5 Steps to Breaking Bad Habits

I have a confession.

About 6 months ago I had a problem which some might call an addiction, but I choose to think of as a bad habit. 

It was a YouTube habit...

Much like a packet of Pringles, YouTube is designed to be addictive, and I'm not sure exactly how much I was watching, but it was waaay too much. Just like someone who finds themselves falling into bad eating habits - it's rarely that they want to give up chocolate/crisps/ice cream forever - I wanted to use YouTube as a tool and use it in a more intentional way.

So I set about working on eliminating my bad habit, here's what I did

Step 1. Identify the cue

Habits come as either one, or a combination of:

  1. An environmental stimulus

  2. An internal stimulus (a feeling)

  3. Or a follow-on from another pre-established routine.

The first step was to find out what that cue was so that I knew what I was dealing with and as it turned out I was most prone to binge watching YouTube:

  • While I was at home, on my own

  • Sitting down to eat something

  • Feeling a bit tired from a mornings work and I was craving something to help me switch off.

Step 2. Hide the cue

If you have a simple cue, sometimes you can beat your habit in one go by hiding it, avoiding it or obstructing it.

The initial plan was to eat at the table rather than in front of the TV.

Good in theory, but it didn't work. 

I never really made it happen, apparently you can watch YouTube on your phone,  your laptop or your tablet at a table.

Step 3. Interrupt the routine

The next tactic is to find a way to interrupt the routine making it harder to access, or more difficult to do. 

It's important to remember with this step, small interruptions can have big impacts.


  • I chose to take YouTube away from my home screen on my phone and put it in a folder.

  • I also deleted the shortcut on my browser so that I actually had to type in the address that I wanted to see.

  • I turned off auto-play. You know the thing that Netflix/YouTube do now, where once you've finished they immediately play another video or show.

I found this made a significant difference, I was much less inclined to passively absorb when I actually had to click lots of buttons!

Step 4. Remove the appeal

Next, I needed to find a way to make the routine less enticing, and this was the step that made the biggest difference. 

What I did was clear my history and adjust the settings so that it didn't store any of my data. Immediately suggested videos were all things I couldn't care less about. I now had to actively seek out videos I wanted to watch.

YouTube was no longer appealing

Step 5. Make avoidance satisfying

The final change was to track my usage via an app. There are tonnes of free ones out there, and they track how many minutes per day you spend on various apps. As my usage dropped I got a sense of satisfaction from no longer wasting my time. 

YouTube was now harder to access, more difficult to watch and less appealing than it was. Since the change I average about 30 minutes per week, which is almost all work related... promise!

This system can apply to any habit, and each step will have different value depending on your specific situation. In this case trying to bypass the cue wasn't helpful for me. But in other situations it can be the thing that makes all the difference. 

The key starting point

  • Become aware that most of your choices are as a result of pre-established routines

  • Observe and record so you can dissect your own behaviour

My example was quite simple, and our behaviour can be incredibly complex. You might have a routine which you do as a response to multiple cues, some of which may be out of your control and there may even be social pressure to keep doing it.

Removing bad habits is often best achieved by implementing new positive routines, rather than by simply removing them like I did. In this case, something you did hours before may help prevent the bad routine from occurring. 

Just remember is that as long as you're patient and willing to keep working on it you can overcome anything. Patience pays off!


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