Breaking Bad: An Intervention For Bad Habits

Breaking Bad: An Intervention For Bad Habits

by Anthony Tucci, MA, Psychological Services Pre-Doctoral Intern

Do you bite your nails, smoke, spend too much money, overeat, lose your temper or play on Facebook for hours?

So much of my work with kids, parents, adults, and couples involves helping people to break patterns of behavior, or habits, which interfere with their goals. Sometimes we work together to start healthy habits and sometimes we work to stop unhealthy ones.  Most often, we work to do both.

The New Year, for many, serves as a time for setting resolutions and making changes.  Although it affords an opportunity to begin making a change, as the year progresses it gets much harder to stay motivated.  Given that, I thought it may be apropos to offer a research-supported, intervention method for helping to break a habit.

Being strategic in breaking your habits is the best way to succeed and make lasting change.  By being “strategic”, I mean really looking at the habit and coming up with a thoughtful plan to change it.  Fortunately, research has demonstrated several tactics that can increase your chances of success.

  • First, you have to really understand your motivation to change.  Why do you want to stop?  What effect does the habit have on your life?  How much time, energy, and resources have you spent on your habit? Is it really that big of a deal?  What would it be like if you stopped? What will you be able to do if you stop?  One good way to really understand your habit is to create a pros and cons list for your habit and then write a letter to yourself detailing all of your reasons for making a change.  The benefit of the letter is that you can read it later, especially at times when you are wavering, to boost your motivation.
  • Set a date to quit your habit.  Chose a date that is at least a week away so that you have time to complete the steps below. The date should be realistic and one you can keep.  In picking a date, be sure to think about other events and stressors that may make keep your quit date difficult (It may not be the best idea to quit smoking right before the in-laws come to visit).
  •  Now we need to get more information to really understand the habit. You need to figure out everything you can about your habit.  How often do you do it? When, where, with whom, etc.  Sometimes habits happen at the same time every day, like eating a package of Oreo’s as you watch TV.  Other times, habits happen intermittently and often, like smoking or biting your nails. The best way to keep track of a tricky habit is to take a note card and make a grid with the days of the week across the top and the times of day on the side. Then, each time you engage in the habit put a tally mark in the corresponding location.  At the end of the week, you should be able to look back and see patterns in your habit.  You may also notice that certain events, or triggers, always occur right before you engage in your habit. These patterns will be useful to identify times when you are more and less likely to give into the habit.
  • Are you are monitoring your habit? There are several other actions you can take to increase your chances of success.  First, take some time to reflect upon the function of your habit.  That is, why do you do it?  What purpose does it serve? Does it relieve stress, boredom, or frustration? Whatever the function may be, you will want to consider what other activities can serve the same purpose. 
  • Giving up a long-standing habit is stressful.  Improving your ability to manage stress by taking care of yourself will improve your chances of kicking your habit.  Some ways to manage stress include exercising, meditating, reading, going for walks, playing with pets, and being creative.  Make a list of stress relieving activities that you can use when times get tough. One important strategy for managing stress will be to gain support from family and friends.  Having someone to talk with about your progress on kicking your habit can be comforting and will also help to hold you accountable.     
  • As your quit date approaches, you need to think of some activities that are not compatible with your habit that can serve as a replacement behavior for your habit.  By  “incompatible”, I mean impossible to do while engaging in your habit.  For instance, it is hard to bite your nails while sitting on your hands.  It is also hard to smoke while chewing gum.  Once your quit date arrives, begin using your replacement behavior any time you feel the urge to engage in your habit.  Also, look back to your monitoring information, identify any particularly challenging times, and proactively plan to use your replacement behavior at those times.
  •  Finally, maintain your motivation by setting goals and rewarding yourself as you meet them.  If you slip back into your habit, don’t give up.  Keep trying.  Each time you try you become stronger and learn something new.

Although breaking a habit is a step-wise process, it can be really difficult.  Further, some habits, like unhelpful ways of thinking, can be especially challenging to change without assistance.  If you find yourself struggling to quit, if your habit is complex, or if you would like to understand more about your habit, therapists specializing in behavioral change may be especially helpful.  If you or someone you know is interested in habit-changing and would like therapeutic support, then feel free to contact JCFS Chicago at 855-ASK-JCFS (855-275-5237) or e-mail

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