Use the buddy system: “Partnering up with someone who wants to incorporate the same habit, or even a different one, can help hold you accountable,” Rechtman says. You can check in with each other regularly to track progress and encourage each other when your motivation flags.
“Don’t criticize yourself if you accidentally miss a day or two when trying to form a new habit,” Malone says. Research from 2012Trusted Source suggested that occasionally forgetting to engage in the behavior you want to adopt generally won’t deter you from eventually forming the habit.
“Instead of thinking of this as a failure, view it as an opportunity to take note of the barrier in your way and improve your strategy,” Jahn recommends.
Maybe a goal of meditating for 20 minutes a day proved too overwhelming to fit into your busy schedule. You might, then, try scaling back to 5 minutes a day. If you had trouble remembering to meditate, you could also try setting a daily alarm on your phone
What about breaking old habits?
Experts say the best way to break undesired habits is to replace them with more helpful ones. This applies whether you’re trying to quit:
- drinking caffeine late in the day
- checking email after work hours
Let’s say you want to stop doomscrolling on your phone before bed because it makes you feel depressed and keeps you from falling asleep. In that case, Rechtman recommends using that time to read a book or listen to music instead.
“It’s better to have a positive replacement action when trying to stop something you’re doing, so you can redirect yourself when the urge for that old habit comes up,” Jahn explains.
It may also help to track your daily progress toward breaking a habit in a journal or regularly check in with a friend to share your efforts.
A few other tips for replacing unhelpful habits:
Be mindful: “Pay attention to how you feel when engaging in unhelpful habits,” Rechtman encourages. If you want to cut back on eating processed snacks, you might compare how your body feels after you eat a bag of chips from the vending machine to a sliced apple with yogurt and walnuts. Building this awareness can help you focus on why you want to make the change.
Acknowledge the reason for change: Do you hope to feel better physically or mentally? Do you want to use your time for something more productive? Hong says identifying the factors motivating you to make a change can help you stay on track as you make an effort to kick the unwanted habit.
Identify your triggers: “Certain factors — such as specific activities, emotions, or even places and environments — can all spark unwanted behaviors,” Hong says. Recognizing specific triggers can help you create change more easily. For instance, if you know you always have the urge to vape right after dinner, you might plan to go for a walk instead. Tend to nibble your nails while reading a book? You might consider keeping your hands busy by stroking a pet or using a fidget or stress ball.
How Long Does It Take?
Keep in mind, it does often take some time to break an unwanted habit. One small 2009 studyTrusted Source suggested this process can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days.
How to get support
If you’re looking to build new, more helpful habits, consider getting support from a therapist.
According to Malone, a therapist can help you to uncover the root causes or reasons behind your habits, which can provide important information to help change them.
Rechtman notes that a therapist can also help you:
- come up with ways for making your desired habits more realistic, attainable, and easy to stick with
- stay accountable for creating change
- explore any parts of you that might resist the new habit
- stay motivated by providing encouragement and guidance
- brainstorm ideas for tweaking your habits when you have trouble making them stick
Maybe you want to break your habit of snacking right before bed. Hong says a therapist can help you identify any contributing emotional triggers, like boredom or sadness, and then help you explore alternative ways to respond, like calling a friend, doing a crossword, or trying another low-key but stimulating activity.
Some unwanted habits, like watching TV late into the night or drinking alcohol to numb unwanted emotions, can stem from mental health difficulties or trauma, according to Jahn. A therapist can help you unpack those concerns and come up with more productive coping and healing mechanisms.
The bottom line
Habits can play an important role in multiple aspects of your life, including mental and physical health, productivity, relationships, and self-esteem.
It’s always possible to build new, helpful habits and change habits that no longer align with your needs. Just remember to cultivate patience and self-compassion during the process, since forming new habits — and making them stick — can take time.
A little extra help can often make a difference, too. Whether you’re trying to build a new habit or break an old one, a therapist can offer more personalized guidance and support.