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Replacement Habits: How to Turn Bad Habits Into Good Ones

If you examine bad habits closely, you’ll find that they’re almost always caused by two things: stress and boredom. Consider, for instance, the following list of common bad habits:

  • Biting your nails
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Excessive shopping
  • Drinking too much
  • Browsing social media
  • Eating junk food
  • Wasting time on your phone

Behaviors like these are coping mechanisms we use to avoid uncomfortable feelings. They provide immediate relief from stress and boredom. And as we turn to them repeatedly, over time, they become bad habits.

So, bad habits aren’t all bad. In the moment, they help address certain needs. And when you stop doing them, you simultaneously stop meeting the need it was addressing.

It’s no wonder breaking bad habits can be so difficult. But it doesn’t have to be. You can learn new and healthy ways of dealing with stress and boredom, and then use them as replacements for your bad habits.

This is best illustrated with an example. Let’s say that you want to stop wasting time online. You’ve tracked the behavior and established that you tend to browse the Internet to unwind in the evening. In this scenario, your habit loop might look like this:

Cue: Get into bed → Routine: Browse the Internet → Reward: A sense of calm

Now, if you tried to simply cut out online browsing from your evenings, you would remove the sense of calm it provided as well. Since that need will go unmet, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to just “stop wasting time online” for very long.

A much more effective and sustainable approach is to use a replacement habit. That is, to find an alternative routine that provides the same reward and then insert it after the same cue. You might, for example, try this habit loop instead:

Cue: Get into bed → Routine: Read a book → Reward: A sense of calm

Obviously, you won’t know if the new habit loop works until you’ve tried it. But if you experiment with different replacement habits (along with the other habit change strategies), you’ll dramatically increase your chances of success. So, let’s have a look at some more replacement behaviors to better cope with stress and boredom:

  • Walk, run or swim
  • Do push-ups, pull-ups or squats
  • Practice meditation, yoga or breathing exercises
  • Plan, schedule or make a to do-list
  • Listen to audiobooks, podcasts or music
  • Slow down, rest or take a nap
  • Eat a healthy snack

These are just a few examples, of course. There are countless good habits to help better cope with stress or boredom. The key here is to experiment until you find a replacement habit that works and then execute it consistently.

Your bad habits didn’t build up overnight, and they won’t go away overnight either. But if you can find effective replacement habits, dealing with them will be so much easier.

Footnote

Thank you to Leo Babauta for originally writing about stress and boredom as the main drivers of bad habits.