What Causes Bad Habits? They’re Just the Symptom of Something Else.

This article originally appeared in the Gen-i Blog.

You’re probably a little ashamed of your bad habits. The extra glass of wine or chocolate bar you didn’t need. The hours you can spend watching the television. Maybe the way you chew your fingernails or endlessly fiddle with your hair.

But whatever it is, you don’t need to be ashamed at all. Rather, remember that we all have bad habits. We all find ourselves repeatedly doing things we don’t really want to do. It’s totally normal.

So, shame isn’t a great place to start with this. If you want to stop doing that thing you don’t like, then there are more productive ways of thinking about it. And that, firstly – as we discussed in my article on mindfulness– starts with understanding it.

What are Bad Habits?

Habits are the result of a neat little process in your brain that produces efficiencies. In a response to a particular cue, you behave in a certain way. When that behaviour or response feels good, you respond that way again the next time you encounter that cue.

The more you respond that way, the less you think about it – and the more likely you are to respond again and again in the same way.

But this brings its problems. Because whilst habits are supposed to be efficiencies, this process tends to make more efficient – and less conscious – your embrace of ‘bad’ behaviours. So, you eat a biscuit every time you put the kettle on, or you wake up and stare at your phone for half an hour. This is precisely what causes bad habits to stick so hard.

What Causes Bad Habits? Habits as Symptoms of Something Deeper.

This ‘habit loop’ of cue, response, reward is present in everyone. However, science suggests that you are much more likely to fall into the habit loop due to negative emotions.

Indeed, these emotions often become the cues to the habit response themselves. People complain, for example, that they eat more when they are bored – or when they are tired. Others drink more or smoke when they are stressed. People procrastinate– in itself a bad habit – because they feel no joy about the task with which they are faced.

Becoming aware of the feelings, the emotional cues, that trigger your habitual behaviours is a great place to start in combating those habits you don’t like.

Being Mindful of Your Habits.

When you reach for that extra biscuit then, or you pull out your carton of cigarettes, try to become conscious of why right now that is a behaviour you are enacting. Think about what causes bad habits like this one in particular.

What is the cue that is triggering this response? Are you tired, and is your body after energy? Is the task that you are trying to complete stressing you out? Are you drinking that glass of wine because you are anxious about the next day?

We’ve discussed before that much of our behaviour – and our ability and inability to execute it effectively – is the result of our physiological and emotionalneeds and impulses. And, unfortunately, the habits that are linked to emotionalcues are the hardest to crack. However, by being aware of what those cues are – tiredness, boredom, stress – you can intervene in this habit loop before it gets off the ground.

Sleepmore – and you may not eat as much. Try meditation – and your stress might not demand that you smoke or drink. Focus on tasks that you love– and you won’t feel the desire to procrastinate.

Replace the Bad Habits – Don’t Just Cut Them Out.

But if those bad habits remain, we can try a different tack.

Think about when you are taking a break. You put on the kettle – and you have yourself two minutes maybe whilst it boils. What do you do in that time?

I’m willing to bet that many of us reach for the biscuit tin (that was me once upon a time!). We stand there idly daydreaming whilst munching on a couple of biscuits. And we do this, potentially, every time we boil the kettle.

But if we were to do this differently, what could we do? In that two minutes’ time, we could do some sit ups. We could do a few tasks on a language-learning app. We could think about one thing we are grateful for today.

The point here is that, once a bad habit is linked to a cue – the biscuits to the kettle – it is dead hard to tell yourself just don’t do it. That’s probably not going to work. What’s infinitely more effective is replacingthe habit response in the habit loop cycle. The cue (the kettle) remains, but the response (the biscuit) is replaced (with your language-learning, your sit-ups, etc).

Break Bad Habits with Simple Awareness.

The key to getting control of your bad habits is to become aware of them. To become aware of both the emotional cues that are triggering them – the thing that causes bad habits – and making you more likely to respond habitually. And to become conscious of how you can manipulate your biological habit loop with a different response.

It all starts with this awareness. And once you’ve turned that light on, you’ll be combating your bad habits in no time.

How Can You Break Bad Habits? Action Points.

  • Identify which habits you consider bad. This is less daft than it sounds. Don’t be fooled into thinking that what is bad for some people is necessarily bad for you.
  • Consider your weak moments. Is it when the kettle is boiling? When you are stressed or tired?
  • Put something in place that you do instead. Bad habits are not there forever. Replacement is often better a better strategy than total exclusion.

This article originally appeared in the Gen-i Blog.


  • Nicola MacPhail

    Change Expert, Author & Facilitator


    A consultant, writer and facilitator. Based in Cumbria I coach clients across the UK and internationally. I write extensively on ‘The HOW Skill Set’ in addition to offering workshops, training and consultancy. Born from a passion to help others ‘Make Change Happen’, I help people make effective implementation plans, be more productive and leverage habits to implement vital changes and thrive in life and work!